Sunday, August 28, 2016

Another ‘Distant Mirror’ -- Muscovy’s Sack of Novgorod in 1478 and the Rise of ‘the Russian Threat’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 28 – Historians have long pointed out that Muscovy’s sacking of Novgorod in 1478 foreclosed for centuries any chance that Russia could move in a European and democratic direction. But far fewer have noted that it was precisely that event which also had the effect of sparking fears of “a Russian threat” that have never entirely left Europe.

            Novgorod before Muscovy destroyed it was one of the most democratic cities in Europe: a higher percentage of its adult males voted for its governing assembly than was the case in London at the same time.  But by its actions, Muscovy also destroyed what had become the traditional relations between the Russian lands and Livonia.

            And that led, St. Petersburg historian Mariya Bessudnova argues, set in train “a chain reaction” of developments in trade, the observance of international conventions and the nature of diplomatic relations (; summarized atразгром-новгорода-в-1478-году-и-возникнов/).

            But perhaps most important, she says, it led to the basing of the forces of Muscovy “near the Livonian border and to armed attacks on Livonian territory,” actions that “led to the formation in Livonia and in Eastern Europe as a whole ideas about ‘a Russian threat’” to the West.

            “In its social-economic, political and cultural development,” Bessudnova notes, “the Novgorod Republic was essentially different from other Russian cities in no small degree because of the intensiveness of its trading contacts with Western Europe” and its participation in the Hansa League.

            But after it was occupied by Muscovy in 1478 and its old order destroyed, the harmony that had existed within it as a bridge between Europe and Muscovy was destroyed. For a few years, the Muscovite Grand Prince Ivan III allowed some of the city’s earlier contacts with Europe continue “but not for long.”

            In negotiations, his representatives insisted that Livonia change its legal norms to bring them into correspondence with Muscovy’s, something that the merchant class of Livonia understood as a threat to their very existence and that they knew Moscow would “soon violate” if their country’s leadership were to agree.

            But despite Ivan III’s talk about economics, the issues involved were always political and always about first isolating Novgorod and then subordinating it politically to Muscovy.  To that end, he repopulated the city after the pogroms he had organized with people from the interior of his lands and who importantly did not know any of the Baltic or European languages.

            But as the Livonian merchants suspected, that was hardly the end of it. In 1494, the Muscovite ruler closed the Hansa office in Novgorod; and at about the same time introduced a kind of closed politics which sparked suspicions that Muscovy was planning to attack others. That led to talk about a “Rusche gefahr,” or “Russian threat” to more than Novgorod and more than Livonia.

            Thanks to the trading links, this fear spread. In response, “Livonia introduced sanctions” and limited the flow of strategic goods like metals to Muscovy. Unfortunately for the authors of this plan, the economic interests of some business groups was stronger than their patriotism and the sanctions were not always effective.

            Nonetheless, Ivan III was under pressure to normalize ties with the Hansa League and entered into negotiations, but no constructive dialogue occurred and the talks in Narva ended with no progress, Bessudnova says.  As a result, the situation along the Muscovy-Livonian border deteriorated.

            Livonian peasants accustomed to fish in what had become Russian waterways attacked Russian merchants. And Russian troops in the Ivangorod garrison engaged in indisciplined attacks on the peasants and others. That other exacerbated anti-Muscovy feelings and the sense that Europe faced a “’Russian threat.’” The Livonians decided they had no choice but to fight.

            In 1978, US historian Barbara Tuchman published her study, “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” in which she described the ways in which events nearly seven hundred years earlier held up a mirror for the present.  The Muscovite destruction of Novgorod and its consequences holds up an even more instructive mirror to what is happening now.

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