The Medieval City of Novgorod


Most histories of early medieval Russia, or Rus as it was then called, begin with the coming to Novgorod of the semi-legendary figure, Rurik.

The Russian Primary Chronicle explains, in telling the origins of the Rus’ian state, that the tribes of northeastern Russia had pushed back Varangian (Viking) invaders in the middle of the ninth century, but afterwards fell into fighting with one another. In the words of the chronicle, “there was no law among them, but tribe rose against tribe,” and so they decided to “seek a prince who [could] rule over [them], and judge [them] according to the law.” Thus, three brothers from Scandinavia were invited to come to Russia, the eldest and most historically important of whom was Rurik. And Rurik, so the chronicle tells us, “located himself in Novgorod.”

Novgorods Early Development

The Russian Primary Chronicle must be read skeptically, and the passage from which the above information is drawn is one that historians remain at odds over. Whether Rurik ever existed, whether he really settled in Novgorod, and whether the dates are correct, are all hotly contested issues. In any event, the capital of Rurik’s new kingdom did not remain Novgorod for long.

Ruriks successor, Oleg, moved the capital to Kiev, and began the era in Russian history called the age of Kievan Rus’. Despite losing its place as the political and administrative center of Rus’, however shortly it had held that status in the first place, Novgorod remained economically important to the rest of the region for the remaining three centuries of its early history. Growing in population from 10,000 people to 15,000 people in the early eleventh century — to twice that size by the early thirteenth century — it acted as a market by which trade goods from the west could enter Russia, and trade goods from the east could enter the west.

The Novgorod Republic

In 1136, the people of Novgorod arrested and banished their prince, Vsevolod, and proclaimed themselves the Novgorod Republic. For the next four and a half centuries, Novgorod would operate largely in its own interests, selecting with unprecedented freedom its own princes (and banishing them when dissatisfied with them), as a semi-autonomous Republic headed by a veche (town council), bishop, posadnik (mayor), and, starting at the end of the twelfth century, a tysiatskii (military commander), until 1478, when annexed by Moscow.

Novgorod was never conquered by the Mongols, when they invaded Russia, but worked with them; Novgorod produced some of the earliest Slavic art and books, as well as other cultural artifacts; and Novgorod was involved with the well-known merchant organization, the Hanseatic League. Novgorod even produced its own folk hero, in the form of the adventuring merchant and musician, Sadko.

All in all, Novgorod was a very interesting and regionally influential city throughout the medieval period. In its modern-day form, Veliky Novgorod, the city houses numerous medieval artifacts and buildings, and remains proud of its historic heritage.