Russia Chapter XI - Lord Novgorod The Great eText

Chapter XI - Lord Novgorod The Great

Country life in Russia is pleasant enough in summer or in winter, but between summer and winter there is an intermediate period of several weeks when the rain and mud transform a country-house into something very like a prison. To escape this durance vile I determined in the month of October to leave Ivanofka, and chose as my headquarters for the next few months the town of Novgorod--the old town of that name, not to be confounded with Nizhni Novgorod-- i.e., Lower Novgorod, on the Volga--where the great annual fair is held.

For this choice there were several reasons. I did not wish to go to St. Petersburg or Moscow, because I foresaw that in either of those cities my studies would certainly be interrupted. In a quiet, sleepy provincial town I should have much more chance of coming in contact with people who could not speak fluently any West-European languages, and much better opportunities for studying native life and local administration. Of the provincial capitals, Novgorod was the nearest, and more interesting than most of its rivals; for it has had a curious history, much older than that of St. Petersburg or even of Moscow, and some traces of its former greatness are still visible. Though now a town of third-rate importance--a mere shadow of its former self--it still contains about 21,000 inhabitants, and is the administrative centre of the large province in which it is situated.

About eighty miles before reaching St. Petersburg the Moscow railway crosses the Volkhof, a rapid, muddy river which connects Lake Ilmen with Lake Ladoga. At the point of intersection I got on board a small steamer and sailed up stream towards Lake Ilmen for about fifty miles.* The journey was tedious, for the country was flat and monotonous, and the steamer, though it puffed and snorted inordinately, did not make more than nine knots. Towards sunset Novgorod appeared on the horizon. Seen thus at a distance in the soft twilight, it seemed decidedly picturesque. On the east bank lay the greater part of the town, the sky line of which was agreeably broken by the green roofs and pear-shaped cupolas of many churches. On the opposite bank rose the Kremlin. Spanning the river was a long, venerable stone bridge, half hidden by a temporary wooden one, which was doing duty for the older structure while the latter was being repaired. A cynical fellow-passenger assured me that the temporary structure was destined to become permanent, because it yielded a comfortable revenue to certain officials, but this sinister prediction has not been verified.

* The journey would now be made by rail, but the branch line which runs near the bank of the river had not been constructed at that time.

That part of Novgorod which lies on the eastern bank of the river, and in which I took up my abode for several months, contains nothing that is worthy of special mention. As is the case in most Russian towns, the streets are straight, wide, and ill-paved, and all run parallel or at right angles to each other. At the end of the bridge is a spacious market-place, flanked on one side by the Town-house. Near the other side stand the houses of the Governor and of the chief military authority of the district. The only other buildings of note are the numerous churches, which are mostly small, and offer nothing that is likely to interest the student of architecture. Altogether this part of the town is unquestionably commonplace. The learned archaeologist may detect in it some traces of the distant past, but the ordinary traveller will find little to arrest his attention.

If now we cross over to the other side of the river, we are at once confronted by something which very few Russian towns possess--a kremlin, or citadel. This is a large and slightly-elevated enclosure, surrounded by high brick walls, and in part by the remains of a moat. Before the days of heavy artillery these walls must have presented a formidable barrier to any besieging force, but they have long ceased to have any military significance, and are now nothing more than an historical monument. Passing through the gateway which faces the bridge, we find ourselves in a large open space. To the right stands the cathedral--a small, much- venerated church, which can make no pretensions to architectural beauty--and an irregular group of buildings containing the consistory and the residence of the Archbishop. To the left is a long symmetrical range of buildings containing the Government offices and the law courts. Midway between this and the cathedral, in the centre of the great open space, stands a colossal monument, composed of a massive circular stone pedestal and an enormous globe, on and around which cluster a number of emblematic and historical figures. This curious monument, which has at least the merit of being original in design, was erected in 1862, in commemoration of Russia's thousandth birthday, and is supposed to represent the history of Russia in general and of Novgorod in particular during the last thousand years. It was placed here because Novgorod is the oldest of Russian towns, and because somewhere in the surrounding country occurred the incident which is commonly recognised as the foundation of the Russian Empire. The incident in question is thus described in the oldest chronicle:

"At that time, as the southern Slavonians paid tribute to the Kozars, so the Novgorodian Slavonians suffered from the attacks of the Variags. For some time the Variags exacted tribute from the Novgorodian Slavonians and the neighbouring Finns; then the conquered tribes, by uniting their forces, drove out the foreigners. But among the Slavonians arose strong internal dissensions; the clans rose against each other. Then, for the creation of order and safety, they resolved to call in princes from a foreign land. In the year 862 Slavonic legates went away beyond the sea to the Variag tribe called Rus, and said, 'Our land is great and fruitful, but there is no order in it; come and reign and rule over us.' Three brothers accepted the invitation, and appeared with their armed followers. The eldest of these, Rurik, settled in Novgorod; the second, Sineus, at Byelo-ozero; and the third, Truvor, in Isborsk. From them our land is called Rus. After two years the brothers of Rurik died. He alone began to rule over the Novgorod district, and confided to his men the administration of the principal towns."

This simple legend has given rise to a vast amount of learned controversy, and historical investigators have fought valiantly with each other over the important question, Who were those armed men of Rus? For a long time the commonly received opinion was that they were Normans from Scandinavia. The Slavophils accepted the legend literally in this sense, and constructed upon it an ingenious theory of Russian history. The nations of the West, they said, were conquered by invaders, who seized the country and created the feudal system for their own benefit; hence the history of Western Europe is a long tale of bloody struggles between conquerors and conquered, and at the present day the old enmity still lives in the political rivalry of the different social classes. The Russo-Slavonians, on the contrary, were not conquered, but voluntarily invited a foreign prince to come and rule over them! Hence the whole social and political development of Russia has been essentially peaceful, and the Russian people know nothing of social castes or feudalism. Though this theory afforded some nourishment for patriotic self-satisfaction, it displeased extreme patriots, who did not like the idea that order was first established in their country by men of Teutonic race. These preferred to adopt the theory that Rurik and his companions were Slavonians from the shores of the Baltic.

Though I devoted to the study of this question more time and labour than perhaps the subject deserved, I have no intention of inviting the reader to follow me through the tedious controversy. Suffice it to say that, after careful consideration, and with all due deference to recent historians, I am inclined to adopt the old theory, and to regard the Normans of Scandinavia as in a certain sense the founders of the Russian Empire. We know from other sources that during the ninth century there was a great exodus from Scandinavia. Greedy of booty, and fired with the spirit of adventure, the Northmen, in their light, open boats, swept along the coasts of Germany, France, Spain, Greece, and Asia Minor, pillaging the towns and villages near the sea, and entering into the heart of the country by means of the rivers. At first they were mere marauders, and showed everywhere such ferocity and cruelty that they came to be regarded as something akin to plagues and famines, and the faithful added a new petition to the Litany, "From the wrath and malice of the Normans, O Lord, deliver us!" But towards the middle of the century the movement changed its character. The raids became military invasions, and the invaders sought to conquer the lands which they had formerly plundered, "ut acquirant sibi spoliando regna quibus possent vivere pace perpetua." The chiefs embraced Christianity, married the daughters or sisters of the reigning princes, and obtained the conquered territories as feudal grants. Thus arose Norman principalities in the Low Countries, in France, in Italy, and in Sicily; and the Northmen, rapidly blending with the native population, soon showed as much political talent as they had formerly shown reckless and destructive valour.

It would have been strange indeed if these adventurers, who succeeded in reaching Asia Minor and the coasts of North America, should have overlooked Russia, which lay, as it were, at their very doors. The Volkhof, flowing through Novgorod, formed part of a great waterway which afforded almost uninterrupted water- communication between the Baltic and the Black Sea; and we know that some time afterwards the Scandinavians used this route in their journeys to Constantinople. The change which the Scandinavian movement underwent elsewhere is clearly indicated by the Russian chronicles: first, the Variags came as collectors of tribute, and raised so much popular opposition that they were expelled, and then they came as rulers, and settled in the country. Whether they really came on invitation may be doubted, but that they adopted the language, religion, and customs of the native population does not militate against the assertion that they were Normans. On the contrary, we have here rather an additional confirmation, for elsewhere the Normans did likewise. In the North of France they adopted almost at once the French language and religion, and the son and successor of the famous Rollo was sometimes reproached with being more French than Norman.*

*Strinnholm, "Die Vikingerzuge" (Hamburg, 1839), I., p. 135.

Though it is difficult to decide how far the legend is literally true, there can be no possible doubt that the event which it more or less accurately describes had an important influence on Russian history. From that time dates the rapid expansion of the Russo- Slavonians--a movement that is still going on at the present day. To the north, the east, and the south new principalities were formed and governed by men who all claimed to be descendants of Rurik, and down to the end of the sixteenth century no Russian outside of this great family ever attempted to establish independent sovereignty.

For six centuries after the so-called invitation of Rurik the city on the Volkhof had a strange, checkered history. Rapidly it conquered the neighbouring Finnish tribes, and grew into a powerful independent state, with a territory extending to the Gulf of Finland, and northwards to the White Sea. At the same time its commercial importance increased, and it became an outpost of the Hanseatic League. In this work the descendants of Rurik played an important part, but they were always kept in strict subordination to the popular will. Political freedom kept pace with commercial prosperity. What means Rurik employed for establishing and preserving order we know not, but the chronicles show that his successors in Novgorod possessed merely such authority as was freely granted them by the people. The supreme power resided, not in the prince, but in the assembly of the citizens called together in the market-place by the sound of the great bell. This assembly made laws for the prince as well as for the people, entered into alliances with foreign powers, declared war, and concluded peace, imposed taxes, raised troops, and not only elected the magistrates, but also judged and deposed them when it thought fit. The prince was little more than the hired commander of the troops and the president of the judicial administration. When entering on his functions he had to take a solemn oath that he would faithfully observe the ancient laws and usages, and if he failed to fulfil his promise he was sure to be summarily deposed and expelled. The people had an old rhymed proverb, "Koli khud knyaz, tak v gryaz!" "If the prince is bad, into the mud with him!"), and they habitually acted according to it. So unpleasant, indeed, was the task of ruling those sturdy, stiff-necked burghers, that some princes refused to undertake it, and others, having tried it for a time, voluntarily laid down their authority and departed. But these frequent depositions and abdications--as many as thirty took place in the course of a single century--did not permanently disturb the existing order of things. The descendants of Rurik were numerous, and there were always plenty of candidates for the vacant post. The municipal republic continued to grow in strength and in riches, and during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it proudly styled itself "Lord Novgorod the Great" (Gospodin Velilki Novgorod).

"Then came a change, as all things human change." To the east arose the principality of Moscow--not an old, rich municipal republic, but a young, vigorous State, ruled by a line of crafty, energetic, ambitious, and unscrupulous princes of the Rurik stock, who were freeing the country from the Tartar yoke and gradually annexing by fair means and foul the neighbouring principalities to their own dominions. At the same time, and in a similar manner, the Lithuanian Princes to the westward united various small principalities and formed a large independent State. Thus Novgorod found itself in a critical position. Under a strong Government it might have held its own against these rivals and successfully maintained its independence, but its strength was already undermined by internal dissensions. Political liberty had led to anarchy. Again and again on that great open space where the national monument now stands, and in the market-place on the other side of the river, scenes of disorder and bloodshed took place, and more than once on the bridge battles were fought by contending factions. Sometimes it was a contest between rival families, and sometimes a struggle between the municipal aristocracy, who sought to monopolise the political power, and the common people, who wished to have a large share in the administration. A State thus divided against itself could not long resist the aggressive tendencies of powerful neighbours. Artful diplomacy could but postpone the evil day, and it required no great political foresight to predict that sooner or later Novgorod must become Lithuanian or Muscovite. The great families inclined to Lithuania, but the popular party and the clergy, disliking Roman Catholicism, looked to Moscow for assistance, and the Grand Princes of Muscovy ultimately won the prize.

The barbarous way in which the Grand Princes effected the annexation shows how thoroughly they had imbibed the spirit of Tartar statesmanship. Thousands of families were transported to Moscow, and Muscovite families put in their places; and when, in spite of this, the old spirit revived, Ivan the Terrible determined to apply the method of physical extermination which he had found so effectual in breaking the power of his own nobles. Advancing with a large army, which met with no resistance, he devastated the country with fire and sword, and during a residence of five weeks in the town he put the inhabitants to death with a ruthless ferocity which has perhaps never been surpassed even by Oriental despots. If those old walls could speak they would have many a horrible tale to tell. Enough has been preserved in the chronicles to give us some idea of this awful time. Monks and priests were subjected to the Tartar punishment called pravezh, which consisted in tying the victim to a stake, and flogging him daily until a certain sum of money was paid for his release. The merchants and officials were tortured with fire, and then thrown from the bridge with their wives and children into the river. Lest any of them should escape by swimming, boatfuls of soldiers despatched those who were not killed by the fall. At the present day there is a curious bubbling immediately below the bridge, which prevents the water from freezing in winter, and according to popular belief this is caused by the spirits of the terrible Tsar's victims. Of those who were murdered in the villages there is no record, but in the town alone no less than 60,000 human beings are said to have been butchered--an awful hecatomb on the altar of national unity and autocratic power!

This tragic scene, which occurred in 1570, closes the history of Novgorod as an independent State. Its real independence had long since ceased to exist, and now the last spark of the old spirit was extinguished. The Tsars could not suffer even a shadow of political independence to exist within their dominions.

In the old days, when many Hanseatic merchants annually visited the city, and when the market-place, the bridge, and the Kremlin were often the scene of violent political struggles, Novgorod must have been an interesting place to live in; but now its glory has departed, and in respect of social resources it is not even a first-rate provincial town. Kief, Kharkof, and other towns which are situated at a greater distance from the capital, in districts fertile enough to induce the nobles to farm their own land, are in their way little semi-independent centres of civilisation. They contain a theatre, a library, two or three clubs, and large houses belonging to rich landed proprietors, who spend the summer on their estates and come into town for the winter months. These proprietors, together with the resident officials, form a numerous society, and during the winter, dinner-parties, balls, and other social gatherings are by no means infrequent. In Novgorod the society is much more limited. It does not, like Kief, Kharkof, and Kazan, possess a university, and it contains no houses belonging to wealthy nobles. The few proprietors of the province who live on their estates, and are rich enough to spend part of the year in town, prefer St. Petersburg for their winter residence. The society, therefore, is composed exclusively of the officials and of the officers who happen to be quartered in the town or the immediate vicinity.

Of all the people whose acquaintance I made at Novgorod, I can recall only two men who did not occupy some official position, civil or military. One of these was a retired doctor, who was attempting to farm on scientific principles, and who, I believe, soon afterwards gave up the attempt and migrated elsewhere. The other was a Polish bishop who had been compromised in the insurrection of 1863, and was condemned to live here under police supervision. This latter could scarcely be said to belong to the society of the place; though he sometimes appeared at the unceremonious weekly receptions given by the Governor, and was invariably treated by all present with marked respect, he could not but feel that he was in a false position, and he was rarely or never seen in other houses.

The official circle of a town like Novgorod is sure to contain a good many people of average education and agreeable manners, but it is sure to be neither brilliant nor interesting. Though it is constantly undergoing a gradual renovation by the received system of frequently transferring officials from one town to another, it preserves faithfully, in spite of the new blood which it thus receives, its essentially languid character. When a new official arrives he exchanges visits with all the notables, and for a few days he produces quite a sensation in the little community. If he appears at social gatherings he is much talked to, and if he does not appear he is much talked about. His former history is repeatedly narrated, and his various merits and defects assiduously discussed.

If he is married, and has brought his wife with him, the field of comment and discussion is very much enlarged. The first time that Madame appears in society she is the "cynosure of neighbouring eyes." Her features, her complexion, her hair, her dress, and her jewellery are carefully noted and criticised. Perhaps she has brought with her, from the capital or from abroad, some dresses of the newest fashion. As soon as this is discovered she at once becomes an object of special curiosity to the ladies, and of envious jealousy to those who regard as a personal grievance the presence of a toilette finer or more fashionable than their own. Her demeanour, too, is very carefully observed. If she is friendly and affable in manner, she is patronised; if she is distant and reserved, she is condemned as proud and pretentious. In either case she is pretty sure to form a close intimacy with some one of the older female residents, and for a few weeks the two ladies are inseparable, till some incautious word or act disturbs the new-born friendship, and the devoted friends become bitter enemies. Voluntarily or involuntarily the husbands get mixed up in the quarrel. Highly undesirable qualities are discovered in the characters of all parties concerned, and are made the subject of unfriendly comment. Then the feud subsides, and some new feud of a similar kind comes to occupy the public attention. Mrs. A. wonders how her friends Mr. and Mrs. B. can afford to lose considerable sums every evening at cards, and suspects that they are getting into debt or starving themselves and their children; in her humble opinion they would do well to give fewer supper-parties, and to refrain from poisoning their guests. The bosom friend to whom this is related retails it directly or indirectly to Mrs. B., and Mrs. B. naturally retaliates. Here is a new quarrel, which for some time affords material for conversation.

When there is no quarrel, there is sure to be a bit of scandal afloat. Though Russian provincial society is not at all prudish, and leans rather to the side of extreme leniency, it cannot entirely overlook les convenances. Madame C. has always a large number of male admirers, and to this there can be no reasonable objection so long as her husband does not complain, but she really parades her preference for Mr. X. at balls and parties a little too conspicuously. Then there is Madame D., with the big dreamy eyes. How can she remain in the place after her husband was killed in a duel by a brother officer? Ostensibly the cause of the quarrel was a trifling incident at the card-table, but every one knows that in reality she was the cause of the deadly encounter. And so on, and so on. In the absence of graver interests society naturally bestows inordinate attention on the private affairs of its members; and quarrelling, backbiting, and scandal-mongery help indolent people to kill the time that hangs heavily on their hands.

Potent as these instruments are, they are not sufficient to kill all the leisure hours. In the forenoons the gentlemen are occupied with their official duties, whilst the ladies go out shopping or pay visits, and devote any time that remains to their household duties and their children; but the day's work is over about four o'clock, and the long evening remains to be filled up. The siesta may dispose of an hour or an hour and a half, but about seven o'clock some definite occupation has to be found. As it is impossible to devote the whole evening to discussing the ordinary news of the day, recourse is almost invariably had to card-playing, which is indulged in to an extent that we had no conception of in England until Bridge was imported. Hour after hour the Russians of both sexes will sit in a hot room, filled with a constantly-renewed cloud of tobacco-smoke--in the production of which most of the ladies take part--and silently play "Preference," "Yarolash," or Bridge. Those who for some reason are obliged to be alone can amuse themselves with "Patience," in which no partner is required. In the other games the stakes are commonly very small, but the sittings are often continued so long that a player may win or lose two or three pounds sterling. It is no unusual thing for gentlemen to play for eight or nine hours at a time. At the weekly club dinners, before coffee had been served, nearly all present used to rush off impatiently to the card-room, and sit there placidly from five o'clock in the afternoon till one or two o'clock in the morning! When I asked my friends why they devoted so much time to this unprofitable occupation, they always gave me pretty much the same answer: "What are we to do? We have been reading or writing official papers all day, and in the evening we like to have a little relaxation. When we come together we have very little to talk about, for we have all read the daily papers and nothing more. The best thing we can do is to sit down at the card-table, where we can spend our time pleasantly, without the necessity of talking."

In addition to the daily papers, some people read the monthly periodicals--big, thick volumes, containing several serious articles on historical and social subjects, sections of one or two novels, satirical sketches, and a long review of home and foreign politics on the model of those in the Revue des Deux Mondes. Several of these periodicals are very ably conducted, and offer to their readers a large amount of valuable information; but I have noticed that the leaves of the more serious part often remain uncut. The translation of a sensation novel by the latest French or English favourite finds many more readers than an article by an historian or a political economist. As to books, they seem to be very little read, for during all the time I lived in Novgorod I never discovered a bookseller's shop, and when I required books I had to get them sent from St. Petersburg. The local administration, it is true, conceived the idea of forming a museum and circulating library, but in my time the project was never realised. Of all the magnificent projects that are formed in Russia, only a very small percentage come into existence, and these are too often very short-lived. The Russians have learned theoretically what are the wants of the most advanced civilisation, and are ever ready to rush into the grand schemes which their theoretical knowledge suggests; but very few of them really and permanently feel these wants, and consequently the institutions artificially formed to satisfy them very soon languish and die. In the provincial towns the shops for the sale of gastronomic delicacies spring up and flourish, whilst shops for the sale of intellectual food are rarely to be met with.

About the beginning of December the ordinary monotony of Novgorod life is a little relieved by the annual Provincial Assembly, which sits daily for two or three weeks and discusses the economic wants of the province.* During this time a good many lauded proprietors, who habitually live on their estates or in St. Petersburg, collect in the town, and enliven a little the ordinary society. But as Christmas approaches the deputies disperse, and again the town becomes enshrouded in that "eternal stillness" (vetchnaya tishina) which a native poet has declared to be the essential characteristic of Russian provincial life.

* Of these Assemblies I shall have more to say when I come to describe the local self-government.