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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The fall of Great Novgorod

How an autocratic Moscow destroyed a free republic
14 April, 2011 - 00:00

Sons of the snows,
Slavonians’ sons,
Why courage have ye ceased
to cherish?
Why?.. Perish must your
tyrant once,
As every tyrant had to perish!..

“Novgorod” by Mikhail Lermontov

When researching a great event of the past, especially one that had a crucial effect on further developments, a true historian, like any true scholar, will find it necessary to go beyond superficial vapidity and empty cliches, and to get to the root of certain sharp turns — the sources of victories and defeats of once powerful states. This approach is absolutely necessary if we are to comprehend the grandiose and terrible “gathering of Russian lands” around Moscow in the 14th-16th centuries that resulted in the formation of a centralized autocratic state. This state was extremely aggressive: it enlarged its area by 180 times between 1321 and 1581, and that was just the beginning! It “nourished” its ideology not with European “charters of liberties,” as England did, not with the reforms of the enlightened and liberal dukes, as, for example, Florence did, but with the unlimited right of a “grand sovereign” to deal with his “rabble” and “slaves” (the latter included even the boyars) as he pleased.

But what stood in the way of an unchecked and predatory expansion of grand Muscovite princes and tsars, from Ivan Kalita to Ivan IV the Terrible, which has been equally glorified by pre-Revolutionary and Soviet ready-to-serve historians, was an amazing state — His Majesty Lord Novgorod the Great [the way its citizens called the Novgorod Republic – Ed.], a free veche (people’s assembly)-ruled republic that had inherited the living democratic traditions of Ancient Rus’. At the peak of its power (the 14th-first half of the 15th centuries), this state controlled a northern territory as far as the Urals (called Yugra Rocks at the time), the White Sea, and even Siberia. This power maintained very close trade links with Western Europe, including the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, German free cities on the Baltic and North seas, and the Polish Kingdom. It used a complete Magdeburg Law system of privileges and was, in political terms, diametrically opposed to an autocratic Moscow.

All the important questions of the city’s and republic’s life — be it concluding trade agreements with Europe, electing the posadnik (mayor), mobilizing the militia, raising money for building a new temple, etc. — were usually settled at the assemblies (veche) of free Novgorod citizens. The Novgorod prince himself was in fact no more than a hired commander of the local military force (druzhina).

The Novgorod Republic truly embodied, to use modern parlance, the possible “European vector” of the development of the future “Great Russian” people. The unification of the latter into one state was an objective necessity in the 14th century. Speaking of the future Great Russian lands, the question was: who will lead the process of unification — the authoritarian Moscow or the Novgorod Republic? (It will be noted that a powerful ally, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which also included Ukrainian lands, supported Novgorod, albeit only for a while.) Our prominent historian Mykola Kostomarov once defined this as a rivalry between a “veche-appanage” and a “monarchic” Rus’. He explained: “The ideal of a veche-appanage life was that Rus’ lands be self-sufficient so that each land formed a whole in its local life and all of them were bound with the same, common to all, linchpin.” The idea of a monarchic setup was entirely different. In this case the freedom of constituent parts is sacrificed to a different idea, a single state with the component parts absorbed or destroyed.

This is what Moscow and Novgorod essentially vied for. To hear about the tragic peripeteia of this struggle, let us turn to…, no, not to a nationalist or a radical and relentless enemy of a despotic Moscow, but to the advocate of an “enlightened monarchy,” the outstanding imperial historian Nikolai Karamzin. Our “ultra-patriots” openly ignore his legacy, for they consider Karamzin an extreme reactionary and chauvinist. Meanwhile, what Karamzin, an honest writer and historian who never ignored “ticklish” facts and events if they “did not fit in with” his doctrine, wrote is convincing proof of the crimes of the early Muscovite autocracy. Here follows what Karamzin wrote.


“The power in Novgorod belongs to posadnitsa [mayoress. – Ed.] Marfa Boretskaya and Archbishop Feofil, a pro-Moscow spiritual pastor, and in Moscow to Grand Prince Ivan III. Not yet convinced, and even doubtful, of the firmness of Ivan’s character, judging by the prince’s first actions that showed moderation and peacefulness,” Karamzin writes, “the Novgorodians dared to be bold and tried to show to the grand prince that they were awesome, to hurt Moscow’s pride, and to restore their ancient rights of freedom which their excessively compliant forefathers had lost. With this in mind, the Novgorodians got down to business. The people dreamed, like never before, of the delights of freedom; they wanted a close alliance with Casimir (the Grand Duke of Lithuania, later the King of Poland. – Author) and, as chroniclers say, they received his voivode, Prince Michal Olelkowicz, whose brother Simeon honorably and gloriously ruled in Kyiv, as the ancient princes of Vladimir’s stock did. Michal brought a lot of Lithuanian noblemen and knights to Novgorod.

“Contrary to ancient Slavic customs and mores, which precluded the female gender from any involvement in civic affairs, a proud and ambitious woman, named Marfa, the widow of a former posadnik Isaac Boretsky and the mother of two adult sons, made an attempt to decide her fatherland’s destiny. Her sons, admirers and like-minded people came to the veche and solemnly proclaimed that it was time to part with Ivan because he was a wrongdoer rather than their sovereign, that Novgorod the Great was itself a sovereign, that its residents were free people rather than subjects of Muscovite princes, that all they needed was a protector, that Grand Duke Casimir would be the protector, and that the Metropolitan of Kyiv, not of Moscow, should appoint the archbishop of Novgorod’s St. Sophia Cathedral. They loudly cried out at the end of their speeches: ‘We don’t want Ivan! Long live Casimir!’ The people went into turmoil. Many sided with the Boretskys and chanted: ‘Moscow begone!’

“A large Novgorod mission set out to Lithuania with rich gifts and a proposal that Casimir be head of the Novgorod state on the basis of ancient charters of civic liberty.”

Karamzin also contends that the grand duke accepted all the Novgorodians’ conditions and wrote a deed whereby he particularly pledged not to violate the following rules:

“1. Conclude a friendly alliance with the appointed Novgorod primate Feofil, the posadniks, the tysyatskys (originally the head of the town militia but later a judicial and commercial official. – Author), the boyars, the respected people, and the entire Great Novgorod.

2. You, fair king and grand duke, shall exercise control of Great Novgorod on the basis of this Holy Cross-blessed deed.

3. Should the Muscovite sovereign declare war on Great Novgorod, you, lord and fair king, or, in your absence, the Rada of Lithuania, shall render us prompt assistance (let us face it: a frightened Casimir failed to fulfill this task, betraying the Novgorodians. – Author).

4. Novgorodians shall be tried in Lithuania by your laws and Lithuanians in Novgorod by our laws without any harassment.

5. You, fair king, shall not deport our people, purchase villages or slaves, gift them to the queen or Lithuanian noblemen, or deny our lawful customs duties. Novgorod land districts will only be ruled by our own officials.

6. Lithuanian merchants shall trade with the Germans via their Novgorod counterparts only. The German court is not subject to you, and you may not close it.

7. You, fair king, shall not interfere with our Orthodox faith – we will place our primate where we deem it necessary (in Moscow or in Kyiv), and no Roman churches will ever be established in the Novgorod land.

To confirm this treaty, you will kiss the cross of Great Novgorod on behalf of the entire Duchy of Lithuania and the Rada of Lithuania in truth and without treachery, whereas our envoys kissed the cross as a sign of Great Novgorod’s trust in the fair king.”

This is the end of the treaty signed in the first half of 1471. Obviously, had this treaty been implemented, Eastern Europe would have seen a different history. But this was also equally obvious to Ivan III, who immediately declared war on the veche-ruled republic under the pretext of the Novgorodians’ “betrayal” of Orthodoxy, which was a lie, and Ivan was well aware of this. Casimir gave no help to the Novrorodians at the crucial moment. Their army was more numerous but less cohesive. Karamzin says bluntly that there were influential and rich Novrorodian boyars who secretly sided with Moscow: these “oligarchs” were unwilling to fight for Great Novgorod and conducted secret talks with Ivan III (we will see below how Ivan “thanked” them). On July 1471 the Novgorod troops were routed by the “Muscovites” (Karamzin’s word) near the River Shelon, a little south of Novgorod.

The Muscovite army behaved like an invader in occupied land (which in fact it was). Karamzin writes: “This caused utter devastation. When the Muscovite voivode Kholmsky and the grand prince’s troops, on the one hand, and Pskov warriors (the allies of Moscow whom the latter would also conquer in 1510), on the other, entered the land of Novgorod, they wrought havoc with fire and sword. Smoke, flames, rivers of blood, groans and screams rushed from east to west to the banks of Lake Ilmen. The Muscovites went on an indescribable rampage: the Novgorodians seemed to them worse than the Tatars. They showed mercy neither to poor land tillers nor to women. With hard-heartedness typical of that century, voivode Kholmsky ordered the captured Novgorodians to have their noses and lips cut off and to be sent, thus maimed, to Novgorod.”

The defeat resulted in a shackling treaty under which Novgorod was in fact to lose a real political independence, contribute 15,000 rubles (about 80 pods of silver) to the grand prince’s treasury “as punishment for its guilt,” recognize the supremacy of Ivan III, vow to break all contacts with the West, especially Lithuania, and extradite the diplomats who had signed a treaty with the latter (Ivan immediately ordered them to be beheaded). The final surrender came seven years later, in 1478. Karamzin writes: “Novgorod still remained a people-governed state, but its freedom had already been at the mercy of Ivan and was to vanish at the autocrat’s nod. There is no freedom if there is no force to defend it. All the Novgorod districts from the eastern frontiers to the sea, except for the capital, showed devastation caused by not only the grand prince’s troops but also the free-roaming gangs: the armed crowds of Muscovite burgers and villagers would make forays in order to loot and make a fortune.” In January 1478 Ivan III laid siege to Novgorod in an attempt to eliminate the last vestiges of a once independent and powerful state and, threatening the residents with a terrible famine (the city was cut off from the outside world), delivered a tough ultimatum: “There will be no veche bell (as a public institution. – Author), there will be no posadnik, and the entire state will belong to us (i.e., Ivan and Moscow. – Author).” The Novgorod grassroots were ready to fight, but the noblemen surrendered: the veche was abolished, the veche bell was taken to Moscow, and the posadnitsa Marfa Boretskaya was incarcerated for life. It is in 1478 that Ivan III began to title himself as “sovereign of all Russia.” “The gathering of lands” received a powerful impetus.


Capitulation and shameful cowardice always avenge themselves, and History itself executes this sentence. When, almost 100 years later, Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible began to establish his unlimited power with oceans of blood and fire, he, a paranoiac, was infuriated by the very idea of a potential, theoretical opposition. He seemed to have crushed all resistance, but there was still a snag: the old Novgorod and its ancient veche-spirit traditions still stood in his way like a log on the road. So Ivan IV decided to act.

Karamzin writes: “Novgorod and Pskov, once free states humiliated by autocracy, stripped of their ancient rights and most illustrious citizens (as a ‘reward’ for treason, Ivan III robbed the Novgorod boyars of their land and property and resettled them in Moscow. – Author), and partly populated with different residents, had already changed their inner spirit but still preserved some kind of majesty based on reminiscences of the past and some remnants of it in their everyday life… Word has it that a vagabond named Pyotr, who had been punished in Novgorod for some wrongdoings, decided to take revenge on its residents. Aware of the tsar’s hostile attitude to them, he concocted a letter ostensibly written by the archbishop and local citizens to the Polish king, hid it behind the Holy Virgin’s icon in St. Sophia’s Church, then ran away to Moscow and informed the sovereign that Novgorod was betraying Russia. He was told to produce evidence: the tsar gave him a loyal man who escorted him to Novgorod and took the fake archbishop’s letter from behind the icon. The letter said that the high priest, the clergy, officials, and all the people were longing for Lithuania. No other proof was needed. Taking this nonsense for the truth, the tsar condemned to death Novgorod and all the people who aroused his suspicion or hatred.”

It is not easy even now to read the chapters of History of the Russian State devoted to the extermination of Novgorod. Let us only quote a most expressive passage: “On January 2, 1570, the tsar’s large force entered Novgorod, surrounding it with strong outposts on all sides so that no one could run away to safety. They sealed churches and monasteries in the city and its outskirts as well as the courtyards of all rich burghers, shackled the visitors, merchants, and civil servants, and kept an eye on their wives and children at home. The silence of horror ruled supreme (what a strong formula! – Author). Nobody knew their guilt or the cause of their disgrace. They awaited the sovereign’s arrival.”

The tsar arrived on January 6. The next day saw mass-scale executions. Nobody was spared – neither priests, nor merchants, nor burghers, not old people, nor women, nor children. They pillaged all the churches of Novgorod and burned down many houses and churches. The tsar began the “trial” of the “traitors.” Karamzin describes it as follows: “Ivan and his son judged as follows: from 500 to a thousand and more Novgorodians were brought to them every day. They were beaten up, tortured, burnt with some fiery substance, tied to a sled by the head or feet and dragged to the bank of the Volkhov, where this river does not freeze in the winter, and thrown from the bridge into the water – families, wives with husbands, mothers with babies. Muscovite soldiers would sail on boats down the Volkhov with spears, pike poles and hatchets in hand: whoever surfaced from the water was pierced or cut into pieces. These killings lasted for five weeks and ended up in an overall looting: Ivan and his detachment visited all the cloisters around the city, seizing money from churches and monasteries. He ordered courtyards and monastic cells to be devastated and grain, horses and cattle to be destroyed. He also allowed looting throughout Novgorod, including shops, houses, and churches. He personally rode from street to street to see loot-thirsty soldiers crashing into the rooms and storehouses, knocking off gates, climbing into windows, and dividing silken fabrics and furs among themselves. The crowds of wrongdoers were sent to ruin the property and lives of people indiscriminately and scot-free. As a chronicler says, this ‘indescribable fall’ and destruction of Great Novgorod lasted about six weeks.” 

* * *

It seems nothing can be added to what the great historian said. But let us still try to do so. Although Karamzin advocated a strong Russian state, he could, as we see, describe the atrocities of tsars. Those who claim they advocate a strong Ukrainian state should learn the history of the fall of the Novgorod Republic by heart. For one must know how medieval Moscow suppressed, while “gathering lands,” the Great Russian Novgorod “of the same blood and faith” as punishment for its European attitudes and how it interpreted the city’s inner confusion as a sign of weakness and eventual surrender. Contemporaries used to say that Ivan III held out against the powerful Novgorod and took it by starvation, relying on the local fifth column. Yet this tactic is hardly obsolete.