Monday, September 21, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Novgorod Symbolizes a Russian Democratic Tradition Broken by Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 21 – Commemorations of the 1150th anniversary of Novgorod the Great over the weekend called attention both to the democratic traditions of that city, a theme President Dmitry Medvedev and other officials emphasized, and to the harsh reality that those ancient traditions were broken by Muscovy as its rulers assembled the Russian state.
That inherent conflict was unintentionally highlighted by President Medvedev. On the one hand, he said after ringing the bell that had assembled the veche or medieval assembly that “the entire history of Novgorod the Great is the history of the establishment of Russian statehood, of a never before seen democratic tradition” (
But on the other, mindful that almost any open and honest discussion of this issue could lead some to object to Muscovy’s authoritarian approach regarding Novgorod, Medvedev added that he was “not against innovative views on history … But they must not go into textbooks.” Were that to happen, he suggested, it would sow confusion and “disaster.”
If Medvedev took a relatively balanced approach, other speakers and commentators have been less restrained, a pattern that may have the effect of injecting what has long been an argument among professional historians and human rights activists into a broader and potentially more political contentious debate.
Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the State Duma, said that “the sources of the political system of present-day Russia are to be found in the historical traditions of Novgorod the Great.” That medieval city state, he continued, “was a democracy, here elections took place, and a division of power existed” (
Indeed, the Duma leader stressed, “here [in Novgorod] are the sources of [Russia’s] political system,” and these democratic traditions, including rule of law – Novgorod produced the first code of laws on Russian lands – “are continuing and developing” in the Russian Federation now.
In an essay posted online today, however, Aleksandr Khramov suggests that there are some obvious problems for Russia as a whole if the traditions of Novgorod are elevated at the expense of those of authoritarian Muscovy which not only defeated that medieval city state but wiped out its democratic arrangements (
Generations of Russian school children, the Moscow commentator notes have been told that “the origins of our political system” are to be found in the often brutal actions of the Muscovite princes, “the ingatherers of the Russian lands,” one of which, of course, was Novgorod the Great.
Most Russians to this day accept the idea, Khramov writes, that “the end of Novgorod in 1478 became the real beginning of Russia, ‘of that state which we have in Moscow.’” By suggesting otherwise, the commentator continues, President Medvedev intentionally or not has turned things on their head.
“Autocratic Moscow gathered force and democratic Novgorod became weaker,” the Moscow commentator points out and Muscovite ruler Ivan III did everything he could to wipe out Novgorod and its traditions, exiling many of its people, almost completely, in the words of one historian, “wiping the city from the face of the earth.”
That is how Muscovy treated Novgorod and its “democratic traditions,” however much Medvedev and Gryzlov would like to believe otherwise, and, Khramov continues, “one needs to understand that it is not possible to follow at one and the same time Moscow and Novgorod the Great.”
What some in Moscow call their “democratic traditions” come “not from Novogorod but from the Moscow (Russian) state: in the best case, they continue the traditions of the [pre-1917] Imperial Duma; in the worst – the plenums of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”
Talking about Novgord, Khramov argues, is “an argument about our current situation, our identity.” And that identity is developed “each day, with each school lesson and with each new generation. It crystallizes around definite symbols.” And Novgorod, in this context, represents a detour “on the main path of the development of Russian statehood.”
The Novgorod “alternative,” he notes, “was not realized in history and it remains outside of national self-consciousness. The veche bell is silent; what sounds are the bells of Ivan the Great. What will be next defends on us: will we continue to identify with the Moscow princes and with ‘this state as in Moscow’ or will the bell of the Novgorod veche sound in our hearts.”
This struggle is not going away even if as Khramov suggests the two sides are far from equal. Two recent articles make that clear. The first by Academician Valentin Yanin suggests that whatever Russians have thought in the past, the residents of Novgorod, most recent studies show, were Western Slavs, not Eastern ones (
And the second, by Lev Shlosberg, describes the even more radically democratic and law-based traditions of Pskov, a reminder that once people begin examining the history of Russia, it becomes obvious both how diverse Russia itself is and how much Moscow over the centuries has destroyed (

No comments: