Novgorod, whose name means "New City," is actually one of the oldest in Russia. Founded by Varangian Norseman as a trading post, its first written mention dates to the 9th century, although it was probably around well before that. This new city is also at once the birthplace of the Russian state, and one of the last cities to have been subdued by that state.
Novgorod the Great, as the city is still known to many of its inhabitants was, for a long time, a fiercely independent bastion of democracy. A city parliament composed of aristocrats, although occasionally incorporating all citizens for crucial decisions, had complete legislative power. This legislative veche hired and fired the princes who led the city’s military force. It is said that Russian history began here in 862 when Novgorod imported the Scandinavian Prince Rurik for the post. Rurik and his progeny would rule Russian lands for the next 750 years.
In the 10th century Novgorod was a powerful enough to launch military campaigns against Constantinople in an effort to settle a trade dispute. In the process, the fiercely independent town also swept up many of the East Slavic tribes and their land. With the adoption of Christianity at the close of the 10th century, Novgorod also became a powerful ecclesiastical center and immediately began building churches. One of these, the Cathedral of St. Sofia (1052) still stands in extraordinary condition.
The city long remained one of Russia’s strongest and most independent, avoiding even the Mongol Hordes of the Middle Ages and posing a strong rival to the up-and-coming Moscow for supremacy in the region. Only after particularly violent actions by Ivan III and Ivan the Terrible (who killed much of the nobility in the gothic Chamber of Facets, now rumored to be haunted) did the city become a truly integrated part of Russia.
Novgorod’s unique political structure, spiritual freedom, and territorial independence were highly conducive to the evolution of culture and art. The town's military power, its remoteness from dangerous southern borders, and successful campaigns against church reforms and heresies enabled them to preserve a unique complex of architectural monuments with frescoes of the 11th - 17th centuries, as well as the oldest Russian manuscripts, chronicles, acts, and icons.
Education has long been important to the people of Novgorod, with the oldest known educational institution dates to 1030. Novgorod also had developed system of schools, seminaries, and libraries by the 11th century. Although the State University was only recently established, it is one of Russia’s fastest growing institutions, now offering programs in agriculture, the humanities, pedagogy, economics, management, and a range of science and math programs.
Many experts of Russian art consider Novgorod to be a Russian Florence; no other Russian city has managed to preserve so many ancient architectural monuments adorned with wall murals. Today the city is an exceptionally bright city, filled with parks, a beach, and fascinating architecture. It’s a great city for students, or even just as a day-trip out of Moscow or Petersburg.
Thinking of Making a Day Trip to Novgorod?
Why to Go: “The birthplace of Russian history,” a former great commercial and military town, today it is beautifully restored.
Budget: One and a half days, about 2000 ru ($60)
How to Get There: Trains leave nightly from the Leningradski Railroad Station (at the Komsomolskaya Metro stop).
Sample Itinerary: Take a picnic breakfast with you from Moscow. The train will arrive in Novgorod at about five in morning, hours before anything opens. You can get coffee (but little else) from the café next to the train station. Take your breakfast to Sofia Square. After you eat, walk though the Kremlin, over the footbridge, then to the back of the city. There are several old churches here of interest and the walk is gorgeous (and always open). By the time you get back to the center the businesses and museums should be opening. You can fill your day with the Kremlin’s museums, the art fair outside, and the grassy “beach” next to the river (a great place to catch a nap!). We recommend you take along a copy of Lonely Planet or some printed materials from the Internet, as many of the statues and buildings you will see are much more interesting if you know the history of them. In the evening, you can see a concert, a circus, or a play, though you may have to leave early to catch your train home.
Notes: Both trains going to and from Moscow are night trains. This means that you can spend a full day in Novgorod without having to pay for a hotel there. Trains are fairly comfortable to sleep in.
Web Resources: (in English)
The English language version of the city’s website. Includes a city guide, maps, and some great historical resources.
Novgorod’s tourism site. It’s fairly new and still a bit quirky, but still a great resource.
The Chronicle of Novgorod, a 15th Century document about the ancient history of Novgorod.
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