Monday, June 24, 2019

Moscow Scholars Ignore Novgorod and Its Russian Democratic Tradition at Nation’s Peril, Sbitnyev Says

Paul Goble
            Staunton, June 22 – Moscow scholars continue to ignore Novgorod’s creation of a truly effective Russian democratic state preferring instead to draw their models of such a system from antiquity or Western Europe, thus failing to make clear that Russians can build a democracy because they already have, Viktor Sbitnev says.

            By their silence, they implicitly accept the Muscovite view that the only kind of Russian state possible is a highly centralized and authoritarian one, despite the fact that in Novgorod the Great for more than 500 years there was more liberalism “than in Ancient Greece and the Venetian Republic taken together,” the Literaturnaya Rossiya commentator continues.

            This is part and parcel of a bigger problem, Sbitnev says. Moscow scholars and their progeny elsewhere devote almost all of their attention to the development of the Muscovite state and almost none to the varieties of development of the Russian nation as a whole (

            Thus, they continue to reflect and reproduce “the hatred of despotic tsarist Muscovy to republican Novgorod which exceeded its Asiatic neighbor by a large margin in terms of the level of life of ordinary citizens” and they accept rather than criticize the fact that Moscow destroyed Novgorod not so much to get its wealth as to “destroy the democratic form of the existence of the Russian nation.”

            Novgorod showed that “our ancestors” could and did “built a state based on a republic form of governance, healthy nationalism and Orthodoxy,” none of which, especially the republic form of governance by the people themselves, has been characteristic of Moscow-dominated Russia elsewhere to this day.

            According to Sbitnev, “the state-imperial stereotype” the Muscovite state has always insisted upon claims that “the Russian people without Moscow would not be a people, but Moscow without the Russian people all the same would be the Third Rome.”

            It is certainly true that “the Novogoroders did not unite Rus or establish an empire. They saw their purpose in a completely different direction.  They were able to build a society which they were prepared to defend for centuries” but not one predicated on the idea that they should enslave others.

            “The citizens of the Novgorod Republic did not want to unite with anyone or conquer anyone for one simple reason: they viewed that possibility as a threat to their own well-being and way of life.”   That way of life was well off, educated – the Novgorod residents were more literate than any other Slavs – and for its time amazingly egalitarian. 

            In Novgorod, the boyars were hereditary but not the bureaucracy. In Muscovite and its progeny the reverse has been true.  Ass a result, “by its political mentality, a significant part of the Muscovite aristocracy was already prepared to be the foundation for the creation of an empire.” 

That mentality stood in complete contrast to the political consciousness of the Novgorod boyars who were essentially “national (Orthodox) and alien to the ambitions of imperial thought.”

Novgorod was prosperous not because of its natural resources or even its people but because of its system.  Other Russian regions had talented people and even more natural wealth, but Novgorod used its system not to pursue unrealistic projects and war but to develop the population and see its people become more educated and wealthier instead.

“The Novgorod Republic,” Sbitnev says, “in many respects exceeded the Muscovite principality. Then why did Moscow defeat Novgorod the Great?” For much the same reasons that “the wild Germans defeated enlightened Rome” and the “godless hordes of Baty Khan settled Orthodox Rus.”

Sbitnev continues: “In a military-political struggle those state win are not the ones with a high culture and an ideal social-economic system but vital powers who are able to respond to the challenges of the day.” But that does not mean that the successors of those who won these battles should not learn from those they defeated.

The great Tartu scholar Yury Lotman once observed that “Pushkin’s times are our time,” by which he meant that the issues Pushkin faced constantly recur and should be an inspiration.  Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t. In the 1990s, Russians should have been inspired and informed by Novgorod. Tragically, they weren’t and even now aren’t.

“To be sure,” Sbitnev says, “the Novgorod Republic his long gone; but its historical experience remains and will always have a chance to be useful for the life of the Russian nation. [And] if the Russians in Novgorod felt so comfortable with their system, then is it not worthwhile to study that reality most carefully?”

“Especially as such periods of freedom in the history of the Russian people are so rare.”

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