The Road Not Taken: Medieval Novgorod as an Alternate Path in Russian History

Introduction

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[1], 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[2], 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).[3] 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.”[4]

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.[5] 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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The Return of the Useful Idiots

Useful Idiot (noun): a naive or credulous person who can be manipulated or exploited to advance a cause or political agenda

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The term ‘useful idiot’ has a long and storied Cold War history, often being used to pejoratively describe Western leftists who amplified and played into Soviet propaganda. Useful idiocy came in many forms, from outright laundering of Soviet lies (see Walter Duranty) to simply falling for the USSR’s disinformation and false narratives. Some in the latter category still exist today and seriously argue that, for instance, Julius & Ethel Rosenberg were not actually spies (apparently they have not seen the Venona Files). Most of these useful idiots were on the political left, but the main thing that their politics had in common was a reflexive anti-American bent. Useful idiocy as a relevant political concept fell out of favor at the same time the Soviet Union did, and most thought it relegated to works of history. Now, just as Great Power conflict has returned with a vengeance, so have the useful idiots.

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With Friends Like These…

Russia is poised to renew its offensive in Ukraine; what is NATO going to do about it? Unfortunately, if recent indications hold true, very little.


History has returned with a vengeance. Europe is once again on the precipice of a large-scale land war instigated by an expansionist Russia looking to exert suzerainty over its independent neighbors. The last major Russian offensive in Ukraine back in 2014 led to the illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as a burgeoning separatist insurgency in the eastern part of the country, backed militarily and financially by Moscow. Russia did not fight this conflict in the open, instead using proxies, special forces, mercenaries, and non-uniformed soldiers colloquially known as Little Green Men. The NATO response was relatively minor, consisting of some economic sanctions and tough talk on the part of the Obama administration; ironically enough, the lead diplomatic envoy dealing with the crisis on behalf of the United States was one Joe Biden. Since then, the war in Ukraine has continued, causing tens of thousands of casualties, while Russian control over Crimea has been cemented. Malign Russian influence in Europe and its confidence and aggression abroad have also increased over the past 8 years, assisted by weak and inconsistent Western policy. The constant state of intermittent conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine has brought the region back to a state of trench warfare reminiscent of the First World War. In recent months, however, Russia has begun a conventional military buildup on Ukraine’s borders and looks ready to launch a full-scale assault using tanks, artillery, and air power. This is an even bigger threat to European peace and American global hegemony than Russia’s initial assault on Ukraine was nearly a decade ago, yet it seems like our response will be even more lackluster than last time – if not downright conciliatory. This is a recipe for disaster.

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Fight or Flight?

The case for not abandoning Afghanistan to a brutal fate under the Taliban.

America’s precipitous withdrawal from our combat mission in Afghanistan continues apace. Make no mistake: our rapid evacuation from Afghanistan is an abrogation of our duty, a failure of our will, and a gift to wannabe totalitarians and terrorists across the globe. It is clear that our current administration (and, frankly, the prior two which preceded it) has no conception of America’s permanent interests in Central Asia, and is more than willing to cede our hard won gains of the last 20 years at the altar of temporary political expediency. Our mission in Afghanistan was not only positive for the Afghan people, it was also – when properly conceived and executed – good for America’s long-term national security and geopolitical interests.

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A Tale of Two Pipelines

Fossil fuel pipelines on both sides of the Atlantic have been in the news recently — one for nearing completion and the other for being halted. Both have interesting international implications and each pipeline’s story defies convenient narratives based solely around climate change. In this tale of two pipelines, I’m for the completion of one and against the completion of the other. Unfortunately, the reverse is actually happening in reality. Let’s start with the pipeline that I support, yet is now being shut down — possibly for good.

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