The veche was a popular assembly in medieval Russian towns from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. Veches became particularly active at the turn of the twelfth century, before falling into decline except in the towns of Novgorod, Pskov, and Viatka. At times, the veche in Novgorod participated in selecting or dismissing the posadniks (mayors) and tysiatskiis (thousandmen). Originally, one tysiatskii was head of the town militia but over time, several were chosen and became judicial and civil officials. The veche also chose the archbishop, and the heads of the major monasteries. It also tried cases, ratified treaties, and addressed other public matters. Meetings sometimes turned violent. In Imperial and Soviet historiography, the veche was often used as an example to demonstrate whether Russia had any democratic tradition or had always been autocratic.
The veche remains an enigmatic phenomenon. The word is rooted in the words ve and veshchati, the latter meaning: to pontificate, play the oracle, or to lay down the law. However, medieval chroniclers used the term not only to mean popular assemblies, but also to speak of crowds or mobs. Primary sources are often silent as to the origin or demise of the veche, the scope of its authority, its specific membership, or the rules and procedures governing its activities.
Primary sources indicate that, at least in the cities of Novgorod and Pskov, the veche may have had a broad social base. In the case of the veche that confirmed the Novgorod Judicial Charter in 1471, its members included the Archbishop-elect, the posadniks, the tysiatskiis, the boyars, the zhitye liudi (the ranking or middle class citizens), the merchants, the chernye liudi (lit. black men, referring to the lower class or tax-paying citizens), and "all the five ends (boroughs), and all Sovereign Novgorod the Great." Other documents show veches of narrower membership. For example, a 1439 treaty signed between Novgorod and the Livonian city of Kolyvan (Tallinn) lists only the posadniks and tysiatskiis as being members of the veche. A commercial document signed the same year between Novgorod and the German merchants lists only one posadnik, one tysiatskii, and "all Lord Novgorod the Great" as constituting the veche. The different composition of these veches indicate that there probably was no set membership, or that veches were perhaps more democratic when the entire city needed to reach consensus, as when the city's Judicial Charter needed ratification, but were smaller and more oligarchic (or republican rather than democratic) in nature when the entire city did not need to ratify a decision, such as with commercial treaties or peace treaties.
Valentin Lavrentivich Ianin and other scholars argue that Novgorod's government was oligarchic rather than republican in nature, and that the veche had no real power. They argue that it was an oligarchy of landowners who wielded real power in the city. Some argue it is these landowners who are referred to in the Rigan chronicle as the three-hundred golden-girdled men and made up the Council of Lords (Soviet gospod ) that ran day-today government in Novgorod. However, the Rigan chronicle is the only such reference to the three-hundred golden-girdled-men, and Russian sources mention neither the Council nor the three hundred. The veche lasted longest in Pskov, and was disbanded by Grand Prince Basil III in 1510, when he brought that city under the direct rule of Moscow.
See also: grand prince; kievan rus; muscovy; novgorod the great
Birnbaum, Henrik. (1981). Lord Novgorod the Great: Essays on the History and Culture of a Medieval City. Los Angeles: Slavica Publishers.
Ianin, Valentin Lavrentevich. (1990). "The Archaeology of Novgorod." Scientific American 262(3):84–91.
Tikhomirov, Mikhail Nikolaevich. (1959). The Towns of Ancient Rus, tr. Y. Sdovnikov. Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House.
Michael C. Paul