Novgorod Feudal Republic

(redirected from Novgorod Republic)
Also found in: Wikipedia.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Novgorod Feudal Republic


a feudal state in Rus’ from the 12th to the 15th century. Separatist tendencies, aimed at independence from Kiev, appeared in Novgorod the Great, the capital of the Novgorod feudal republic, as early as the beginning of the 11th century. The advocates of separation were the Novgorod boyars, supported by the urban population, which was obligated to pay tribute and supply troops for the campaigns of the Kievan prince. By the early 12th century, Novgorod was inviting princes to rule over it without first obtaining the consent of the grand prince of Kiev. In 1136 the republic’s boyars and merchant elite took advantage of a mass movement to achieve political independence. Large commercial and artisan settlements (posady) flourished in the ancient Novgorod cities of Staraia Russa, Ladoga, Torzhok, Korela, and Oreshek, which enjoyed self-government and were considered to be vassals of Great Novgorod. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the republic also included Pskov, which began asserting its independence from Novgorod in the mid-13th century. Its independence from Novgorod was confirmed by the Bolotovo Treaty of 1348. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the republic expanded to the east and northeast, bringing under its control the region around Lake Onega, the area along the Dvina River, and the shores of the White Sea. The Ugrian tribes living in the northern Urals paid tribute to Novgorod the Great. Rich in furs, marine mammals, fish, and salt, the city’s northern possessions were of great economic importance for the republic.

The highest governing body in the republic was the veche, an assembly of both the urban and the free rural population. The veche elected from among the boyars the posadnik (chief administrative official), tysiatskii (second highest official), and even the archbishop (from 1156). Although the veche often became an arena for sharp class struggle, actual power was in the hands of the boyars. The executive branch was headed by the archbishop, the most powerful Novgorod feudal lord, who acquired many of the rights, lands, and revenues previously granted to the Kievan prince. He controlled the treasury, conducted foreign relations, supervised the judiciary, and carried out various other functions. The merchants and artisans of Novgorod the Great took part in political affairs through their own organizations; associations were formed by the inhabitants of kontsy (boroughs), sotni (subdivisions of kontsy), including the merchant sotni, and ulitsy (subdivisions of sotni). From the mid-12th century the elders of the kontsy and ulitsy affixed their seals to important official documents. The veche invited an outside prince to become prince of Novgorod, and it concluded an agreement with him, known as the riad, which safeguarded the class interests of the Novgorod boyars. The prince, whose functions were limited, was primarily a military leader. His judicial authority was restricted, and his residence was transferred from the center of the city (Detinets) to the outskirts (Gorodishche). From the mid-13th century, beginning with the reign of Alexander Nevsky, the grand prince of Vladimir usually became the prince of Novgorod.

The mainstay of the republic’s economy from the 12th to the 15th century was crop cultivation and livestock raising. Hunting, wild-hive beekeeping, and fishing were also important, and in most areas these occupations were combined with crop cultivation. Along the northwestern shores of the White Sea and in the more distant areas inhabited by the Korela and Lapps, the sole occupations were hunting, fishing, and wild-hive beekeeping. Iron was mined along the Gulf of Finland, and salt was extracted at Staraia Russa and several other places. Important crops were flax and hops. Large quantities of furs, wax, honey, fish, seal oil, animal fat, flax, and hops were sent to markets and eventually exported to Russian cities and abroad. The Novgorod merchants traded with Sweden and with the cities of Germany and Denmark.

By the 14th and 15th centuries, some 30 to 40 prominent boyar families controlled more than half of Novgorod’s privately owned land. These huge landed properties ensured the political domination of the boyars, whose chief rival was the House of St. Sophia, the leading ecclesiastical institution in Novgorod the Great. The House of St. Sophia’s lands lay in the economically more developed regions of the Novgorod Land. The Iur’ev, Ar-kazhskii, and Antoniev monasteries were major landowners. The zhit’i liudi constituted a category of feudal landowners below the boyars, and the svoezemtsy were nonprivileged holders of small patrimonial estates. In all types of feudal landownership the quitrent system was the basic form of exploitation of the peasants. Labor services were uncommon and were generally performed by kholopy (bondmen), whose numbers declined steadily. By the second half of the 15th century, money payments were introduced alongside quitrent in kind. However, the development of commodity-money relations affected only certain aspects of the feudal economy, primarily hunting, fishing, and beekeeping. The feudal lords sought to bind the peasants to the land by law. By the early 14th century several categories of the dependent peasantry—davnie liudi, polovniki, poruchniki, dol-zhniki—had lost the right to leave their lords. The boyars and monasteries sought to restrict the freedom of movement of other categories of peasants.

The development of feudal relations in the republic was accompanied by ceaseless class struggle. Historical sources mention about 80 major demonstrations of townspeople, many of them developing into armed uprisings. The most important urban uprisings (1136, 1207, 1228–29, 1270, 1418, and 1446–47) also engulfed the peasant masses. Peasant flight, refusal to pay feudal dues, and various local outbreaks were frequent forms of antifeudal protest between the 12th and 15th centuries. The first heresies in Russia arose in the Novgorod Land.

The republic resisted the aggression of Swedish and, later, German feudal lords. In the mid-12th century the Swedes began seizing Finnish lands whose inhabitants paid tribute to Novgorod. German feudal lords embarked on the conquest of the Baltic region in the late 12th century. From the mid-12th century to the mid-15th century, Novgorod fought 26 wars with Sweden and 11 wars with the Livonian Order. From 1240 to 1242, German Crusaders and Danish and Swedish feudal lords took advantage of the Mongol-Tatar onslaught to intensify their aggressive actions and invade the republic. However, their campaigns were unsuccessful. The Novgorod army also repulsed the subsequent campaigns of Swedish and German feudal lords. The Novgorod Land did not suffer the horrors of the Mongol-Tatar invasion, but the republic recognized its dependence on the Golden Horde and paid tribute to the khans.

From the 14th century Tver’, Moscow, and Lithuania attempted to subjugate the republic. Upon becoming grand prince of Vladimir, Mikhail Iaroslavich, the prince of Tver’, sent his vicegerents to Novgorod without preliminary negotiations, an action that prompted Novgorod to seek closer ties with Moscow. Ivan Kalita, Semen the Proud, and other Moscow princes who occupied the grand princely throne also sought to limit the republic’s independence. A sharp conflict broke out between the republic and Moscow in 1397, when Moscow annexed the Dvina Land, which however, was returned to the republic in 1398. In its struggle against the oppression of the Moscow princes, the Novgorod government sought an alliance with Lithuania. By the mid-15th century, the republic’s resistance to the grand princes of Moscow was an obstacle to overcoming feudal fragmentation in Rus’.

To preserve their political privileges, some powerful boyars favored bringing Novgorod under the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Those who advocated this course were known as the Lithuanian party. In 1470 the pro-Lithuanian boyars persuaded the Novgorodians to invite Mikhail Olel’kovich, a Lithuanian prince, to rule over them. The Novgorod government initiated negotiations for an alliance with the grand duke of Lithuania, Casimir IV. The question of transferring allegiance to the Lithuanian state provoked large-scale unrest in Novgorod. The Moscow grand princes skillfully used the intensifying class conflict in the republic and the working people’s desire for an end to feudal internecine wars to further their interests. The victory of the Moscow army in the battle on the Shelon’ River in 1471 signaled the end of Novgorod’s political independence. After the Muscovite army besieged Novgorod in 1478, the Novgorod Land was incorporated into the centralized Russian state, and the republic ceased to exist.

Evolving out of the culture created during the flowering of Kievan Rus’, the culture of the Novgorod feudal republic reached a high level. Between the 12th and 15th centuries the Kievan heritage was enriched with local features reflecting the republic’s socioeconomic and political development. The byliny (epic folk songs) about Vasilii Buslaev and Sadko, probably composed in the 14th century, offer a picture of the period of Novgorod’s independence and of its wealth and grandeur. These and other works of oral poetry give insight into the daily life of the medieval commercial city. There was a high rate of literacy among the Novgorod population, especially in the boyar and merchant classes. Excavations in Novgorod have uncovered many documents and letters written on birchbark, including dozens of letters by ordinary people. Novgorod was also a major center of chronicle writing. The culture of the republic was part of the culture of the Great Russian people, which evolved between the 12th and 15th centuries.


Bernadskii, V. N. Novgorod i Novgorodskaia zemlia v XV v. Moscow-Leningrad, 1961.
Cherepnin, L. V. Obrazovanie Russkogo tsentralizovannogo gosudarstva v XIV–XV vv. Moscow, 1960.
Ianin, V. L. Novgorodskie posadniki. Moscow, 1962.
Khoroshkevich, A. L. Torgovlia Velikogo Novgoroda s Pribaltikoi i Zapadnoi Evropoi v XIV–XV vv. Moscow, 1963.
Likhachev, D. S. Novgorod Velikii: Ocherk istorii kul’tury Novgoroda XI–XVIIvv. Moscow, 1959.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.