“Lord” Novgorod-the-Great: King of the Castles
Text Neil McGowan
For Russians, “Novgorod” means Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fourth-largest city, situated on the Volga. But most foreigners will have the other, far older Novgorod in mind — Veliky Novgorod, “Novgorod-the-Great” — the medieval stronghold that was capital to Russia’s fi rst ruler, Rurik.
The shared name is no coincidence. Nizhny — or “Lower” — Novgorod was originally Novgorod-the-Great’s satellite city to the east, located on the Volga and handy to the fur trade with the khans of Siberia. But our interest lies in Novgorod-the-Great, the most ancient Russian city still standing today. Situated around ¾ of the way to St. Petersburg by road and with a separate rail line from Moscow running directly there, Novgorod is an ideal weekend-trip destination from the capital for those who’ve already notched-up their St. Petersburg spurs.
Although Novgorod-the-Great is traditionally said to have been founded in 862 A.D., research suggests that by then it was already a well-established trading city on the profi table trade route with Byzantium, and its origins lie earlier still. As a fortified stronghold, it’s known in the ancient Norse sagas written centuries before, but Rurik seems to have built up a splendid “new city” (in Russian, novy gorod) around the bastion known in the sagas as “Holmsgard.”
However, even if you thought Rurik was the guy who invented that multicolored cube-puzzle, you can’t fail to be impressed by the staggering scale of the city’s Kremlin (Russia’s oldest), built and expanded by his successors. Just like its younger cousin in Moscow (a mere stripling dating from the late 15th century), the Novgorod Detinets (aka Kremlin) comprises vast, impregnable walls that housed the city’s medieval administration and cathedral. Built on the Volkhov River to ensure a fresh water supply, keeping the foundations from waterlogging meant allowing a small space of land between the walls and the water’s edge — a space now taken up by the City Beach. Visitors can sightsee then sunbathe within 50 yards of the Kremlin walls.
The Kremlin’s most obvious highlight is the St. Sophia Cathedral, the architectural wonder of its age when built in the 11th century by Prince Vladimir, son of Yaroslav the Wise. Across the square is the extraordinary monument created in cast iron in 1862 to mark the 1000th anniversary of the city’s (alleged) founding in 862. Called “The Millennium of Russia”, it depicts panoply of characters from Russia’s history. Behind it the City Museum has an unusually interesting display reminding visitors that Novgorod had paved streets and sewage systems before medieval Paris.
The fall of Byzantium led many holy monks to seek sanctuary offered by the religious foundations of Novgorod, and these Greek monks brought the techniques and study of ikon painting; Russia’s earliest school of ikons is from Novgorod. Some of the finest can be seen in the City Museum. Before leaving the Kremlin we ought to mention three other attractions: the former Fire-Watchman’s Tower, which affords panoramic views; the small Concert Hall by the main gate, a venue for chamber-music and orchestral concerts; and the Detinets Restaurant, housed in the former guard-chamber within the medieval walls themselves. This atmospheric and formal-style restaurant offers food to a high standard cooked to ancient Russian recipes, with specialities like roast goose and medovukha (mead). Booking is essential in the evenings and a meal here is a highlight few visitors will pass up. Unfortunately the music is a long way from medieval, being mostly Russian estrada favorites.
What kept Novgorod’s trade so enormously profitable was the free-trade guild arrangement — they’d thrown out the Moscow-imposed Prince Vsevolod in 1136 and paid no taxes to anyone. A kind of “Rotary Club” of merchants ran the city to best suit the needs of business. A rigorous guild system kept up standards and kept out interlopers, and each guild (the cordwainers, the candlemakers, the bakers, the jewellers) maintained its own church or monastery. Many remain, located in the old trading area across the river from the Kremlin, and almost all of these are still functioning (though opening times outside of Masses may depend on the churchwardens more than the printed schedule).
While Russia was under Mongolian suzerainty (1240-1480), the Novgorodians made their own tribute deals with the Tartar overlords and quietly prospered — to Moscow’s fury. Once the Mongolians were gone, Moscow immediately made a grab for a slice of the action — the medieval ikons in the City Museum show a sorry tale of Muscovite armies besieging the Detinets. However, rebuilding after Mongol domination kept Moscow busy until the time of Ivan IV, whose anger with the Novgorodians knew no bounds. Ivan sent a vast army to subdue the city in 1570, boiling off enders in oil or frying them alive in giant pans made especially for the task. It was for these bloody excesses that he acquired the sobriquet “Ivan the Terrible.”
Then (as now) the Muscovite talent for obtuse bureaucracy and punitive taxation quickly turned Novgorod from a trading paradise to an economic disaster zone, and the establishment of St. Petersburg in 1703 sent the city — once so rich and powerful that it acquired the noble title “Lord Novgorod-the-Great” — into financial tailspin.
The city’s later history can be seen at the beautiful Vitoslavitsa Open-Air Museum (7 km across the marshland from the city, adjacent to the Yuriev Monastery — an excursion usually combines both), which preserves the wooden village farmhouses and cottages typical of the centuries spent as a forgotten rural backwater. However, Novgorod gets the last laugh — its ugly duckling reputation as an old-fashioned town in decline saved it from remodeling during the imperial glory days and from grim Soviet development. By the time the USSR turned its attention to Novgorod in the 1960s, it was with a newfound pride in the splendor of what had once been Russia’s medieval capital.
What you won’t find is the Novgorod KGB Spy-Training Center, which exists only in the pages of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Conspiracy!
INFO FOR VISITORS
No scheduled flights serve the city’s airfield. Nightly sleeper trains (there is no daytime service) serve Novgorod from Moscow, off ering 1st-class (2-berth) or 2nd-class (4-berth) accommodation and an all-night dining-car. The arrivaltime in both directions is miserably early (around 5:30am), so it can be worth arranging guaranteed early check-in at your hotel.
Novgorod is a small city that can be easily visited on foot, though a car or organized excursion is needed to visit the Yuriev Monastery and Vitoslavitsa (boat excursions go past but do not land). The Kremlin area is the highlight.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Volkhov (Predtechenskaya 24) is an ideally located four-star hotel in the center (behind the Mayoralty and opposite the Kremlin). The four-star Beresta Palace Hotel (Studencheskaya 2a) is the best in town, although it’s located in the newer Soviet area, further from the Kremlin. It boasts a fine restaurant and swimming-pool/sauna complex. Beresta recently took over the management of a good three-star budget choice, the well-located Sadko Hotel (Fedorovsky Ruchei 14). It is entirely refurbished and a 10-minute walk past medieval churches to the Kremlin bridge.
WHERE TO EAT
Outside the Kremlin gates is an attractive park and lawns (called simply Gazon on street maps) fringed with small cafes, souvenir shops, and — for those with children — a Baskin-Robbins outlet (Gazon, #5). There are no other fastfood options in town, however.
The most atmospheric restaurant is Detinets, housed in the Pokrovskaya tower with an entrance from within the Kremlin walls (open noon-11pm daily, booking strongly advised (+7- 816-22) 74624). If you’d prefer modern sophistication, the Holmgard restaurant is probably the nicest in town (same management as Hotel Volkhov), housed in the upstairs of the classical-looking building at the center of Gazon (downstairs there’s a cafeteria for quick bites on the hoof). Charodeika (1/1 Volosova, across the road from the Kremlin bus-park, and one of many places around Gazon) is an elegant bar offering drinks and light meals at affordable prices.