Novgorod is a city in northwestern Russia, northwest of Moscow and south-southeast of St. Petersburg. (Don't confuse it with Nizhni Novgorod, which is east of Moscow.) It is one of the great historical locations of Russia, being one of the major trade centers between Scandinavia and the Black Sea or Caspian Sea. Politically, it was probably the second most powerful city in Russia (after Kiev) before the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, and since the Mongols did not destroy it, was the archive of Russian culture during the years when many cities were burnt to the ground or occupied.

Unfortunately, it was largely destroyed during World War II, but the Soviet/Russian government has tried to restore a lot of the city for its historic value, and rebuild modern parts for the people who lived there.

Source: Novgorod State United Museum,

Situated on the Volkhov River (160 Kilometres south-southeast of St. Petersburg), Novgorod was founded by Viking Prince Rurik in 862 AD and became one of the earliest Russian states worthy of mention, despite fairly inauspicious beginnings as a mere trading post; Viking colonisation was never widespread. Under process of systematic excavation since 1932 under Artemi Artiskhovsky, this city has been a vital source of information about early Russian history. Discoveries to date include well-preserved, waterlogged buildings dating from the 10th-18th centuries which demonstrate the fact that the city’s primary industries concerned textiles, the shaping of bone objects, leatherwork and glass-blowing. Furthermore to this, over 700 letters written on birch bark (known as beresty) have been found on the site and divulge much information about the city’s administration from the 11th-15th centuries, as well as denoting the unusually high literacy rate of Novgorod’s citizens. The Kremlin (fortified citadel) of Novgorod was established in the 11th century and is one of the region’s earliest stone defences. Architecturally, Novgorod is fascinating - as each layer of timber paving became waterlogged, another would be laid directly on top of it. Houses were generally log cabins and streets were cluttered and winding.

As with most Russian cities, Novgorod took great pride in custom; Novgorod especially had a proud veche (political assembly) tradition, reserving a particular church bell to proclaim a gathering. As with the assemblies of most Russian cities, these gatherings were dominated by the most influential families. The abrupt transition from the worship of pagan deities (Norse, Finn, Slav and even Iranian) to Orthodox Christianity in Russia occurred with particular violence in Novgorod. The ‘humiliation of Perun’ undertaken by Prince Vladimir I of Kiev (whereby the god’s idol was dragged, smashed and cast into the Dnieper River) was imitated by priests in Novgorod amidst much dissent - although a princely decree may have been apparently heeded, pagan rituals and customs continued to be observed in Novgorod for a significant time. While this dualism of faith was not rare in the early medieval world, the violence of the transition was a distinctly Russian characteristic, foreshadowing many of the foremost events in the nation’s history.

The subjection of southern Russia to the Mongol Tatar yoke was a shock to Eastern Europe and particularly to Novgorod, which would have been a great prize as it was the richest city in Russia at the time. The hysteria created over the violence and depravity of Genghis Khan’s hordes blinded many to the fact that the nomadic invaders were merely human and did not have the resources to consolidate their power so far west (especially due to Novgorod’s dense forests and geographical isolation). The weakness of Mongol political structures was evident in Batu Khan’s retreat from newly-conquered Moldavia to Karakorum, in order to prevent Ögödei’s son Güyük from seizing power. Despite this shortcoming, Prince Aleksandr of Novgorod judged them to be a far more dangerous foe than the Swedes and Teutons (who vied for control of the Neva River and Lake Ladoga area) and made every effort to maintain their (relative) benevolence. If there was any consolation to be taken amidst this turmoil, it would have been that new trade routes would have been opened with the east and Asian goods imported; if any Russian city could have been said to have enjoyed a net gain during the height of Mongol power in Russia, it was Novgorod.

Authoritative Mongol control eventually slackened, though, and reliance upon the wilful subordination of Russian Princes increased. A prime example of a desirable vassal was Ivan I of Moscow who regularly and completely paid the demanded tribute, offered great respect to the Mongol Khan and quelled an uprising in Tver, Moscow’s primary rival, using Tatar troops. As a result of this, the Mongols ceased sending tribute-collectors to Russia, instead delegating that task to Moscow. This was highly advantageous for both the Khan and the Muscovite Princes as it streamlined bureaucracy for the former and allowed for a shift in the balance of power for the latter - it had been feared that an alliance of Lithuania, Novgorod and Tver would be able to cast the Mongols out of Russia and the new arrangement stated in no uncertain terms that Moscow was to be apportioned more power than any other city, albeit under the hand of the Khan in Mongolia.

By the early 14th century Novgorod controlled territory from the Arctic Ocean to beyond the Ural Mountains. Novgorod began to decline as Moscow continued to rise, however, losing sole control of the northern lakes and forests when Dmitrii I of Moscow (1359-1389), consolidated his authority over the principalities of Rostov, Suzdal and Nizhnii Novgorod and many territories far to the east. The Mongols continued to deteriorate after the 14th century AD and the symbolic victory attained at Kulikuvo Field instated Moscow as the sole protector of eastern Slavic culture and Russian Orthodoxy. From this point on, Novgorod was viewed as an economic giant and a political weakling simultaneously; a prize, rather than a foe. Half a century (or thereabouts) after the death of Prince Aleksandr Nevskii of Novgorod, the title of ‘Prince of Novgorod’ was entirely abolished and unofficial subservience to a foreign power (a role usually filled by Tver or Moscow) was acknowledged. Internal feuding erupted over whether the city should become a part of (pagan and then Catholic) Lithuania or whether (Orthodox Christian) Moscow was preferable. The former would have facilitated access to traditional European markets, whereas the latter was far more powerful and prestigious. In 1471, the veche invited King Casimir IV of Lithuania to become sovereign, but Ivan III of Moscow sent a punitive force which defeated Novgorod’s inexperienced militia and instated Muscovite rule; Lord Novgorod the Great (as the city liked to call itself) was no more. Even as this was done, though, Novgorod enjoyed a spiritual and intellectual flowering as it was the city closest to Western Europe and the continuing Renaissance; of course, a distinctly Russian adherence to puritanical Orthodoxy characterised Russia’s cultural celebration.

After its incorporation into the Russian dominions, Novgorod’s status as an impotent commercial centre remained relatively unchanged. The iam (postal system) created by Ivan III (in imitation of the demonstrably successful system which had been used by the Mongols) linked Novgorod with many cities, including Pskov, Smolensk, Viazma, Murom, Nizhnii Novgorod and, of course, Moscow; Sigismund von Herberstein, envoy of the Habsburgs, reckoned that this system enabled him to travel 500 Kilometres in 72 hours, which he asserted was much faster than he would have been able to travel anywhere else in Europe. This increase in national, religious and political ideals along with greater communicative abilities meant that the basis of a unified Russia had been created, despite later Swedish influence which put the city’s allegiance into doubt.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, Timothy Darvill.
Russia and the Russians, Geoffrey Hosking.
Archaeology: the Definitive Guide, various authors.

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