Staunton, February 7 – Those who believe that Russia might be able to develop into a democratic country often point to the traditions of Novgorod, a city that had the most democratic government in Europe in the 15th century until it was destroyed by Muscovy. But unfortunately, little remains of that tradition either physically or politically.
Nikolay Podosokorsky, a historian who lives in Novgorod, discusses this situation and explains why he fears that the democratic traditions of his city have few chances to emerge anytime soon but also why they must become a beacon for others if Russia is to have a freer future (afterempire.info/2017/02/07/novgorod/).
Novogord which was once Russia’s “window on Europe” has fallen so far in the minds of most Russians that Moscow media often confuse it with Nizhny Novgorod, Podosokorsky says, perhaps because his city’s history half a millennium ago recalls what has been happening to them in recent years.
“Deprived of the remnants of its independence in the 15th century,” he continues, “Novogorod was subjected to a bestial destruction a hundred years later in 1570 under Ivan the Terrible” who charged Novgorodians with being “traitors” and “foreign agents” and tortured many of them. Those who recall that now, like Vladimir Sorokin, are accused of “extremism.”
The politically correct version on Novgorod was provided by Russian historian Nikolay Karamzin in 1802 who put into the mouth of a Moscow ruler: “Wild peoples love independence; wise peoples love order; and there is no order with an autocratic power.” Novgorodians were representatives of the former in his view and that of his followers.
“In our civil war of the North with the South, unlike that in the US,” the Novgorod historian continues, “the freedom-loving North lost to the slave-holding South and since then ‘order’ in the land has become firmly associated with despotism, hyper-centralism, and the absence of rights for either regions or ordinary citizens,” Podosokorsky says.
After Muscovy seized and occupied Novogord, he notes, the central government redrew the lines of the city’s region many times. The current oblast was set up “only in 1944” and it has seen its population and importance decline since that time. In 1897, there were 1.4 million people in the Novgorod gubernia; now, there are 612,000.
Many now predict that the oblast will not survive as a separate region but will be folded into the Leningrad Oblast or become part of some new super “Neva Region.” If and when that happens, the historian says, the city’s role as an administrative center will be reduced to nothing at all.
Up to now, however, the spirit of Novgorod continues to live in some of its residents. A Yabloko deputy to the local parliament before he was forced out by Moscow said that the Novgorod people have a tradition of struggling with monarchies, one that is very similar to that in the German historical tradition.
But Moscow is working hard to suppress any such thoughts, having succeeded last September in keeping all opposition figures out of the local parliament. Indeed, the situation there is so dire that some of the opposition parties didn’t even try to field candidates. And Novgorod despite its traditions was among the first to give up direct elections of mayors.
When that happened, opposition figure Aleksey Navalny observed bitterly that “800 years ago” the people of Novgorod could choose their own leaders but that now in the era of Vladimir Putin, they have been deprived of that right and are so oppressed that they didn’t even mount any serious protests against this development.
For most of the last two decades, Moscow’s power in the region has been combined with that of criminal groups who have no problem eliminating officials and others that the powers that be at the center do not like, including senior ones like the mayor in 2002. For those reasons, Podosokorsky says, he does not look to the future with optimism.