Novgorod the Great

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Novgorod the Great was a city-state located in northwestern Russia, existing from the mid-tenth century to its annexation by Muscovy in 1478.

Although Novgorod was named in the Laurentian redaction of the Primary Chronicle as the political seat occupied by Ryurik in 862, archaeological evidence indicates that the city was founded in the mid-tenth century. Located on the Volkhov River near its origins at Lake Ilmen, the city quickly emerged as a leading commercial center. Shortly after Prince Vladimir adopted Christianity for Kievan Rus, Novgorod became the seat of a bishopric and became a major ecclesiastic and cultural center. Its political institutions represented an alternative to the strong princely regime developing in northeastern Russia. At the peak of its power, Novgorod controlled lands stretching from the Baltic Sea to the White Sea and the northern Urals Mountains, but it was subjugated by Muscovy in 1478.

political organization and history

As Kievan Rus formed, Novgorod emerged as the second most important city of that state. Kiev's princes appointed their sons or other close associates to govern Novgorod. Thus, when Svyatoslav died in 972, his son Vladimir was serving as prince in Novgorod. Similarly, when Vladimir died in 1015, his son Yaroslav was ruling Novgorod. Both Svyatoslav and Vladimir were able to use troops from Novgorod and Scandinavia to secure their own positions as princes of Kiev. Although it has been argued that Prince Yaroslav of Kiev intended Novgorod to become the hereditary seat of his son Vladimir, most scholars concur that Novgorod continued to be ruled by appointees of the Kievan princes. This arrangement distinguished Novgorod from the other major towns of Kievan Rus, towns which, during the eleventh century, became patrimonies of different branches of the Rurikid dynasty.

In 1136 the Novgorodians asserted their right to name their own prince. For the next century they selected princes from the Rurikid dynastic lines that ruled in Chernigov, Smolensk, and Vladimir-Suzdal and that competed for power in Kievan Rus. Novgorod's affiliation with a particular dynastic branch frequently gave its princes advantages over their competitors. Novgorod consequently also became an object of contention among the rival dynastic branches, which sought to influence Novgorod's choice of prince through political, economic, and military pressure. In 11481149 and again in 1169 Novgorod clashed violently with Suzdalia, which was able to block supplies, including food, to the city. By the second quarter of the thirteenth century, princes from Vladimir-Suzdal had gained dominance in Novgorod.

In the absence of a single branch of the dynasty permanently ruling the city and its associated lands, Novgorod developed a political system that was unique within the lands of Rus. Princes exercised considerable authority and were responsible for defending the city. But they were obliged to reside outside the city and to govern in conjunction with the city's administrators, its mayor (posadnik ) and militia commander (tysyatsky ), who were elected from Novgorod's wealthy, landowning elite, known as the Novgorodian boyars. In addition, the city irregularly convened a town assembly, or veche. The bishops of Novgorod, elevated to archbishops in 1165 and regarded as significant unifying influences in the city, also participated in the city's administration, its diplomatic affairs, its economic activities, and its judicial system. The functions of these offices and institutions and division of authority among them remain imperfectly understood; scholars have therefore characterized Novgorod variously as a republic with its popular town assembly and as an oligarchy politically dominated by a few boyar families.

The Mongol invasion of Kievan Rus in the period from 1238 to 1240 did not reach Novgorod. But in 1259, the Mongols accompanied by Prince Alexander Nevsky (r. 12521263), who had led the defense of Novgorod from the Swedes at the Neva River in 1240 and from the Teutonic Knights at Lake Peipus in 1242, forced Novgorod to submit to a census and pay tribute. Novgorod continued to recognize the grand princes of Vladimir, all of whom were also princes of Moscow after the mid-fourteenth century, as its own.

During the fourteenth century local officials played a greater role in the city's governance and administration. Tensions between them and their princes developed as disputes arose over the princes' demands for tribute payments and control of territories in Novgorod's northern empire, including the North Dvina land, which Grand Prince Vasily I (r. 13891425) unsuccessfully tried to seize in 1397. The conflicts between Novgorod and Moscow reached critical proportions in the fifteenth century. Novgorod occasionally, in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, turned to Lithuania for a prince and resisted making tribute payments to Moscow. In 1456 Grand Prince Vasily II (r. 14251462) defeated Novgorod militarily. The ensuing Treaty of Yazhelbitsy curtailed Novgorod's autonomy, particularly in foreign affairs. When Novgorod nevertheless sought closer relations with Lithuania in 14701471, Grand Prince Ivan III defeated Novgorod at the Battle of Shelon (1471). In 1478 he removed the symbolic veche bell, replaced Novgorod's local officials with his own governors, and effectively annexed Novgorod to Muscovy.


Novgorod's political importance derived from its commercial strength. Its location on the Volkhov River, which flowed northward into Lake Ladoga, gave it access through the Baltic Sea to Scandinavia and northern Europe. It thus became the northern Rus terminus of the route "from the Varangians to the Greeks," which followed the Dnieper River to Kiev and beyond to the Black Sea and Byzantium. Novgorod was also linked by waterways and portages to the Volga River, the route to Bulgar on the Volga, Khazaria, the Caspian Sea, and the Muslim East.

Novgorod's commerce was the main source of silver for the Russian lands. In the tenth century, silver dirhams were imported from the Muslim East. Some were reexported to the Baltic region; others circulated in the lands of Rus. From the eleventh century, when the Islamic silver coins were no longer available, Novgorod imported silver from its European trading partners. In addition, Novgorod imported European woolen cloth, weapons, metals, pottery, alcoholic beverages, and salt. From the east and Byzantium it imported silks and spices, gems and jewelry, and glassware and ceramic pottery.

Novgorod not only functioned as a transit center, reexporting imported goods; it also traded its own goods, chiefly wax, honey, and fur. By the end of the twelfth century Novgorod extended its authority over a vast northern empire stretching to the White Sea and to the Ural Mountains. It collected tribute in fur from the region's Finno-Ugric populations; its merchants traded with them as well. By these means it secured a supply of luxury fur pelts for export. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it also exported large quantities of squirrel pelts.

During the tenth and eleventh centuries Novgorod's main European trading partners were Scan-dinavians. By the twelfth century they had established their own trading complex around the Church of St. Olaf on the market side of the city. From the twelfth century, German merchants, who established their own trading depot at Peterhof, were successfully competing with the Scandinavians for Novgorod's trade. In the 1130s Prince Vsevolod transferred control over weights and measuresthe fees collected for weighing and measuring goods that were sold in the marketplace and judicial authority over trade disputes to Novgorod's bishop, the wax merchants' association, which was associated with the Church of St. John, and the tysyatsky.

Novgorod's commerce survived the invasion of the Mongols, who encouraged the transport of imported and domestic goods as tribute and as commercial commodities down the Volga River to their capital at Sarai. Although disputes led to occasional interruptions in Novgorod's trade with the Hansa, as in 1388 to 1392 and in 1443 to 1448, it persisted until 1494, when Grand Prince Ivan III closed Peterhof.

society and culture

Novgorod was one of the largest cities in the lands of Rus. In the twelfth century it covered an area of over one thousand acres. With the exception of the area containing the Cathedral of St. Sophia, which was set within a citadel from the mid-eleventh century, Novgorod was an open city until the late fourteenth century or early fifteenth century, when a town wall was built. The Volkhov River divided the city into two halves, the Sophia side on the west bank and the market side on the east. It was further subdivided into five boroughs (kontsy ) and streets.

Novgorod's population in the early eleventh century is estimated to have been between ten and fifteen thousand and to have doubled by the early thirteenth century. Estimates for the fifteenth century range from twenty-five to fifty thousand. The wealthiest and most politically active and influential strata in Novgorod's society were the boyars and great merchants. Lower strata included merchants of more moderate means, a diverse range of artisans and craftsmen, unskilled workers, and slaves. Clergy also dwelled in and near the city. Peasants occupied rural villages in the countryside subject to Novgorod.

Civil strife repeatedly occurred within the city. In the extreme, riots broke out, and victims were thrown off the bridge into the Volkhov River. But more commonly, order was maintained by the combined princely-local administration that regulated business and adjudicated legal disputes. The populace relied on formal documentation issued by city officials for business transactions, property sales and donations, wills, and other legal actions. Birchbark charters, unearthed in archaeological excavations, attest that it was common for Novgorodians to communicate about daily personal, household, and business activities in writing. The bishops' court also was a center of chronicle writing.

The urban population dwelled in a wooden city. Roads and walkways were constructed from split logs. Urban estates owned by boyars and wealthy merchants lined the roads. While they dwelled in the central residential buildings on the estates, shopkeepers, craftsmen, and other dependents lived and worked in smaller houses in the courts, which also included nonresidential buildings and were surrounded by wooden fences. Although the city boasted a drainage system, the accumulation of refuse required repeated repaving of the roads; frequent fires similarly required the reconstruction of buildings. Many of the town's craftsmen were correspondingly engaged in logging, carpentry, and other trades involving wood.

Some buildings, especially churches, were of masonry construction. The Cathedral of St. Sophia, built in 10451050 from undressed stone set in pink-colored mortar and adorned with five domes, was the first such structure built in Novgorod. Sponsored by Prince Vladimir Yaroslavich, it became the bishop's cathedral, the centerpiece of the Sophia side of the city. From the beginning of the twelfth century, princes, bishops, and wealthy boyars and merchants were patrons of dozens of masonry churches. Generally smaller than the Cathedral of St. Sophia, they were located on both sides of the river and also in monasteries outside the city. Novgorodian and visiting artists and artisans designed and built these churches and also painted icons and frescoes that decorated their interiors. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they had developed distinctive Novgorodian schools of architecture and icon painting.

The boyars and wealthy merchants of the city also owned landed estates outside the city. Although women generally did not participate in public and political affairs, they did own and manage property, including real estate. Among the best known of them was Marfa Boretskaya, who was one of the wealthiest individuals in Novgorod on the eve of its loss of independence. On those provincial estates, peasants and nonagricultural workers engaged in farming, animal husbandry, fishing, hunting, iron and salt manufacture, beekeeping, and related activities. Although it was not uncommon for the region's unfavorable agricultural conditions to produce poor harvests, which occasionally caused famine conditions, the produce from these estates was usually not only sufficient to feed and supply the population of the city and its hinterlands, but was cycled into the city's commercial network. After Ivan III subjugated Novgorod, he confiscated the landed estates and arrested or exiled the boyars and merchants who had owned them. He seized landed properties belonging to the archbishop and monasteries as well.

See also: birchbark charters; kievan rus; novgorod, archbishiop of; novgorod judicial charter; posadnik; route to greeks; rurikid dynasty; vikings


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Janet Martin