00nov19b.jpg (40786 bytes)

Novgorod--An Old City Forever New (and Re-newed)


Daniel C. Waugh*

University of Washington (Seattle)


[Note:  This article will be appearing in print, possibly with a slightly different selection of photographs and including some footnotes, in the REECAS Newsletter, Autumn 2000.  That version of the text will also be available in PDF format.  Images below on this page are thumbnailed. Click to enlarge.]

Novgorod, the "New Town" or "New Fortress" if one takes the name literally, is in fact one of the oldest, and historically one of the most important and best documented of Russian cities. Its heyday though was prior to the Muscovite conquest in the 1470s, soon to be followed by the closing of the Hanseatic League's regional branch there, and the final blow was its sack by Ivan the Terrible's terrible oprichniki in 1570. Foreign artists in the seventeenth century depicted a sleepy novg6.jpg (15965 bytes)provincial town (left), with ruins but a still impressive kremlin. Later generations imagined in Novgorod's distinctive political history the model of the democratic path for Russia that had been cut off by Muscovite tyranny, and a capitalist entrepreneurial alternative to the heavy-handed mishandling of the economy exemplified by policies beginning with Peter the Great and culminating in Stalin's Five-Year Plans. Surprise, then, when the U.S. Commerce Department's Bisnis Bulletin recently touted Novgorod as "A Great Opportunity." As the Bulletin explains,

Novgorod...previously known mainly for its history and monuments, regularly places in the top ten regions for trade and investment. The reason is not great mineral resources, nor a powerful industrial base--Novgorod has neither--but rather, the no-nonsense, pro-business attitude of its business and political leaders.

Precisely the characteristics that enabled Novgorod's elite to thrive astride some of the most important east-west trade routes in the middle ages. Plus ça change....

As a medievalist, I will not expand here on Novgorod's somewhat belated effort to enter the twentieth century. What I find to be of particular interest is how much new there still is to learn about the city's history, and how much its past is being renewed or reinvoked, in ways that might make critics of historic restoration wince.

Let's start with archaeology, which in Novgorod has produced some of the most striking finds anywhere in the territories that once were medieval Russia. The exquisitely detailed Novgorod chronicles constantly remind the reader of the floods and rains that made life miserable then but left very damp soil--ideal for preserving organic matter. We have boots and hats, spoons and cradles, pieces of boats, pagan idols, drain pipes....and, most strikingly, lots and lots of notes--accounts, personal letters, doodles by a bored child who was learning his alphabet-- inscribed on the medium of choice, cheap birchbark. The discovery of the first of these in Novgorod just after World War II created a sensation. And the excavations go on, producing early this summer yet another sensation--three wax tablets dating apparently from around 1020, inscribed with portions of the Psalms and, under the wax, a text condemning paganism. Here is, quite simply, the earliest confidently datable physical copy of church texts from anywhere in medieval Russia, antedating the Novgorodian Ostromir Gospels by some three decades. The same excavation yielded a birchbark with an image of St. Barbara on one side and Christ on the other--again, according to a news article, likely "the oldest Orthodox image of Saints in Russia ever found." Do these finds change our perceptions of the city's history? Probably not by much, but they are spectacular nonetheless and make us wonder what next will be unearthed.

For those who would wish to learn about Novgorodians' lives, so abundantly documented by the archaeologists, the museum in the kremlin has a rich and well displayed collection. There one can see the dishes, coins, clothing, chessmen, toys, and many examples of the birchbark documents, as well as more modern exhibits proving that the city really did survive the Terrible Ivan. The second floor of the museum displays another of the city's glories, its rich tradition of icon painting. The museum has a good web site (a bit cursory on its historical exhibits) with information on the city's history and culture as well as a compendium of current news reports. After returning from a trip to Novgorod in late August I learned from this news site that I had unwittingly missed the "Ms. Tourism of the Globe" competition. Participants in national costume (from as far away as Bolivia, Malta, Turkey and even the U.S.) were "to play a role of an air-hostess and to invite to come to their country, to seduce the spectators like the mermaid Ilmena from a Russian legend seduced the merchant Sadko..." And to think, there I was in Novgorod missing this revival of a surely venerable local tradition, which happened to coincide with the very important church feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, celebrated with due solemnity in the 11th-century Cathedral of Sancta Sophia.

As with its manuscripts and birch bark documents, Novgorod was particularly fortunate in the preservation of its art down to modern times. The city was never sacked by the Mongols. While like all early Russian cities it suffered continally from fire, the numerous small masonry churches preserved a lot of the icons, and some had surprisingly complete sets of frescoes on the walls. What the Mongols did not do, the Nazis did all too thoroughly in World War II (this is known as "modern progress"), and many of those churches were destroyed. A vivid reminder of this destruction was an exhibit this summer of what little is left from one of those sets of frescoes in the Church of the Savior at Kovalevo--painstakingly reconstructed from hundreds of thousands of fragments.

anton2.jpg (54807 bytes)One would think that by now the interiors of the Novgorodian churches which did survive the war would have been thoroughly studied Yet the work continues, with surprising results. The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Mother of God, in the St. Antony Monastery, was built in the early 12th century. Only two decades ago was its architectural history properly unraveled, with important implications for our understanding of the development of Russian church architecture in other regions as well. The process of studying the church's iconography continues, contributing to new conclusions about the display of religious imagery prior to the emergence of the now familiar icon screen in the Orthodox Church. Only a few of the originalanton21.jpg (39092 bytes) paintings on the walls of the Church of the Nativity survive. While the "formal" ones in the main part of the church reflect iconographic canons, there are also some interesting sketches in the tower stairwell. One depicts what some believe is the architect, offering the church to the Virgin Mary for her protection. The preservationists were at work in the stairwell again this summer and had just uncovered a striking image of a lion, common enough to carvings in some of the medieval Russian churches, but rare indeed in a wall painting, especially in Novgorod.

Preservation, however, raises interesting issues, for everywhere one turns in Novgorod there is the seemingly old which in fact may well be quite new. An outdoor museum displaying striking wooden architecture painstakingly transported from various locations "recreates" a village that never was--even though every effort has been made to preserve original timbers and reconstruct the interiors for authenticity, down to the sheaves of grain placed under the icons to ensure fertility, and sprigs of wild herbs in the rafters to ward off evil spirits. This is Novgorod's version of Colonial Williamsburg  or Old Sturbridge Village, although maybe in the American analogues the preservationists are already farther along the road to abandoning ideas of modern cleanliness, order, and prosperity for a bit of the disorder and economic and social inequality which were the reality of the "early modern" world. [Click here to locate an article on Williamsburg by Katherine Ashenburg--accessible through libraries that support the National Newspaper Database.]  Providing one is alert to the possible sanitizing of the old by modern restorers, the wooden architecture museum is an excellent place to learn about aspects of provincial Russian culture which often escape normal surveys of Russian history.

Re-locating and "fixing up" buildings is one thing, but does it make sense to rebuild from the ground up a twelfth-century church destroyed by the Nazis, now that its frescoes are beyond recovery? Yet that has been happening Novgorod too. Even more problematic are the cases where what one now sees is neither new nor entirely old, but the visitor may be left to believe that all is ancient. A fine example is the Church of St. Nicholas, built in the prince's courtyard about the same time as the Church of the Nativity, yet over the years having lost its original cupolas and roof. In 1968, it had a single cupola and a hip roof. Now four more domes have 00novg52.jpg (47878 bytes)been added, and the presumably original curving roof line restored. The building is all the more striking when viewed from its north side, where the neo-classical additions of the nineteenth century have been left in place and now seem even more incongruous as the exterior of the main part of the church has been "restored" to its presumed appearance in a more distant past. In fact, at no point in its previous history did the church have its current appearance--you see today a building that truly never was.  [For more on Novgorod restorations, click here.]

00novg18.jpg (61740 bytes)Possibly juxtapositions of new and old are less jarring in a consciously designed monument such as World War II memorial erected in the 1970s on a hill overlooking the Volkhov River. Its mixed metaphors of ancient and modern warrior heroes include tanks and anti-aircraft guns, a medieval warrior with a sword on a prancing horse crushing a swastika, and, a very interesting juxtaposition of plaques with old Slavic lettering invoking the military ethos of armored knights in the distant past and the armored knights of the Soviet tank corps. Other monuments in the city, such as the Millennium Monument erected in the kremlin in 1862, also raise interesting questions about how later generations invoke and interpret their past.

Do seize the opportunity to visit Novgorod, if not to invest, at least to savor its history, to hear the etherial church singing once again reverberating in the lofty spaces of its great cathedrals, and to learn how its traditions are being re-shaped and invoked as part of its modern identity. Indeed, Novgorod's distant past is being re-discovered and constantly renewed.


*Daniel Waugh has a web site on his area of specialization, "Medieval and Early Modern Russia and Ukraine."
Back to his Novgorod home page for other links connected with this article.

© 2000 Daniel C. Waugh.  Last revised November 2, 2000.