Novgorod's Monuments and Historical Memory

Novgorod's Monuments
and Historical Memory

Copyright 2000 Daniel C. Waugh

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The Bronze Horseman

Most people invoke memories of their past as a way of stating their ideals, justifying the present, or perhaps drawing attention away from unpleasant realities. All too often, historical realities are irrelevant - the past is imagined in ways that it never knew. Such imagined histories may take many forms, among them museum displays, public ceremonies and public monuments. Examples from recent years in the United States show how controversial such invocations of the past can be, witness the disputes over the 1492 exhibit at the National Gallery, the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian and the architecture of the various war memorials in Washington, D. C. On the whole though, it is probably safe to venture that public statuary in the United States has a less prominent place in popular memory than it does in Russia. Imagine St. Petersburg, and immediately one thinks of the famous "Bronze Horseman" - the statue erected to commemorate Peter the Great by Catherine the Great in her effort to identify herself with the Petrine legacy. Peter is depicted as a heroic figure, pointing to the future and whose horse is trampling the serpent of ignorance. Emblematic of the city, the statue was invoked both in Pushkin's famous poem "Mednyi vsadnik" and in Belyi's modernist take on Petersburg in his novel of the same name.

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In the eyes of many, Novgorod itself is invoked as an example of a political or economic alternative to the patterns in which Russia developed under the Tsars and Soviets. The political liberties embodied in the popular assembly, the veche, are presumed to have survived right down to the final conquest of Novgorod by Moscow Grand Prince Ivan III in 1478, even though in fact long before real control of city government had passed into the hands of a wealthy oligarchy. A sixteenth-century miniaturist shows the veche bell being taken away to Moscow. At the time of the Moscow assault, in Novgorod itself the past was being invoked. Icon painters depicted the assault on the city back in 1169 by the troops of Suzdal prince Andrei Bogoliubskii. The assault failed, thanks to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, whose Icon of the Sign was placed on the walls to protect the city. The icon came to be the most venerated one in Novgorod and an important representation of the idea that the city enjoyed Divine protection. Novgorod's commercial acumen and its foreign trade connections - both very real - did not survive the Muscovite conquest by much, and the same Ivan III closed the offices of the Hanseatic League in Novgorod in 1494. So, according to the mythology, the opportunity for Russia to have developed along a democratic path on the road to modern capitalism was lost. Instead the country has endured authoritarian rule and state mismanagement of the economy. Among those who most idealized Novgorod were the military officers involved in the Decembrist revolt in 1825, since their goal was to establish in Russia a constitutional regime that would ensure political freedoms. A modern argument juxtaposing the good Novgorod against the bad Moscow can be found in the article by the American historian Thomas Owen.

Novgorod's public monuments are perhaps less well known than those of St. Petersburg. The four examples that follow - The Millennium Monument, the statue commemorating Alexandr Nevskii, the World War II memorial, and a memorial to a little-known holy woman Mariia Mikhailovna - provide some material for an exploration of their many meanings.

The Millenium Monument The Millennium Monument. Unveiled on September 8, 1862, the monument to the first Millennium of Russian History was the work of a team of sculptors, headed by Mikhail Osipovich Mikeshin. This grandiose and complex sculpture displays129 figures, whose selection was personally approved by Emperor Alexander II. The most important message of the monument is embodied at its apex, where an angel blesses a kneeling woman who symbolizes Russia. Around the imperial orb are depicted six scenes central to Russian history: the founding of the state with the coming of the first prince Riurik in 862 (the date is on his shield), the adoption of Christianity by Prince/Saint Vladimir in 988, the victory over the Tatars by Moscow Prince Dmitrii Donskoi in 1380, the unification of the Russian lands under Grand Prince Ivan III at the end of the fifteenth century, the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty with Michael Romanov being defended by Minin and Pozharskii in 1613, and Peter the Great's westernizing transformation of Russia at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The victors trample on those they defeat - Vladimir stands on pagan idols, Dmitrii Donskoi on a defeated Tatar, and Peter lords over a defeated Swede. Details of several of these scenes are below.

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St. Vladimir, Riurik,
Dmitrii Donskoi
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St. Vladimir
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Dmitrii Donskoi
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Michael Romanov

The base of the monument has a frieze depicting famous individuals connected somehow with Russian history and culture and grouped thematically: enlighteners, writers and artists, military heroes, etc. The earliest are the apostles to the Slavs, SS. Cyril and Methodius, the chronicler Nestor (11th century) is in the company of St. Sergius of Radonezh (14th century), Maksim the Greek (16th century) joins Patriarch Nikon (17th) and Feofan Prokopovych (early 18th) (all but the last are in the lower left image below). While the inclusion of Catherine the Great, surrounded by her favorites, is no surprise, the only other woman depicted is Marfa Boretskaia (looking rather disconsolate and submissive), who led the final stages of Novgorod opposition to Moscow. The prominent names in Russian culture in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century are there: Lomonosov, Karamzin, Krylov, and finally Pushkin, Gogol' and Glinka (this group begins on the left in the lower right image below).. Apparently some of the transgressions that brought the writers of the Golden Age afoul of Nicholas I's censors were conveniently forgotten.

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Alexandr Nevskii
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Aleksandr Nevskii. One of the heroes of Russian history, as anyone who has seen Sergei Eisenstein's film will know, was Prince Aleksandr Nevskii. The son and eventual successor to Grand Prince Iaroslav of Vladimir, he followed a typical career pattern in first being assigned the principality of Novgorod - for all their vaunted independence, the Novgorodians were very much dependent on the powerful princes to their south who could inderdict trade routes and food supplies. So the tendency was that the eldest son of the prince in Kiev, and later, after Kiev's decline, the prince in Vladimir-Suzdal, would be sent to occupy the Novgorod princely seat. Even though the monuments today (see below) glorify Novgorod's prowess in battle, in fact it was outside military specialists who were needed to lead the often ineffective novgorodian armies. Aleksandr acquired his nickname for defeating the Swedish knights on the river Neva in 1240 (hence, Aleksandr "of the Neva" - see the picture on the left), and two years later he defeated the Teutonic knights on the ice of Lake Peipus near Pskov, ushak6.jpg (85466 bytes)the battle depicted so memorably in Eisenstein's contribution to anti-German polemics in the late 1930s. The Russians have a tendency to canonize their princes, or at least venerate them as saintly. As the father of Daniil, the first prince of Moscow, Nevskii was one of the few to be formally canonized. The shroud on the left depicts him as a monastic saint. In the 1660s an icon (on the left, with detail on right) painted by Simeon Ushakov showing the holy connections of the Muscovite state depicts Aleksandr Nevskii as the first in the right branch of the tree growing out of the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin.

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In 1985, a statue to commemorate Aleksandr Nevskii, but presumably not in his saintly guise, was created by sculptor I. Chernov and architect G. Isakovich and erected in front of the Church of SS. Boris and Gleb near the embankment of the Volkhov River. Although perhaps such thoughts were not in the minds of the sponsors, it is interesting to have one saintly prince juxtaposed against a church dedicated to the first two Russian saints, also princes. Further, one might ponder the image of a man associated in popular mind with the defense of Novgorod against outside invasion, who probably also helped the Mongols suppress Russian uprisings (a conveniently-forgotten fact), displayed against a church that in some ways is emblematic of the Muscovite conquest of the city. For, once that conquest had occurred, the distinctive Novgorodian architectural style began to be replaced with buildings erected according to Muscovite norms; the given church is a good illustration of this with its five cupolas, and pointed (ogee) arches of equal height along the roofline. It retains, however, the single large apse, typical of the Novgorodian churches. The comparison below is with a small church not from the Church of SS. Boris and Gleb, the Church of St. John the Baptist on Vitka, built in 1383-1384 while Novgorod was still in its Golden Age.

Perhaps, of course, if we want to read into the Nevskii statue a message for the time when it was erected on the eve of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that message is emphasizing subordination to the Moscow of the heirs of Aleksandr Nevskii.

The World War II Monument

The World War II Monument. Just south of the Novgorod Kremlin today on a hill overlooking the Volkhov is an imposing memorial to the brave soldiers who fought along the Novgorod front against the Nazis. Designed by architect A. Dushkin and sculptors G. Neroda and A. Filippova, it is a good example of Socialist Realism in decline, which makes an intriguing effort to juxtapose appropriate images from early Russian military history with those from modern times. Hence the plaza has a tank and anti-aircraft guns, while the leaping warrior on his horse is trampling beneath its feet a swastika (which also conveniently serves to hold up the horse) - echoes of St. Vladimir trampling pagan idols or Dmitrii Donskoi with his foot on a Tatar. The top of the monument has a viking ship (or, should we not assume a ship full of medieval Russian - as opposed to Scandinavian - warriors? It just would not do to have a boatload of Germanic types here). And, most interestingly, the plaques on the side of the monument, both designed in a kind of Old Russian idiom with Slavonic letters, provide parallel invocations of medieval armored warriors and the tank battalions of Soviet armored divisions.

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The Shrine to Mariia Mikhailovna. The monuments most people notice are the public ones associated with political or military heroes or otherwise evoking national glory. The Orthodox Church, of course, had its own heroes in the saints and individuals who may not have been canonized but in popular eyes enjoyed saintly status. Given Orthodox strictures against three-dimensional sculpture, free-standing statues of the holy men and women of the church were rare, except in some places in the Russian north. Icons, of course, were quite another matter; certain images of Biblical figures and the saints acquired the reputation of being wonder-working and were the objects of special veneration. Beginning in the seventeenth century, and then with some intensity in the immediate aftermath of Peter the Great's church reform, the Church made an effort, which ultimately proved to be unsuccessful, to limit the veneration of many local holy individuals and icons. However, Russian popular belief was a force which could not be so curbed, and there is clear evidence that "popular" belief was not confined to the simple masses but also was shared by the elite. A particular category of popularly venerated holy individuals were the iurodivye or "fools in Christ," whose antic behavior and mortification of the flesh gave them a reputation of particular piety. Perhaps the best known of these was Basil the Blessed, after whom in popular parlance the well-known church in Red Square in Moscow came to be known. The upper right of the Ushakov icon shown above includes iurodivye as two of the most venerated of Moscow's saints, one of them being St. Basil. Those familiar with Musorgskii's opera "Boris Godunov" will remember the holy fool who has the temerity to confront Boris about his evil deeds and then laments Russia's fate as the False Dmitrii approaches Moscow.

Iurodivye continued to appear in Russia in the Imperial period; one who acquired some following even in the circles of the elite was Mariia Mikhailovna. Among those who believed in her special powers and visited her was the last Empress of Russia, Aleksandra. Mariia Mikhailovna lived part of her life in the Convent of the Tithe in Novgorod, where she died on 29 January 1918. All that remains of the convent is the bell-tower and one of the outlying buildings. In what was once its courtyard can be seen the ruins of its church, in front of which a simple cross commemorates Mariia Mikhailovna.

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