Staunton, July 14 – Five hundred and fifty years ago this month, the forces of authoritarian Muscovy defeated those of democratic Novgorod the Great, expanding Moscow’s rule but ending Russia’s first great experiment in democracy and close ties with the West in favor of dictatorship and isolation.
Russian nationalists and Russian rulers today celebrate this event as “the birth of the Russian nation” because it created the centralized and authoritarian state they believe is essential to the flourishing of Russia and Russians (newizv.ru/news/society/14-07-2021/konets-respubliki-550-let-nazad-s-pobedy-nad-novgorodom-nachalos-vozvyshenie-moskvy).
But others remember Novgorod for its democratic traditions and see it as confirmation that Russia is not doomed to dictatorship but can become a democracy closely integrated with the West. (On Novgorod as a democracy and its close ties with the West, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/07/window-on-eurasia-when-russia-was.html.)
The Russian government and the Russian academic establishment play down this democratic tradition, recalling the defeat of Novgorod solely as a victory for Moscow (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/06/moscow-scholars-ignore-novgorod-and-its.html).
But attention to Novgorod and its traditions is alive and well among Russia’s democrats who recall the fall of Novgorod as a national disaster and see reversing Moscow’s victory there as a precondition for the flourishing of Russia in the future (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/04/remember-novgorod-and-fight-putins.html).
And it is no accident that in May, regional and municipal officials seeking to revive the zemstvo movement chose to hold their congress in Novgorod to tap into that tradition. But it is also no accident that the Putin regime sent in its siloviki to close that meeting down (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/05/russia-has-democratic-tradition-even-if.html).