The city of Novgorod has played a central role in the emergence of the Russian state since its founding in 862, as per the Primary Chronicle. That was the approximate date of the appearance of the first settlement at Rurikovo Gorodishche, around 2 km south of the present day city: “And so Rurik acquired sole power and came to Lake Ilmen, and founded a city on the River Volkhov, and named it Novgorod, and ruled from thence, and distributed volosts to his retainers and founded cities.” It was the capital of the ancient Russian state until 882, when Rurik’s son Oleg conquered Kiev and named it the mother of Russian cities.
As you might have guessed, despite being one of the oldest Russian cities, its name literally means “New City”. I suppose everything was new at some point.
Novgorod acquired independence from Kiev around 1020, and threw off princely rule in favor of a republic in 1136. Its subsequent form of government that has been described as proto-democratic (liberal historiography) and/or oligarchic (Marxist historiography). Yet despite its “cosmopolitan” status as a highly literate trading hub with strong links to the Hanseatic League, it was also an undoubtedly Russian city, with patriotic and even proto-nationalistic sentiments. The Russkaya Pravda law code famously prescribed much leaner penalties for murdering foreigners than Russians. When the Mongols invaded Russia in 1237-40, it was Novgorod that coughed up the cash to pay off the tribute imposed by the Horde for the sake of “the whole of the Russian land.”
The “interesting” part of Novgorod’s history comes with the end of its independence in the late 15th century, and the end of any lingering autonomies after the massacre visited upon it by Ivan IV (“The Terrible”) in 1570. Henceforth, it would be just another rural, backwater province of the Russian Empire.
Today, apart from its cultural legacy, the city is an unremarkable provincial city of the Russian Federation; my impression was that it was actually rather run down. Many of the less prominent churches are crumbling and abandoned. The roads become rather bad less than 1 km from the center. That said, it’s far from a disaster zone. Since the end of the USSR, the population has only fallen from 235,000 to 222,000 – rather modest numbers for a city that isn’t that far from the gravitational well of Saint-Petersburg. Major employers whose products are widely available include the Novgorod Metallurgical Plant and the Alkon vodka distillery.
If you come to Novgorod, I would recommend the following program:
- Explore the city, including the Kremlin and the historic buildings across the river. Dependent on how much you like old churches, that will take half a day to a full day.
- You can visit active excavation sites, which are within walking distance of the Kremlin. They don’t mind tourists walking about the pits.
- Vitoslavlitsy Museum of Wooden Architecture. Can visit it via bus tour. Half a day.
- Rurikovo Gorodishche, the oldest/original settlement. Also half a day. I recommend taking the boat trip there.
So to get the full flavor of the city you should really provision for three days, though you can cut it down to two by being less assiduous about the churches and skipping Vitoslavlitsy and/or Rurikovo Gorodishche.
If you stay for more than three days, you can spend the fourth day by visiting the remaining museums (e.g. the Hall of Military Glory on WW2), the more obscure churches, or signing up for an excursion to some other museums and crafts workshops (a good place to start for learning about bus schedules, etc. is at the tourist information center in the Kremlin Park). Alternatively, if you are staying for five days to a week, you can take a day-long bus excursion to Staraya Russa (the second city of the Novgorod Republic) or to the Valdai (a small, scenic town that famously hosts the Valdai Discussion Club).
While I didn’t spend much energy investigating, my impression is that there is no real nightlife as such, and the few establishments which cater to that crowd seemed to be dubious places. Ordinary young people were drinking cheap beer and cavorting outside at night over the weekends.
I should point out that there is almost zero point in visiting Novgorod if you are not interested in its medieval history. Absent its remarkable cultural legacy, it is just another unremarkable and not particularly thriving middling Russian city. Unless you are visiting for Zavod BAR. That’s worth a visit just by itself if time and money are of no object. This might just be the best restaurant I have been to in Russia to date.
Regarding tourist mementos, I would recommend the local birch bark products (e.g. paintings, salt holders) and/or the metalwork plaques of the Novgorod Metallurgical Factory.
My final cultural observation is that there were a stunning amount of Chinese tourists, at least around the most prominent landmarks. I estimate they made up to a fifth all of the tourists there.
Train tickets are still very cheap in Russia – $30 for a platskart (common sleeping area) and $50 for a four person cabin on an overnight journey from Moscow. It doesn’t lie on the Moscow-SPB route, so there are no fast Sapsan trains.
The main boulevard from the train station to the center is in the imposing, gravitas-laden Soviet style.
It is dominated by the “City of Military Glory” obelisk, surrounded by four steles featuring heroic scenes from the Battle on the Ice, the Time of Troubles, and the Great Patriotic War.
This is the central administrative building for a city of 222,000 inhabitants. I have remarked in the past on how commies from Volokolamsk to Ploesti have this habit of plonking down imposing architectural monstrosities that are wildly out the sync with the local area’s actual demographics.
The central square right before the Kremlin gates is massive and contains the obligatory massive Lenin statue.
On our last day there, it hosted a military/historical recreation event.
Aiming a Dragunov at Lenin’s head in hopes of getting “decommunization” achievement.
Entrance to the Novgorod Kremlin, which contains the Cathedral of St. Sophia (oldest church in Russia), the Novgorod State Museum, and the Sophia Belfry.
This road passes through the Kremlin to a bridge over the Volkhov River, and then on to the great bulk of Novgorod’s historical ecclesiastical architecture.
Occupying pride of place within the Kremlin, the Monument to the Russian Millennium was constructed in 1862 to mark the thousand year anniversary of the genesis of the Russian state.
This is a remarkable work of art; a thousand years of events and dozens of historical figures condensed down to 100 tons of bronze. The Germans dismantled it during the occupation, but were unable to cart it away to Germany in time.
Very powerful balcony.
Views from the Sophia Belfry and the Kremlin walls along the River Volkhov:
We will now exit the Kremlin and cross the bridge to the eastern part of Novgorod, but we will return here in due course.
Central Streets, River, & Churches
There is a Great Patriotic War memorial immediately before the bridge and at the south end of the Kremlin.
Monument to the Tourist.
The Saint Nicholas Cathedral was founded in 1113, and is the second oldest surviving building in central Novgorod after the Cathedral of St. Sophia in the Kremlin.
The Church of St. Paraskevi was built in 1207 by Novgorod merchants. The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in the Marketplace is to the left, and was founded in 1135.
Ilyin Street leading to…
It has original frescoes done by Theophanes the Greek in the 1370s, most notably the Christ Pantocrator in the dome [top]. This Byzantine expat was the teacher and mentor of Andrey Rublev, the greatest Russian icon painter.
The Znamensky Cathedral was constructed in 1687 to contain the icon of Our Lady of the Sign.
Returning back to the Kremlin.
Top photo shows a lesson on playing the gusli, a traditional medieval Russian musical instrument.
The historic merchant stalls of Yaroslavl’s Court. Wouldn’t it make more historical sense for the peddlers along the streets to set up shop here instead?
Cathedral of St. Sophia
Constructed between 1045-1050, the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Novgorod is the second oldest surviving Russian church in the world, after its eponymous sister in Kiev (it replaced a wooden church constructed around 989).
The Cathedral was the spiritual lynchpin of the Novgorod Republic, serving as a center of book production from the 11th century and as a burial place for the city’s most eminent political and religious leaders.
Services are regularly held here, and I managed to attend one of them. All demographics were adequately represented, though as usual, attendance was tilted towards older people, women, and families.
The Sophia Belfry
The Sophia Belfry adjoins the Kremlin walls and has a small museum dedicated to Novgorod’s bells.
Predictably, our Red friends were at it again, doing what they love best:
- “The greatest damage to the legacy of our bells occurred in the 1930s, when the Communist Party decided to scrap all the bells and sell them abroad, with the exception of those of foreign manufacture. In the Novgorod okrug, some 500 tons worth of bells were destroyed. The Novgorod Museum managed to save only a limited number of medieval bells in the Sofia Belfry, and the campaniles of the Znamensky and Nikolsky cathedrals and the Khuten, Dukhov, and Kolmova monasteries.”
The Novgorod State Museum
If you are in Novgorod for the medieval history, then you will need to visit the Novgorod State Museum located within the Kremlin.
It is most notable for having the world’s largest collection of birch bark documents.
This is likely a ballot paper.
(The Novgorod Republic was an oligarchic proto-democracy ruled by a popular assembly known as the veche).
Here are the famous scribblings of Onfim, the 13th century schoolboy from Novgorod who dreamed of becoming a knight (like his father?).
It is likely that literacy was widespread at least amongst male craftsmen, which suggests a minimal literacy level of 10%. However, it may have been substantially wider, as there are plenty of birchbark documents written by women and peasants.
There are currently 1,180 birch bark manuscripts in the largest online database on this subject (gramoty.ru). The overwhelming majority of them – some 1,077 – accrue to Veliky Novgorod itself, while another 48 were found at Staraya Russa (the second city of the Novgorod Republic after Pskov gained independence). Within Novgorod, the most productive excavation site is the Troitsky dig, which we will visit in due course.
Why such a preponderance in Novgorod? Probably it is function of three things:
- It was banally the second largest city in medieval Russia, with a population of at least 50,000 people during the early 13th century, which made it second to Kiev (~80,000).
- Literacy rates were high for a medieval society (see above).
- The region’s clay soil is perfectly suited for preserving wooden artifacts.
The very oldest birch bark manuscripts date to the 1025-1050 period. The most amusing of these is a letter written by a guy called Zhirovit to another guy called Stoyan demanding the repayment of a nine year old debt of 4.5 grivnas. Otherwise, he threatened to sue Stoyan and to seek confiscation of his property. According to linguistic clues, Zhirovit is very likely a non-Novgorodian, perhaps from Smolensk, Vitebsk, or Polotsk.
Another early 13th century text is the oldest known document in any Finnic language (it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet).
Despite the unparalleled quality of the collection, it is unfortunately somewhat of a sovok fossil. The descriptions on the narrative placards recount Novgorod’s history almost exclusively in terms of class struggle. It’s as if they haven’t been replaced since the 1980s – and considering that many historical monuments in Novgorod look like they could do with some repair or restoration, I would guess that that is entirely possible.
Here are a few quotes from them to show what I mean:
- “Medieval Russia had written laws which safeguarded the interests of the feudal elites.”
- “The development of feudal property relations in the medieval Russian state resulted in sharp class conflict… large protests of the popular masses were chronicled in Suzdal, Kiev, Beloozero, and Novgorod in the 11th century.”
- “The pirate [ushkuinik] expeditions diverted the Novgorod lower classes from protests against their boyars.”
- “Huge land holdings of Novgorod were in the hands of the feudal ruling classes – the boyars and the priesthood… The main forms of exploitation of the dependent peasantry was the barschina and the obrok. The exploitation of the peasant masses lay at the heart of the power and might of the Novgorod boyars and the Church.”
- “One form of class struggle in Novgorod consisted of heresies against the wealth and political position of the Church.”
Amusingly, even Novgorod’s contribution towards the defense of the Russian lands is framed in proto-socialist patriotic terms:
- “In the hard years of the Tatar-Mongol invasion, Novgorod had to deflect the attack of German and Swedish feudal lords. In 1240, the Novgorodians under Alexander Nevsky dealt a heavy blow to the Swedish conquerors, ejecting them from the Russian lands. On April 5, 1242, there was the famous Battle of the Ice, in which the Novgorodians emerged victorious over the German dog-knights. This victory on Lake Peipus halted the predatory advance of the German knights on the East.
The term “dog-knight” (“псы-рыцари”) is literally borrowed from Marx’s description of the Teutonic Order.
Now to be fair, this is not 100% wrong. There are endless ways of interpreting history, and many of them – historical materialism included – do have some degree of utility. In the loose sense of the world, there has been “class struggle” of some kind of another ever since the emergence of complex societies. But going by the museum’s descriptions, one almost gets the impression that there was nothing else of interest about Novgorod politics and society. Beyond that, there is also a lack of comparative context. For instance, concentrated land ownership has been the default in all agricultural societies, especially during the peak of their “Malthusian cycles” – this has been observed in practically all such societies from Valois France to Qing China. And yet normal, non-sovok medieval history museums don’t make “class conflict” the lynchpin of their history presentations.
The most amusing thing, though, is that one of the Museum’s own placards refutes the Marxist interpretation of Novgorod’s social and political history that it so brusquely propounds.
- “The history of Novgorod is characterized by sharp conflict. The exploitation of the laboring Novgorod population by the ruling class produced continuous protest, which sometimes boiled over into open revolt… Large revolts were chronicles in 1207, 1230, 1327, and 1359… 1418. One of the more defining characteristics of urban protest movements in Novgorod was the complex interweaving between boyar political struggles and the class conflict. Each district of Novgorod has its own boyar factions, which competed against each other. Consequently, none of these revolts were directed against boyar power in Novgorod as such, but only against one or another representative of this boyar power. As a rule, these revolts were headed by boyars, who diverted the wrath of the masses against their boyar political opponents. This connection between the boyar political struggle and the class struggle divided the Novgorod lower classes and ruled out the possibility of a triumphant revolt.”
So it turns out that the “sharp class conflict” the Museum’s placards keep railing about was just boyars playing at rent-a-mob against each other.
I will also note that, as might be expected of a sovok museum, English translations are few and far between. Though considering the ideologized presentation that might be just as well.
After the end of the republic, the collection becomes more “boring”, dominated by illuminated books, ceremonial gates, and icons, icons, and more icons.
The last section of the Museum concerns the Great Patriotic War, when the Germans occupied the city for almost two and a half years.
This 15th century Gothic building served as a meeting place for Novgorod aristocrats and judges until 1478, when Ivan III incorporated it into Russia. The ukaz proclaiming this was read out here.
It became a museum devoted to Novgorod’s treasures – mostly jewelry and precious metalwork, as well as more birch bark documents – in the Soviet period.
I will note that this is a much more “professional”/objective museum than the Novgorod State Museum.
The Troitsky Dig
There are continuing excavations in the center of Novgorod – this place is just a couple of blocks away from the southern Kremlin walls. Birch bark manuscripts continue to be found near every year, and added to the State Museum’s collection.
Those years during which no manuscripts are found are nicknamed “illiterate years” (since the term for a manuscript is “gramota”, and for literacy it is “gramotnost”).
Museum of Musical Instruments
This museum is probably my favorite museum in Novgorod. Located on an obscure street in the center, it is the definition of a hidden gem.
It was founded by Vladimir Povetkin, who started his work reconstructing medieval Russian musical instruments in 1975 and opened the museum in 1990.
Although the founder died in 2010, the museum retains a core of enthusiastic staff, who continue to recreate instruments and conduct research into medieval musical culture. It sometimes holds lessons, and study groups from other parts of Russia and abroad.
Although we only stumbled upon this museum close to closing time, the director was kind enough to give us a half hour personal presentation/demonstration of their collection. Pictured is me trying to play the gusli.
The gusli is strongly associated with Novgorod thanks to the bylina of Sadko:
Sadko played the gusli on the shores of a lake. The Sea Tsar enjoyed his music, and offered to help him. Sadko was instructed to make a bet with the local merchants about catching a certain fish in the lake; when he caught it (as provided by the Tsar), the merchants had to pay the wager, making Sadko a rich merchant.
Sadko traded on the seas with his new wealth, but did not pay proper respects to the Tsar as per their agreement. The Tsar stopped Sadko’s ships in the sea. He and his sailors tried to appease the Sea Tsar with gold, to no avail. Sadko’s crew forced him to jump into the sea. There, he played the gusli for the Sea Tsar, who offered him a new bride. On advice, he took a mermaid named Chernava, the last from all of 900 mermaids, and lay down beside her.
He woke up on the shore of the river Chernava and rejoined his wife.
Incidentally, “Sadko” is also the signature brand of Novgorod’s vodka distiller Alkon, whose products are sold all over Novgorod.
Northern Walk to Dostoevsky Drama Theater
The composer Sergey Rachmaninov was born in Novgorod Governorate. The installation plays his music to passersby. Would be cool if more statues did that.
Avant-garde architecture from the 1920s.
This futuristic “spaceship” – the Dostoevsky Drama Theater – was constructed in the 1980s by a “modern architect”. It turned out to be a white elephant, and is now crumbling for lack of maintenance.
The car park is massive and deserted, apart from some guys who were getting a hot air balloon going.
Vitoslavlitsy Museum of Wooden Architecture
This museum devoted to traditional northern Russian wooden architecture was opened in 1964. Over the following years, archetypical constructions of the Russian North were brought in from across the region.
It is very similar in concept and execution to the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum in Bucharest.
The kitchen and pantry of a typical lower-income peasant household.
As a rule, in northern Russia, peasant houses were much bigger than in the south. The colder winters made it more rational to concentrate activity in one place, and animals were kept indoors over winter. These large, garage-like spaces also contained sleds and farm equipment.
The niche above the hearth was warm, and served as a sleeping place.
Cradles were hung from all sorts of random places.
Many of the houses had spinning machines, which was a common way for peasant households to make cash income from the late 19th century.
St. George’s (Yuriev) Monastery
Founded in 1030, this is the oldest monastery in Russia. The original wooden construction was gradually replaced with stonework from the early 12th century.
This is the Church of St. George, constructed in 1130, about a century after the monastery’s founding. Its constructor “Pyotr” was the first named Russian architect.
As with most religious institutions, the monastery’s valuables were expropriated after the Revolution, and it was entirely closed down by 1929. It was returned to the ROC in 1991.
View from the monastery in the direction of the River Volkhov. One can just make out the church at Rurikovo Gorodishche from here.
Boat Cruise to Rurikovo Gorodishche & Lake Ilmen
Rurikovo Gorodishche was the original 9th century settlement of Veliky Novgorod, located at the approach to present day city from the direction of Lake Ilmen. Its strategic position on the trade route “from the Varyags to the Greeks” made it a desirable location as the center of political and military administration over the region. The settlement at the present day site of Veliky Novgorod only appeared about a century later in 950.
In later centuries, during Novgorod’s republican period from 1136 to 1478, it would serve as the primary residence of the princes of Novgorod. This includes Alexander Nevsky, who spent his childhood here.
The Church of the Annunciation was built by Prince Mstislav in 1103. While the Cathedral of St. Sophia was for the city, this church was to be for the Prince and his court.
Most of the present construction dates from 1343-44. It was closed down by the Bolsheviks in 1930, and mostly destroyed by German artillery bombardment in 1941. Restoration was ongoing when we were there, and was only opened again to the public in April 2019.
This 37 ton rock was erected in 2012 to mark the 1150th anniversary of Russian statehood.
Rurikovo Gorodishche from the direction of Lake Ilmen.
The Perensky Skit was used as a depot for storing Bolshevik loot from the region’s churches during the Civil War.
The boat turned back at Lake Ilmen.
These are the foundations of a railway bridge that was under construction in the late Russian Empire, and was never finished.
Back to the Kremlin.
This is the northern river bridge in Novgorod.
These are a couple of typical streets closer to the center of Novgorod.
Our Airbnb was located in this area close to the railway station.
The area in this and the following photos is about 1 km south of the Kremlin and the Troitsky Dig.
The people living here seem to be rather well off, but the communal amenities seem to be decidedly lacking (just look at the roads). This is distinct from Bryansk, where analogous areas had perfectly good roads.
That said, I do not want to portray Novgorod as a derelict post-Soviet wreck – as in Bryansk, there are incipient signs of SWPL culture, such as English pubs…
… mini cars…
… and even an Indian vegetarian cafe with a 180 ruble lunch (we did not manage to visit it).
This is the northwestern part of the city, about 1-2 km from the Kremlin when taking a circuitous route back to the railway station.
“Pass an HIV test.”
As one can see, this is more of a dreary “dormitory suburb” that could do with a major facelift.
The wine chain “Red & White” (Красное и Белое) hiring positions hints at economic conditions in what is a rather average Russian provincial city as of 2018:
- 24,000R+ (~$400) for entry level cashier.
- 29,000R+ (~$500) for entry level cashier/hauler.
- 42,000R+ (~$700) for administrator.
It’s worth noting that the Novgorod region is slightly poorer than the Russian average. The average salary as of May 2019 was 32,000 rubles (~$500), versus an average of 48,000 rubles ($750) and a regional median of 36,000 ($550) rubles for the Russian Federation.
As a SWPL-fying town with some limited inflow from the Saint-Petersburg tourist circuit (if a none too prosperous one or well-run one) the restaurant scene hits a very good price/quality ratio.
The ZAVOD-Bar (website) is the company restaurant of the Alkon vodka distillery, which is based in Novgorod and is one of Russia’s biggest vodka distillers.
It was so good that we ended up going there our last two evenings in a row. I do not exaggerate when I say that it was my favorite Russian restaurant to date, with its only competitor being the Cafe Pushkin in Moscow.
How did they manage it?
First, they hired Russian restaurateur Maxim Syrnikov to compile their menu. Along with Vlad Piskunov, he is one of the leaders of a movement of “recreationist” chefs who are researching and restoring the traditional Russian cuisine that was smothered over by Soviet industrial food production, proletarian tastes, and Georgia worship that dominated the past century. (Incidentally, both happen to be friends with our Kholmogorov).
As a result of having an expert compile the menu is that any dish you select at random is a tried and tested culinary masterpiece that cannot go wrong.
Second, they expertly combined their vodka and liqueur products with apperatifs in a series of degustations. Even I, who otherwise hates vodka, greatly enjoyed that.
They also have a shop attached where they sell various Alkon products, from their signature “Sadko” vodka to specialty vodkas and liqueurs that are difficult to find elsewhere in Russia (I particularly liked Древнерусский Бальзам).
This is the Cafe Chocolat. We noticed that Alkon’s alcohol products are present throughout Novgorod shops and cafes, as might be expected of one of the city’s main enterprises.
Another notable restaurant apart from ZAVOD-Bar is the Dom Berga (Berg’s House), which once belonged to a 19th century merchant. It has interior decoration to match.
While mostly serving traditional Russian fare, it is perhaps most notable for having bear meat on the menu.
The Sudarushka is a normal restaurant serving traditional Russian fare at reasonable prices.
You can also get good pies, scones, and other baked products at the Kolobok.