Post-classical history


An independent city-republic in northwestern Russia (1136-1478), subsequently incorporated into the principality of Muscovy. As an important Orthodox power and overlord of pagan peoples, Novgorod was one of the main opponents of the German, Danish, and Swedish crusades in the eastern Baltic region.

The town of Novgorod developed toward the middle of the tenth century as a northern outpost of the Kievan state, serving as the traditional residence of the Kievan prince’s eldest son until 1136. By this time the Novgorodians had expanded their territory from the region south of Lake Ladoga as far as the Arctic Ocean and the Urals in search of furs, for which there was a growing demand in western Europe. In 1136 Novgorod’s powerful boyars (aristocrats), who dominated the fur trade, broke loose from the control of Kiev and established a city republic, by expelling the prince appointed from Kiev, in order, henceforth, to elect and dismiss its princes from among members of the Ryurikid dynasty.

The Russians of Novgorod were Christianized from Byzantium around the year 1000, but Finnic and other ethnic minorities on the periphery, such as the Votians and Ingrians (Izhorians) in the west and the Karelians in the north, were allowed to retain their traditional religions. Before the Baltic Crusades there was seemingly no well- defined border between these peoples and other Finnic and Baltic tribes to the west, from which Novgorod was occasionally able to exact tribute. Novgorod’s main outpost in the southwest was the important town of Pskov, located south of Lake Peipus (Russ. Chudskoe ozero). With an extensive hinterland of its own bordering on the principality of Polotsk, Pskov often aspired to independence but was dependent on Novgorod in critical situations.

The Baltic Crusades touched Novgorodian spheres of interest on three fronts. The first was north of the Gulf of Finland, where from the 1140s Swedish and Danish crusaders were attempting to extend Latin Christianity still further east. The second was the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, where Danes were active among the Estonians from the 1170s onward. The third front opened up to the southwest, when the German mission in Livonia began to expand from the 1190s, later supported by military power after the formation of the Order of the Sword Brethren. At first the German mission came into contact with the princes of Polotsk on the river Düna (Russ. Dvina), but as it turned its attention further northeast to the Estonian tribes, it also reached Novgorod’s sphere of interest.

The early mission in this region often met with sympathy and a certain amount of collaboration from the Russians, who at the time found the rise of Lithuania more threatening. As late as 1236 Pskovites fought side by side with the Sword Brethren against the Lithuanians in the disastrous battle at Saule. By then Pope Gregory IX, wishing to force the Russians to accept church union, had called the Sword Brethren to account for collaborating with the “heretical” Russians. After the Sword Brethren were replaced by the Teutonic Order, Gregory issued a number of crusading bulls that directly or indirectly targeted Novgorod. As a result the Swedes attacked Novgorodian territory from Finland but were defeated on the Neva in July 1240. In 1241 the combined armies of the Danes and the Teutonic Order managed to conquer both Pskov and Kopor’e before being routed by the Novgorodians under the young prince Alexander Yaroslavich (Nevskii) on the ice of Lake Peipus in April 1242. Confronted with these setbacks and the sudden threat from the Mongols, Pope Gregory’s successor, Innocent IV, reversed papal policy, trying instead to involve the Orthodox Russians in the crusading movement by targeting the Mongols. This policy, however, proved difficult to implement, and in the 1250s Pope Alexander IV began once more to authorize crusades against Novgorod.

Swedish expansion into Finland and Karelia ultimately led to the Treaty of Noteborg (1323), which for the first time fixed the border between Novgorodian and Swedish territory. Two events in the wars of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are significant in showing how phenomena linked to the crusade idea were adopted in Novgorod. In 1268 Danish and German forces fought a battle with the Novgorodi- ans at Wesenberg (mod. Cēsis, Estonia). In contrast to the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, the Novgorod chronicles describe this as a Russian victory. What is of interest here is the way that crusading imagery communicated itself to the Novgorodian authors. Contemplating several biblical references to the power of the cross, one of them deliberately uses the image of the cross against the crusader army, describing the fleeing crusaders as “accursed offenders against the cross” [The Chronicle of Novgorod 1016-1471, p. 103].

A different reflection of crusading came about in the aftermath of the unsuccessful crusade launched by King Magnus II Eriksson of Sweden against Novgorod in 1347-1351. One of its aims was to convert the still largely pagan Karelians and thereby detach them and their territory from Novgorod. Afterward the Novgorodians seem to have realized how dangerous it was for their hold on the Karelians that they should remain pagan. Toward the end of the fourteenth century, therefore, the Novgorodian authorities decided for the first time to use mission by the sword as a means of converting their pagan subjects. In a military expedition, during which many Karelians are reported to have been killed, Novgorod began to establish monasteries in the midst of the Karelian population, from which to convert them. This initiative constituted a virtual countercrusade.

A final echo of the crusading movement in a Russian context may be seen in Novgorod’s ultimate showdown with Muscovite autocracy in 1477-1478. Despite their shared confession both parties saw the contest as a holy war. The Novgorodians produced icons in which they depicted the most popular Russian saints fighting on their side against autocracy. For his part the Muscovite grand prince, Ivan III, allowed his theologians to persuade him that he was making war not on Christians but on apostates from the Orthodox faith, because “although the Novgorodians call themselves Christians, they act worse than infidels, planning to convert to the Latins” [ Mockobckhh cboh Komja XVb., ed. Mikhail N. Tikhomirov (Moskva: Izdatel’stvo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1949), pp. 287-288].

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