Novgorod – Your Window on Russia’s Early History
Novgorod is one of Russia’s oldest cities, despite the fact that it means “Newtown” in Russian. With modern trains and roads it’s not far from St. Petersburg. It will take you about three hours by train or car. The city was first mentioned in the Chronicles in 859 CE, dating it to the Middle Ages and before Russia became a country loosely unified under Christianity. The Chronicles are valuable historical records kept by Russians starting in the 11th century. Since it’s much older than St. Petersburg, Novgorod has had archaeologists digging in its soil since 1932—trying to find out the secrets of early Russian history. The city has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992.
Novgorod does not have good farmland or natural resources. It became a city in the 6th century because of its proximity to reliable sources of freshwater, the Volkhov River and Lake Ilmen. Novgorod’s historical significance to the development of Russia cannot be missed. The Slavs who lived there invited a Viking/Old Norse prince, Rurik, to rule them, thus creating a Russian government that would last until the Romanov dynasty came to power in the 1600s.
The Volkhov River splits the city into two parts—the St. Sophia side and the trading side. The St. Sophia Cathedral inside the Kremlin, built in the 1040s, has five domes, and this architectural choice was a model for later Russian Orthodox churches.
The Novgorod Kremlin first appeared in the Chronicles in 1044. This fortification protected the northwestern part of Russia for centuries with 1487 meters of walls. However, the rising population and importance of St. Petersburg spelled the end of Novgorod’s prominence in the 1700s. In 1927, the Soviets demoted Novgorod to just one part of the Leningrad Region. After WWII, Novgorod became the center of its own region once again. Even so, the Soviet government was really uninterested in elevating Novgorod’s religious history. In 1862, the Millennium Statue was placed within the Kremlin. It incorporates 129 figures of monarchs, Orthodox leaders, artists, and military generals.
Politics and Religion
In 1478 Moscow and Novgorod consolidated into one government, allowing Russia to begin to take its modern shape. The two cities formed the nucleus of the Russian state, both issuing coins worth the same amount across the realm.
In addition to its political importance, we can consider Novgorod the center or birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity. There used to be many monasteries in the area, but now there are only four. In 1499, the first complete translation of the bible into Russian was published in Novgorod. You will find many surviving medieval and early modern churches in this city. Before WWII, there were 6,000 Orthodox icons in Novgorod churches. The Nazis confiscated the best ones during their three-year occupation of the city, but 478 of them returned home after the war.
Unique Birchbark Letters
Novgorod claims to be the source of the earliest Russian legal and educational systems. Prince Yaroslav the Wise, in the early 1000s, established a law code called “The Russian Truth” in the Chronicles, and he opened a school for 300 students in Novgorod. In 1951, a new source was discovered: letters written on local birchbark from the 11th to 16th centuries. More than 900 pieces have been found in the Novgorod region, and about eight pieces were discovered in Moscow. Many of the letters were mundane, recounting activities of daily life, whose writers probably didn’t expect their messages to survive 1,000 years! Importantly, these letters prove that Russian women in the Middle Ages knew how to write.
Wooden Architecture Museum
Another reason to go to Novgorod is to see Vitoslavlitsy, the open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture. Since 1964, its wooden spectacles have been gathered from around the Novgorod region, deconstructed, and put back together on site. You can find thirty-eight in all. The oldest monument is the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin from the village of Peredki, dating back to 1539. Here you can observe the “wooden lace” design technique common on the exteriors of private Russian homes in the countryside. A major renovation project began in 2016 and is ongoing, but you can still enjoy the wooden treasures of the museum during reconstruction.
Tips for Visiting
Novgorod and the Wooden Architecture Museum are a great place to go to celebrate Maslenitsa, the Shrovetide or end of winter celebration where a female scarecrow is set on fire in hopes of banishing winter. It is great to get out in the country for this.