Counterfactuals and hypotheticals can be useful frames through which to examine history, as they can help scholars understand that the future is never set in stone and that contingent factors leading to diverging paths can result in wildly different potential outcomes for societies. Pre-Imperial Russian history is replete with these sorts of ‘what-if’ questions, ranging from thoughts about possible development were the Mongols to have avoided Russia to changes that may have resulted from a full Polish takeover of Muscovy during the Time of Troubles. One such question that sparks the imagination is: What would Russian history look like if the medieval statelet which anchored the nascent Russian nation was Novgorod instead of Muscovy? Would Russia have made a decisive turn towards Europe, centuries before the actions of Peter the Great? Unfortunately, historians can never know the answers to these questions; yet by studying the unique cultural aspects of medieval Novgorod, its parallel, but opposing development with respect to Muscovy, and the institutions and policies that made it different, we can envision the road not taken.
Medieval Novgorod, often styled as ‘Great Novgorod’ (Velikii Novgorod) or ‘Lord Novgorod the Great’ (gospodin Velikii Novgorod) after the mid-fourteenth century, was a semi-autonomous city-state located in the northwest of the lands comprising the polity of Kievan Rus’. It was distinct in nearly all attributes of state and society – economics, culture, religion, foreign relations, and internal politics – from other Russian polities of the time, particularly Muscovy. Novgorod was an essentially independent entity within greater Russia from the time of its expulsion of Prince Vsevolod Mstislavich in 1136 through its capture by Grand Prince Ivan III in 1478, but its history and alternative path began at least two centuries earlier. The city-state’s unusual character was reflected in its status as the only nominally republican polity in the Russian lands, as well as its ability to abstract itself from many of the typical concerns and politics that roiled its neighbors. It was able to keep its singular way of life, system of government, and ancient privileges of self-rule intact through five centuries of unmitigated chaos which completely upended the rest of Russian society. Novgorod’s history can be handily divided into four segments: the period of early settlement and development (900s to 1136), the phase of initial autonomy under Kiev (1136 to 1240), the era of local rule under the Mongols (1240 to 1387), and the final age of independence before the Muscovite takeover (1387 to 1478). During this era of autonomy and self-rule, the city-state controlled more than the city of Novgorod proper and its immediate environs; it held and administered a territorial and colonial empire that, at its zenith, “stretched from the Baltic to the Urals and covered an area approximately the size of present day France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined.”
Many attributes of Novgorod were remarkable when it came to the rest of Russia in the medieval period, but four key factors are the most relevant to the city-state’s development as an alternative to Muscovy: internal politics, foreign affairs, economics and commerce, and religion and culture. All of these realms of Novgorodian civilization were distinct from those of Muscovy in the medieval era and presage some of Imperial Russia’s future alignments and ideologies. From strong relations with the West, especially Germany, to the focus on commercial expansion and resource exploitation, Novgorod was reminiscent of Peter the Great’s Russia, as well as contemporary European maritime city-states. Novgorod was an outpost of high culture and religious piety in an age when neither were in large supply elsewhere in Russia; the pragmatic policies of the city-state allowed it to weather the storms of internecine Russian warfare, Mongol invasion and hegemony, and rising Muscovite autocracy – at least until 1478. It was in that fateful year that Novgorod’s nominal autonomy, independent status, and inimitable civic ethos fell to the armies of Moscow; still, Novgorodian cultural currents remained bubbling under the surface as a wellspring of the famed Russian ideology of dissent for centuries afterwards. Before delving into the specific traits of Novgorodian life that made it special, it is critical to contextualize how and why Novgorod was able to develop this exceptionality.
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