Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

Novgorod, the Great Merchant Commonwealth

From earliest times Novgorod, or New Town, was the chief city of Northwestern Russia. Its possessions included the regions surrounding the great lakes and extended to the Frozen Ocean, and to the wilds of Siberia. Numberless cities paid tribute to "Lord Novgorod the Great."

A French traveller, who visited Russia early in the fifteenth century, has left us this description of the city:—

Novgorod is a prodigiously large town situated in a beautiful plain amid vast forests. The soil is low, subject to floods, marshy in places. The town is surrounded by poor ramparts made of screens filled with earth; the towers are of stone."

Novgorod was divided into halves by a deep and rapid river flowing from Lake Ilmen to Lake Ladoga. A bridge, famous in the annals of the town, joined the two parts. On the right bank was the Kreml, or Castle, built of hewn stone in the fourteenth century, and containing the palaces of the archbishop and the prince. This side was called Saint Sophia, and it was here that Fiery Fame the Great built his splendid cathedral. In the church are still preserved the ancient frescos• the pillars overlaid with gold and painted with pictures of the saints, stand as they were six hundred years ago. The legend says that Christ appeared to the artist who was charged to paint his image on the dome of Saint Sophia and said:—

"Represent me not with my hand stretched out for blessing. but with my hand closed, because within it I hold Novgorod, and when it is opened it will be the end of the city."

Seal of Novogorod


The Christ of the dome looks down upon the tombs of princes and archbishops, upon the bronze coffin of Venging Fame the Brave, the defender of Novgorod, and upon the banner of the Virgin, which so often revived the fainting courage of the battlers on the walls.

On the left bank of the river was the side of Commerce, with its Court of Fiery Fame, and its quarters named after the Carpenters, the Slav's, and the Germans.

The marshy, sandy soil of Novgorod was more fertile of famines and fevers than of food; its earliest record is that of a pestilence. In order for its one hundred thousand inhabitants to live, new cities had to be constantly founded in the forests of the north and east, its merchants had to trade with the tribes of the Urals, with the Slavs of the Baltic, with the Germans of the Hanse towns, with the oriental bazaars of Constantinople. The Greek annals tell how in the tenth century the Slavs of "Nemogard" descended the Dnieper, passed the rapids and the naval stations at the mouth of the river, and spread over all the shores of the Greek Empire.

A legend of Novgorod tells how their army once besieged Korsun, one of the Grecian cities, "with a grievous siege of seven years' time," and how the bondslaves, doubtful of their masters' return, possessed themselves of the towns, lands, houses, and also of their wives, who had grown weary of their lonely state. At last the army took the Grecian city, and returned in triumph, bringing with them the bronze gates and the great bell. On the way they learned of what had been done in their absence.

"At whiche newes being somewhat amazed and yet disdaining the villanie of their seruants, they made the more speed home: and so not fane from Nouograde met them in warlike manner marching against them. Whereupon aduising what was best to be done, they agreed all to fet upon them with no other shew of weopon but with their Horse whips (which as their manner is euery man rideth withall) to put them in remembrance of their servile condition, thereby to terrifie them and abate their courage.

"And so marching on and lashing together with their whips in their hands they gave the onset, which seemed so terrible in the Eares of these villaines and strooke such a sense into them of the smart of the whip, which they had felt before, that they fled altogether like Sheepe before the Driuers."

The type of the merchant of Novgorod was the rich Sadko, whose adventures have inspire whole volumes of song and tale. We see him at first a poor minstrel, playing his harp by the shores of the lake. The tsar of the blue waves, the old man of the waters, hears him, and is filled with delight at the sweet music, and rises from his cool depths and draws near the shore. At his bidding Sadko makes a wager with the merchant, of the town that he will net a fish with fins of shiny gold. The merchants stake their all that no such fish swims the lake. Sadko casts his net, and lo! There is the fish with the fins of shining gold, which the old man of the sea steers into the net. The merchants pay their fines, and Sadko is the richest man in all the city.

He builds a white marble palace, lighted by a magic sun, moon, and stars, but the spirit of unrest comes upon him. He must go forth to trade. On his voyage a fierce tempest arises. It is the sea tsar, who is angry, and will not be appeased by an offering of silver or an offering of gold. So the sailors cast lots for the sacrifice. Sadko throws into the water a little ring made of the wood of the true cross; the others fling in iron rings. But wonder Of wonders! the iron floats, the wood sinks. Seeing that there is no escape Sadko puts on his fur coat, and taking in one hand the picture of blessed Saint Nicholas and in the other his golden harp, he leaps into the sea, and the tsar of the sea, sitting in his crystal palace with his queen and his three hundred daughters, receives him and puts him to a hundred tests of courage and skill. He passes them all in safety, and suddenly finds himself on the shore near Novgorod with countless treasures, and he cries: "They see that I am a rich merchant of Novgorod but Novgorod is even richer than I."

The fickle, restless inhabitants of the old city had too many opposing interests to be able to govern themselves; at the same time they were too free-minded and powerful to submit to tyranny from their princes. They called the Normans to do justice over them, but when Rurik went beyond his authority the hero, Vadim, headed a revolt against him. When they elected a new prince he was forced to bind himself by an oath to observe their charter which assured them their ancient laws, liberties, and customs. Even his tax-list was limited. He was forbidden to plant colonies or build new cities in any of the five great cantons of Novgorod; he could not hunt in the neighboring forests except during the autumn; the time of reaping his harvests was fixed for him by law; above all, he was obliged to have the help of the posadnik in carrying out the law, and he could not try a suit in any other city.

His actions were sharply watched by the town council, composed of all the citizens, which, at the ringing of the great bell, met in the Court of Fiery Fame, or in the Square of Saint Sophia. If there was a grievance against the prince "Lord Novgorod made him a bow and showed him the road," or else locked him up in the archbishop's palace. "Who can withstand God and the Great Novgorod?" was the popular boast.

Women of Novogorod


One of the grand princes of Kief declared his right to make his son lord of the merchant city, but the men of Novgorod said:—

"We will have nothing to do with thee or thy son; if thy son has a head to spare, let him come."

Another prince, who had abandoned them to rule elsewhere, wished to come back to Novgorod, but the council gave him for answer these words:—

"Thou didst forget thy oath to die with us, and didst eek another throne. Depart from us."

Afterwards they repented and took him back, but to their sorrow. He reigned four years, and then a great council, composed of the men of Novgorod and all the subject towns, accused him of neglecting the poor, of taking pleasure only in dogs and falcons, of wishing to establish himself elsewhere, of cowardly deserting the field of battle, and of having no fixed mind in the quarrels of the princes. He was contemptuously dethroned and exiled.

Some of the citizens traded down the Volga and with the East; others traded down the Dnieper and with Greece. So sometimes there met two rival councils, the one eager to elect a Prince of Suzdal, who could control the eastern water way, the other a Prince of Kief or Chernigof, master of the southern river. Often the rivals met on the bridge, and fast and furious fell the blows until the archbishop came out with his clergy and calmed the tumult. These quarrels often led to the fall of princes and magistrates.

Big Nest of Suzdal, at the request of Novgorod, gave them his son Fiery Fame, who was soon expelled by his unruly subjects. He took an army, came to Torzhok near Novgorod, and blockaded the town. He prevented the merchants from reaching the Volga, cut off the supply of corn, and made famine his ally. The wretched citizens were brought to eat the bark of trees, moss, and lime leaves; more than forty thousand died; the dogs devoured the dead, which lay unburied in the streets.

Venging Fame the Rash heard of Novgorod's plight, and sent word:—

"Torzhok shall not thrust itself above Novgorod; I will deliver your land and your citizens or lose my life."

After he had brought the principality to order, he summoned the council and said:—

"I salute Saint Sophia, the tomb of my father, and you, O men of Novgorod! I am going to reconquer Galitch from the strangers, but I shall never forget you. My hope is to lie by the tomb of my father in Saint Sophia."

The assembly begged him to stay, but he was deaf to their tears and entreaties. The excitement of new adventures had more attraction for the sturdy old hero. Hungarians, Poles, and Tartars alike felt the edge of his sword.

Novgorod invited his nephew from Smolensk to mount the throne, but he could not control the factions of the city. The posadnik arrested a noble. Some of the citizens took the noble's part; others supported the mayor. A general rising took place; for a whole week the alarm bells of the fortress rang incessantly. At last the citizens met with drawn swords on the bridge. The posadnik looked at Saint Sophia and cried:—

"I shall be the first to fall, or else God will prove me right by giving the victory to my brothers." The battle was not long nor fierce; only ten men were killed, and peace was restored.

The Prince charged the posadnik with causing the riot, and sent his herald to demand his removal. "What crime has he done?" asked the council. "No crime," said the herald, "but it is the Prince's will."

"I rejoice," replied the posadnik, "that I am charged with no sort of crime; but you, my brothers, can do your will on princes and on posadniks."

Then the Council sent word to the Prince:—

"Thou didst kiss the cross and swear to remove no man from power without cause, and now we salute thee. The posadnik is ours, and with thee we have nought to do." Thus the Prince was shown the road out of Novgorod and was seen no more. During the next half dozen years the riotous city changed its princes as many times. Famines and fires helped to bring down the pride of miserable citizens, who were glad to sell themselves as slaves for a mouthful of bread.

Big Nest's son, Fiery Fame, came back for the third and fourth time, and ruled them like a tyrant until he became Grand Prince of Suzdal. Then he left them as their prince, his son, Alexander, the Hero of the Neva.

Pskof And Viatka

The most important of the Novgorod's vassal towns was Pskof, whose kreml, with solid ramparts of stone, overlooked the lake and river from which it was named. "These once famous walls are to-day a heap of ruins, and the street-boys amuse themselves by splashing stones into the Pskova to frighten the washer-women."

The Cathedral of the Trinity still stands at one end of the fortress, and there rest in metallic coffins the bones of its favorite princes.

It was near Pskof that Igor, as he returned from hunting, first saw the beautiful Olga, the daughter of a poor Norman, and married her though she was not of princely blood.

Women of Pskof


Pskof had a long struggle with Germans, Swedes, and Lithuanians on the one side and with the father city on the other. Finally Novgorod recognized the vassal as a "younger brother, Lord Pskof the Great." The people were famous for their refined and kindly manners, for the straightforwardness, good faith, and simplicity of their dealings. Their laws and customs were much the same as those of Novgorod. In both towns the social distinctions were strongly marked. The boyars and lower nobility formed an aristocracy above the merchants, the black people, and the peasants. The merchants had a guild of their own and a powerful church. Then there were bands of freebooters, or rather free-boaters, 1 who followed their reckless leaders up and down the great Volga and its tributaries, plundering, seeking wild adventures, and planting colonies in the forests of the North.

It was thus that Viatka was founded in the twelfth century. Two bands of Good Companions from Novgorod, uniting together, advanced into the centre of Russia and came to a pagan city, with a sanctuary crowning a hill and defended by a pale and a ditch. The pious adventurers fasted for several days, then called upon Boris and Glieb, their patron saints, and took the city by storm. Then they built a new city, and colonists, hearing of their victory, flocked to it. To this day this distant land has the peculiarities of Novgorod, the same sort of houses, the same cap, the same dialect. For three hundred years the council bell called its citizens to free discussion.