In the Tale of Bygone Years, the earliest history book of Russia, the monk Nestor the Chronicler tells the story of the creation of Veliky Novgorod, one of the country’s greatest cities. He wrote that this most ancient of Russian capitals was created by a great Varangian, or Viking, named Rurik. The leaders of several tribes that would eventually form Russia went to Rurik’s stronghold located at the time on Lake Ladoga and asked him to bring order amid their great disunity. These same leaders overthrew more abusive Varangian leadership a generation before only to suffer under anarchy. In response to their request, Rurik went south and constructed a new fortress at Holmgard on Lake Ilmen, a large lake in the center of all the chaos. Systematically, he built a new great principality, centered on a city that grew near his Holmgard stronghold. This city was called Novgorod.
Veliky Novgorod, better known today as Novgorod the Great, existed as early as 859 according to the First Chronicle of Novgorod’s St. Sophia Church. This was about three years before Rurik established his earlier stronghold on Lake Ladoga. Of course, much of the original wooden buildings were long ago replaced by much newer stone structures, the earliest of which, St. Sophia’s Cathedral, was constructed in the 11th century. Still, what this earliest period in the city’s history might have been like could be sensed from the collection of wooden structures on display at the Museum of Wooden Architecture, outside of the city on Lake Ilmen.
In the city itself, many of the sights are centered on the ancient Kremlin of Novgorod, called the “Detinets.” Apparently named for Prince Vladimir, the “child” (“deti”) of Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, the fortress was built to protect his newly constructed St. Sophia Cathedral. For much of its history, the fortress served as an ecclesiastical center. A monument built in Tsarist times commemorating the millenium of Russia in 1862 still stands near the cathedral within its walls.
Near the Detinets is the historical central business district of Novgorod, centered on the ancient Yaroslavovo Dvorishche, or the Court of Yaroslav’s Palace. What was once the palace of Yaroslav the Wise no longer stands. Its actual site is something of a mystery, though parts of it are said to have been used in the construction of the nearby marketplace. However, the court has always remained an important part of Novgorod history, even during the 12th through 15th century when it was a powerful republic. (This was a period when its citizens referred to the city itself as “Lord Novgorod the Great” in defiance of nearby monarchs). As the easternmost member of the Hanseatic League, the city built its fortunes on fur traders, and its past wealth can still be seen in the many nearby churches.
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The city’s republic period was arguably its Golden Age. The rise of this so-called “feudal republic” began when its people rejected the return of the militarily indecisive ruler Prince Vsevolod, who eventually died in exile at Pskov. The republic ended only when Tsar Ivan III the Great marched into the centuries free city and massacred its inhabitants in 1478. He also destroyed the library and archives, but many birchbark letters still remain from this period. That so many written relics survived suggested a relatively high level of literacy in the city. This tradition was passed down in art, where today tourists can buy souvenir paintings painted on birchbark.
Through it all, though, the northern traditions in this region remained strong. Burial mounds mark the traditional interment sites of great leaders, among the largest of which is the Shum Gora, or “Noise Hill,” said to be the burial mound of Rurik himself. The unique name of this 16.5 meter (or 55 foot) tall earthen hillock refers to the sound of bells that pilgrims were said that they could hear if they climbed it on Pentecost Sunday, an act that was said to be a sure-fire cure for migraines. Located in Batetsky Raion, the site will soon host a new outdoor museum commemorating the common past that Novgorod shares with Nordic cultures. Its opening date has not yet been announced, but work on the new cultural site is definitely under way.
With any luck, as part of the cultural offerings, there will be a place to enjoy Novgorod mead, the fermented honey drink for which the Russian city is renowned.