A Birthplace of the Russian State
By Linda Lippner
A collection of promotional material from Veliky (Great) Novgorod, a city 540 kilometers north of Moscow (and only an hour’s drive from St Petersburg) caught my eye because of a quote: “If the Hansa Office in Veliky Novgorod had not been closed according to the decree of Ivan III, Peter the Great would not have had to open the ‘window to Europe’, because the door there (in Veliky Novgorod) was ‘wide open’ up to the 15th Century.” What was this all about? I knew that St Petersburg was Peter the Great’s “Window on the West”, but I didn’t know there had been much earlier contact/trade with Europe in Northern Russia other than via the rivers that run south to Kiev, and on to Greece and Byzantium. I am not as up on my Russian history as I should be, but I was ready to learn.
I booked a ticket on the overnight train from Moscow, for a long weekend exploring the past and vibrant present of this lovely city on the Volkhov River. I had explored other ways to get there, as I am not really excited about overnight trains, but this is the best way to go; driving 540 kilometers on Russia’s rough roads was not a pleasant alternative; the airport is due to re-open as an international hub only in 2009, in time for the hosting of the Hanseatric League of the New Age, a modern version of the medieval Hanseatic League. Veliky Novgorod was once an active trade partner with this powerful commercial league and this contributed to its wealth and sophistication during the Middle Ages. Leather shoes, fine clothing and a mostly literate population was a remarkable exception to the rest of Russia at this time, fueled by trade with Europe, Greece and Constantinople.
Founded in 859 by native Slavs, and occupied by Viking warriors, the most notable was Rurik, who was invited by the Slavs to restore order among feuding tribes. Veliky Novgorod had early links to Kiev, serving as the birthplace of the nation of Russia. Citystates ruled in tandem with monarchs such as Oleg in 879, and Vladimir, who Christianized Novgorod one year after he did the same to Kiev in 988, and then sent his son Yaroslav the Wise to rule.
The most intriguing aspect of Veliky Novgorod’s early history was that the citizens were full participants in representative rule through the process of the Veche, or people’s assembly. This unique body of citizens actually voted in or voted out their titular prince, who was limited to the role of commander of the defensive army of the city. One such famous ‘prince for hire’ was Alexander Nevsky, famous for defending Novgorod against the Tartars, the Swedes and Teutonic Knights. After 1136, monarchical rule ended and an independent republic was established with a residing prince, ruling in little more than a symbolic role. This situation ceased altogether in 1270 when a burgomaster was elected to administer the city. This is why Veliky Novgorod is so important today - as a link from ancient republican values to a modern constitutional Russi, a cultural and symbolic destination for Russians.
Arriving at dawn I had a choice of several 3-star and one 4-star hotel for my stay. I chose the 3-star Sadko (named after the legendary Novgorod gusli player, remembered in the opera Sadko by Rimsky-Korsakov), which has been recently remodeled, with a comfortable dining room, bar and small conference facilities. Another hotel I checked out, Volkhov, situated closer to the Kremlin, has a newly-installed spa center that can be privately rented as a respite from mid-winter snowy touring treks. Reasonably priced with a massage therapist available, and food and drink delivered, this is a great in-city banya experience for corporate groups or parties.
The Kremlin is the center and active heart of the city. In the very center of the Kremlin is a unique monument to the 1,000 anniversary of Russia. In 1862 a giant bell was erected; it was designed by a 24-year-old sculpture student, Michael Mikoshin. On this monument to Veliky Novgorod’s role in the history of the Russian state, hundreds of figures from Russia’s rich history are arranged in groups depicting literary, scientific and political history. A larger group extending around the bell depicts the nation’s rulers significant to the city. Ironically, Ivan the Terrible, who arrived in the city unannounced in 1569 and massacred a majority of it population in order to subdue its independent ways, is not included in the sculptures. But you will find on it, Alexander Nevsky, Prince Vladimir, Michael Romanov, Peter the Great, Rurik the Viking and Dimitri Donskoi.
The Kremlin itself is a massive oval structure situated along the west bank of the Volkhov River. The present form dates from the 15th Century, with a deep ditch surrounding the outside walls, and nine massive towers. A great way to approach the Kremlin is to take the slightly-arched pedestrian bridge across the river from the east or market side of the town and pass under the giant arched gate, and into the Kremlin. The gates are open until midnight, and this historical park must be a wonderful place to spend a summer evening. The equally giant gate at the other side of the Kremlin allows a walk from one historical side of the city to the other. The Kremlin houses a concert hall, with weekly concerts by local and visiting artists, and a magnificent bell tower adjacent to St Sophia Cathedral where the giant bells sing their songs out over the city.
Although I visited Veliky Novgorod at the deep end of winter, and could only imagine what the area would look like in spring, with the thousands of trees that line the streets and the parks in full greenery; nevertheless, the vistas up and down the river, with churches and monasteries sparkling against the snowy sky, were magnificent. With my capable guides, Natalie Lazovskaya and Marina Puksant, I had a chance to visit outdoor and indoor sights, so I never was in danger of frostbite. I had asked to see contemporary culture, and was taken to visit the Folk Art Center housed in the 14th Century monastery of St Nicolai Belsky. Master craftspeople conduct classes and presentations of ethnic clothing, dolls, cloth and birchbark weaving.
With forty-eight churches and monasteries located in Veliky Novgorod, many are open as museums, and eleven are fully functioning. You would expect a rather grand collection of icons here, and you will find them. The Novgorod style of icon painting, and icons from the schools of Pskov and Moscow, are to be found in the Novgorod State Museum collection of 11th - 19th century icons. Recently refurbished and situated in the Kremlin, only a fraction of the Museum’s sizeable icon collection is on display. Icons are in many of the churches open to the public, along with frescoes and wall paintings. St Sophia Cathedral, which is in the Kremlin, is the oldest stone church surviving in Russia. Built in 1045 -1050, and designed by Greek architects, it houses the miracle-working Icon of Our Lady of the Sign, which was instrumental in turning back the invading forces of Suzdal. This beautiful church also has an incredible set of bronze doors from the German city of Magdeburg, depicting scenes from the Bible and mythological creatures, and a huge bronze chandelier donated by Boris Godunov.
I visited the painting studio of Oleg Saulov and the birch bark workshop of Vladimir Yarish. I also caught a contemporary play performed by graduate theater students from the Novgorod State University named after Yaroslav the Wise at the Maly Theater. In mid-afternoon, I spent an hour at the Open-Air Museum of Wooden Architecture “Vitoslavlisy” on the edge of town, where Christmastide celebrations are held in January, and the International Folk Arts Festival in June. Other major events include the “Tsar Fairy-Tale” International Theater Festival and the Medieval War Games and Knight’s Tournaments in April, and Hansa Days in May. In 2009, the festivals will be even more elaborate as Veliky Novgorod hosts the modern Hanseatic League, of more than 100 European city members in June. And in September of 2009, the city will celebrate its 1,150 birthday with three days of festivals, fireworks and special events.
Restaurants are also blooming on the streets of Veliky Novgorod, and I tried out a few; some with live entertainment in the evening. I would definitely recommend the “Holmgard” restaurant where I had a great baked chicken, shrimp salad and excellent red Chilean wine. Joining a livelier crowd on a Saturday night, I went to the newly-designed disco/restaurant “Zazerkalie”, which has live DJ music, dancing and pole-dancing, on the lazer-beamed stage after midnight.
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