It would be erroneous to think that appetite for democracy in Russia will inevitably come in the course of time – it will come only if its citizens feel that their voices do matter. This is the lesson modern Russia should learn from the historic phenomenon of democracies in medieval Novgorod and Pskov.


Russian Painting of 19th century (oil on canvas): Martha the Mayoress at the Destruction of the Novgorod Veche by Klavdi Lebedev (1852 - 1916), Russia, 1889. Photo: State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow / Wikipedia

With Russia marking the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution, there is a debatable opinion that between February and October 1917 Russia enjoyed democratic freedoms, which it lost afterwards because it was not well prepared for liberties and freedoms. However, historically, it is not the first time when Russia experienced democracy with its effective institutions.

Imagine a place where people get to directly choose political and religious authorities, have an obligation to keep their cities tidy and are aspiring to iron out hierarchical differences. Now situate the imagined place in the 12th century Russia and there will be the tale of Novgorod and Pskov. These are two booming merchant cities in northwest Russia that are rarely mentioned when pundits of every stripe and color canvass the dour history of Russia, a country, according to most, doomed to autocracy and minimal rule of law.

The tale of democracy in Novgorod and Pskov

Upon analyzing Novgorod’s and Pskov’s political organization of the 12th century, implying wide and representative participation of its citizens in politics, its urban organization, entailing a deliberate and sustained provision of urban amenities for the people and by the people, one cannot but ask: How could Russia have been so democratic at that time?

The Novgorod Republic was by no means a tiny entity, its territory covered the whole northern part of current European Russia. However, most large cities were along main trade routes uniting the Viking North to the Byzantine North, the rest of the state was very sparsely inhabited.

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Pskov was smaller in scope, yet very similar in organization, partly due to the fact that after a period of principality, the Republic became part of the Novgorod Republic, only to become independent in mid-1300s and be swallowed by the Grand Duchy of Moscow again.

Both republics were at the frontier of the Russian world and fought numerous wars against Sweden, the Livonian Order and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – only between Novgorod and the Swedes there were 26 of them within the timeframe of three centuries. Both Republics’ ruling body was the popular assembly called veche, the highest legislature and judicial authority. Novgorod held its veche regularly from 1016 until 1478 — and anyone in Novgorod and nearby villages was able to participate in the assembly and vote.

Novgorod Princes had been invited by the veche to reign since 1136 — very much like the 21st century technocrats. The Princes were constrained by the provisions of the “pact” they concluded with the population and were even barred from living in the center of the city, having to inhabit the so-called Ryurikovo Gorodishe, a settlement outside the city.

Although formally it was the Prince who ruled the Novgorod Republic, essentially all the executive powers were in the hands of the Council of Lords, headed by the Novgorod archbishop. De jure the Novgorod archbishops were not the highest-ranking religious authorities within Ancient Rus, but they managed to free themselves of operational dependence from the Kiev Metropolitan See and could pursue a fairly independent course.

Most importantly, the Novgorod archbishop was elected by the veche — by the people themselves. And it was by no means a fait accompli approval, first the archbishop was elected by the urban and rural population, only then was he sent to Kiev to undergo formal vesting. The veche did not only vest the clergy with religious authority, it also stripped them of their powers, including a curious case from 1228, when the people of Novgorod banished archbishop Arseniy, accusing him of being responsible for a bout of rainy weather.

Thus, in the area of religious independence (the possibilities of the population to influence religious matters), Novgorod went even further than anyone else. However, the nobility could influence people’s opinions or pull the strings leaving the people in complete ignorance. Novgorod archbishops were not necessarily modest and boyars could push for their own agenda.

According to Dmitry Likhachev, a Russian medievalist and linguist, even the construction of churches reflects the then-occurring democratization of life. While churches built prior to the 12th century had special choir aisles dedicated to representatives of the nobility, “new” churches built under the guidance of guildsmen or the townsfolk assembled everyone in one joint space, disregarding any noble prerogatives.

However, democracy in Novgorod and Pskov came with several caveats. Serfdom was a problem, although only in the 1570s, Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible imposed it in the northern part of Russia to its fullest extent. On the other hand, Novgorod and Pskov had a highly literate population, as indicated by the thousands of birch-back texts found around the two cities. Moreover, literacy was not exclusively a male domain, with several texts (most likely the earliest Russian documents) written by women.

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Among them is an early 15th century manuscript written by a certain Maria Ivanova for the monks of the Solovetsky Monastery, asking them to pray for her deceased relatives. Women also wrote manu propria testaments, one dating from the late 14th century written by a certain Marfa who bequeathed a church dedicated to St. Nicholas, three villages with adjacent fishing ponds to her brother-in-law, Fyodor Grigorievich.

By implication, most of the traits of the Novgorod Republic apply to Pskov, which was also divided into ends with similar rules of governance. Yet in certain aspects of democratic administration of affairs, Pskov managed to do even better than Novgorod. For instance, due to the fact that Pskov had no all-powerful landowners and most estates were relatively small in size, including the Church’s possessions, its veche was less influenced by boyar infighting and behind-the-scenes struggle.

The Pskov Republic existed between 1348 and 1510, when Grand Duke of Muscovy Vassiliy III conquered the city state, dissolved the veche and distributed estates previously belonging to local noblemen to his service people.

How democracy failed in Novgorod and Pskov

As with most medieval states, Novgorod eventually began to flounder under its internal complexities. By the 15th century the Novgorod aristocracy came to dominate political life, turning a blind eye to the population’s needs and wishes. By that time the Grand Duchy of Muscovy made tremendous progress in uniting Russian lands and established its own religious center, the Moscow Metropolitan See.

The Novgorod boyars tried to resist the surge of Moscow, concluding an alliance with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish Kingdom or by threatening to take an oath of loyalty to the Catholic Pope in case its independence was maintained to its maximum possible extent, further antagonizing the population. Therefore, when in 1471 the Duke of Moscow Ivan III defeated the Novgorod army, unwilling to wage a war against their kin, at the battle of Shelon, it became clear that ethnic affiliation matters more than parochial interests.

Once incorporated by Muscovy, certain strata of Novgorod and Pskov did not abandon their aspirations to regain previously held freedoms, to no avail.

As late as 1570, Ivan the Terrible removed from Novgorod an eight-ton church bell that was said to have been “founded by the prayers of local saints” — the measure was thoroughly symbolic as it meant an end to Novgorod’s chances of attaining self-government again. However, overcoming Russia’s then-actual challenges required a great concentration of power in order to evade getting bogged down in intestine strife, therefore Moscow was bound to gain the upper hand.

The Grand Duchy of Moscow unified the country, and unity within such immense latitudes come at a cost – that cost were the democratic structures and principles of many swallowed-up city states.

Understanding Russia’s modern politics

However, to understand how politics works in Russia, one should keep in mind that the country was disintegrated for an extended period of time, some of its parts would be much more democratic than others. Historically, Moscow or Saint Petersburg were much more exposed to democratic ideas, which is reflected in the mindsets of the natives, while other regions demonstrate only superficial receptivity to democratic ideas.

This phenomenon is neither right, nor wrong, but it is a key factor in understanding the way political power functions in today's Russia. Novgorod and Pskov were fascinating democratic phenomena in the history of Russia, yet the challenges Russia still strives to overcome came under a different set of conditions. For instance, average life expectancy has barely changed between 1300 and 1913, at 30-34 years.

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A country, labeled “a Land of Cities” by the Vikings, witnessed a shocking rate of urbanization in the last pre-Soviet years, at 14-15 percent, which corresponds to Russia’s urbanization rate in the early 13th century. Finger-pointing (in order to answer the truly Russian question “Who is to blame for this?”) will only lead to ceaseless squabbling. However, five centuries after the demise of the Novgorod and Pskov Republics, there is a specific lesson to be learned.

It would be erroneous to think that appetite for democracy in Russia will inevitably come in the course of time — it will come only in case of an across-the-board leveling of social inequalities, so that its citizens feel that their voices do matter. Only then will Russia truly cease to be a nation of “slaves and masters”.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.