Friday, July 25, 2014

Window on Eurasia: When Russia was a Democracy – Novgorod Before the Muscovite Occupation

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 25 – Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism has sparked a new round of suggestions in Russia and elsewhere that “Russians are organically incapable of democracy and European values.”  But such views ignore the history of the Novgorod Republic which, until Moscow occupied it, was among the most democratic parts of Europe for four centuries.


            While Novgorod’s democratic traditions and Moscow’s destruction of them are downplayed or even ignored by many who follow the Muscovite single stream of Russian history approach, these two parts of Russian history are increasingly being recalled by Russian regionalists and others who would like to see a democratic, non-Muscovite Russia emerge.


            A good example of this is provided today by Pavel Pryannikov in his Tolkovatel blog who describes in some detail the political arrangements of the Novgorod Republic, including representation, elections, the existence of parties (“sides”), and various checks and balances which existed until Muscovy destroyed all this in 1478 (


            The Novgorod Republic began in 1136 when the residents of that city arrested and expelled the prince and his family who had ruled them up to that point.  The revolutionaries, for that is what they were, declared the popular assembly or “veche” to be the supreme organ of state power for a territory from the Baltic Sea to the Urals and from the White Sea to Lake Seliger.


            More than anywhere else in Europe at the time, the participants in this process were extremely broad, although the 40 to 50 boyar families played a disproportionate role. But also important in the veche were representatives of the merchant classes, the various guilds, armed groups, and the church.


            Each year, the Novgorod veche elected a head of government and his deputy, who oversaw domestic and foreign policy and together with the prince commanded the armed forces and headed the courts.  The head of government was expected to cooperate with the veche and, when he didn’t, was ousted. The prince, at least in peacetime, was expected to cooperate as well.


            The role of the church in the Novgorod Republic was also distinctive, Pryannikov points out.  Its head, an archbishop, was chosen by a remarkably democratic process. The Veche chose three candidates, and then the winner was selected by lot, an approach very different from the top down arrangements of the Moscow patriarchate.


            Novgorod was divided into territorial districts, and these districts, which had different interests, became the foundation for “sides” as political parties were then called.  They competed among themselves in the veche and those who hoped to head the republic were typically based in one or two and had to appeal for support from the others.


            Obviously, the medieval Novgorod Republic was not a democracy in anything like the modern sense, the commentator acknowledges, but it was far more democratic in terms of the franchise and of the legislature’s control of the executive than was London or any other major European city at that time.


            And this proto-democracy lasted almost four centuries – until it was destroyed by a combination of trickery and force by Moscow in 1478. Since that time, Moscow has sought to dismiss the Novgorod Republic as simply “feudalism.”  But as the Pryannikov article shows, ever more Russians are recalling its traditions and their differences from Moscow’s.



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