Veliky Novgorod is the only place where it is possible to discover the full array of those emotional experiences that are so dear and important to every citizen of our country: the richness of Russia’s soul, the unbreakable bond with the great and glorious history of the country, and the touch of the living antiquity. You can say you know your country only after you have visited the ancient lands of Novgorod, the birthplace of Russia.
It is the only place where you can touch the living history more ancient than Russia itself, and see for yourself ‘from whence the Russian land came to be’: its Orthodox beliefs and practices, or Pravoslavie, literacy, democracy, and statehood. You will be taken ten centuries back and enjoy the old famous hospitality of Novgorod.
You will see the legendary Volkhov River, the main water way of the famous medieval trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks. Numerous convoys of merchant ships sailed the river many centuries ago, loaded with goods from faraway lands: luxurious fabrics, non-ferrous metals, rare wines, and amber. Today it is a popular swimming spot and a place for cleaving on jet skis the mirror-like surface of the river still hiding many unsolved mysteries. Following the genius of Rachmaninoff, Dostoevsky, Derzhavin, and Akhmatova, you will feel the pulse of time at the wrist of history, being inspired by this amazing city, both so ancient and peaceful, and vibrant and young at the same time.
As if anticipating your wishes, Veliky Novgorod will surprise you with whatever you seek deep inside. It is your choice what you would like most: to relax from the hustle and bustle of city life, enjoying a stroll along the ancient streets and admiring the treasures of Russian architecture in the historical city centre, or to indulge in the surprises of busy early and late night life in the city.
You can be absolutely sure that having visited Veliky Novgorod once, you will keep coming back to marvel the mysteries of Russian history unravelled in Novgorodchina (the lands of Novgorod), and to experience the mysterious Russian soul praised by Russian classical poets.
Veliky Novgorod – the Birthplace of Russian Statehood
The Novgorod land is the only place where you can take a breath of the air that once filled the chest of the emerging Rus (Old Russia). Veliky Novgorod was the first to introduce Russia to running a republican state, and its historical example has always attracted the supporters of democratic development in our country.
A visit to the Rurik’s Gorodishche (Settlement) is not to be missed. D.S. Likhachev used to call it one of the most wonderful places in the world, and it is directly linked with the sources of Russian statehood. Prince Rurik stood here with his druzhina (troops) in the 9th century after being called in by the Slavs to rule. He started the Rurik dynasty that stood at the head of the Russian state for over 700 years and gave the land a new name of ‘Rus’.
Beginning from the 12th century, Novgorod ‘chose princes of its own free will’, i.e. princes were invited to ‘work as contractors’. If a prince did not meet its expectations, he would be shown out. Even Alexander Nevsky could not escape this fate. However, when the Teutonic nights reached Novgorod, Alexander was allowed back to rule.
The tale of the calling in of Rurik to Novgorod became the official reason for celebrating the 1000th anniversary of Russia. To commemorate this event, Emperor Alexander II arranged for the building of the grand Monument to the Millennium of Russia in the centre of the Novgorod Kremlin in 1862. Now it continues to add to the beauty of the Novgorod Kremlin and remind us of Novgorod’s well deserved status of the Father of Russian cities.
Veliky Novgorod – the Birthplace of Russian Democracy
Veliky Novgorod, daring and rebellious northerner, was always notable for the free thinking and independent character of its people. The image of Novgorod as of ‘volny’, or free-willed Novgorod, has become a part of national consciousness: the Novgorod Republic is one the earliest examples of the democratic system. Under the rule of Prince Yaroslav Mudry (the Wise), the offspring of tribal leaders who settled in Novgorod wer e granted special rights and tax privileges, including the right of self-government at the end of the 11th century. Deep booming sounds of the vechevoy kolokol (assembly bell) summoned ancient residents of Novgorod to the veche where highly important Republic-level decisions were made at this people’s assembly.
Since the 12th century, Novgorodians decided to choose their princes at will. With every new prince, they discussed the limits to his power and the cost of his service. The power was divided between the prince and the posadnik (governor), who was also elected by ‘the worthiest men’ at veche. Never was Novgorod’s prince allowed to hold court or appoint his subordinates to govern any volost (small district) without having discussed it with the governor. Even the archbishop could be chosen by the people at veche. It is not without reason that in the past our city was always called no other name but ‘free-willed’. Even today, the great, glorious and prosperous Novgorod Republic continues to interest the advocates of civil liberties.
His Majesty Lord Novgorod the Great: that is how the city used to be called by its full name. His might and free-thinking were so great and powerful, that no sooner had Ivan IV the Terrible taken over Novgorod in a bloody battle, than he ordered to take the vechevoy bell down, publicly whip it and then pull out its tongue to make the voice of freedom fall silent.
Veliky Novgorod – the Birthplace of Orthodox Russia
Orthodox pilgrims from all over Russia passionately seek to visit Veliky Novgorod to touch the sacred Christian places worshiped since olden times. The walls of Novgorod churches, soaked in prayers, breathe the wisdom of the past centuries, and wonder-working icons, still guarding the city, emanate divine grace.
The awe-inspiring St Sophia Cathedral was erected in Novgorod as early as in the 10th century. The most ancient Russian stone church, St Sophia has always been an important element not only of Novgorod’s religious and civil life but also of its spiritual essence. Prince Mstislav Udaloy (the Daring) had all reasons to say in the 13th century that ‘Where Saint Sophia is, Novgorod stands there’. According to the tale, the dove, sitting on top of the golden dome of the cathedral, guards the city from bad luck; and the chronicles relate that Veliky Novgorod is under the protection of Saint Sophia, the Holy Wisdom.
Today the active Cathedral of St Sophia keeps one of Novgorod’s sacred treasures, the icon of The Sign of Our Lady. Legend has it that in the 12th century it delivered the victory to Novgorodians over the people of Suzdal, who shot its image with an arrow. The blasphemy did not go unpunished: ‘darkness fell upon’ Novgorod’s enemies, and they slaughtered each other in fear.
The actual icon of ‘The Battle between the Warriors of Novgorod and Suzdal’ is exhibited at the world’s largest exposition of medieval Russian icon-painting as part of the collection of the Novgorod State United Museum located in the former Administrative Offices building, in the Novgorod Kremlin. You can also find there the first painting of Russian saints, the icon of St Boris and Gleb, and the imposing icon of Our Saviour, the Watchful Eye.
The most important events in Russian history are linked to the ring of Novgorod monasteries and convents surrounding the city, and to famous heroic deeds of their saint founders. Prince Alexander Nevsky prayed on his knees for a victory over the Teutonic nights in St George Cathedral of St George (Yuryev) Monastery. St Varlaam Khutynsky, the founder and the first prior of the Varlaamo-Khutynsky Convent, fortold the victory of Ivan III over Lithuania and the Crimean Ghirey Khan. Still today, people can pay their humble homage to the wonder-working relics of Rev. Varlaam.
Veliky Novgorod – the Birthplace of Literacy in Russia
The very first book in Russian...The very first school in Rus (Old Russia)... One of the largest libraries in medieval Rus... Totally literate population in the times when the majority of Europeans scribbled a cross as their signature... It is a well-known fact that Anne, the Queen of France and the daughter of Yaroslav Mudry (the Wise), wrote to him in one of her letters, ‘A barbarous country you have sent me to: the homes here are gloomy, the churches are ugly, and the customs are terrible’.
Since the olden times, Novgorod has been the centre of writing chronicles and adherence to the book word. Official documents were not the only form of writing in Novgorodchina (the lands of Novgorod). Even peasants kept active correspondence on daily life, as well as love matters. Today you can also have an opportunity to read the messages that ancient Novgorodians sent to each other. Archaeologists have found over 1000 birch-bark scrolls, many of which belong to the collection of the Novgorod State United Museum. Among those, there are very touching pictures belonging to the boy named Onfima, who tried to master the secrets of reading and writing.
Ten centuries ago, the inside walls of the imposing St Sophia Cathedral were covered with prayers of appeal; recordings of various events from the religious and political life of the town; and the feelings of parishioners about the service and given sermons. It could well be the first book of suggestions and complaints in Europe. Some of those inscriptions still remain there today.
Do not miss a stroll down the embankment, and a scenic path through a beautiful shady park. You will reach St Anthony Monastery, the famous dwelling place of St Anthony, who, as legend has it, came to Novgorod from Italy by see on a rock. That rock can be found in the Cathedral of the Nativity of Our Lady. The monastery was also a home of the noted Kirik Novgorodets (Kirik the Novgorodian), the first Russian mathematician who systematised the principles of calendar chronology and astronomy.
Veliky Novgorod – a Hanseatic City
Over centuries, Veliky Novgorod was a link between medieval Europe and Rus (Old Russia). Long before Tsar Peter the Great set about ‘opening the window to Europe’, Russia had already had its door to European countries and European markets wide open. It was Veliky Novgorod that became a centre of international integration and trade. Among Novgorod imports were non-ferrous metals, rare wines, amber, Baltic herring, salt, and luxury fabrics, with uncut cloth being in particular high demand. Novgorod exports, in turn, were highly sought after in the whole of Europe. Many West European monarchs and nobles wore exquisite fur coats and hats made of Novgorod rare furs like ermine, sable, and marten, and strutted around in their leather boots tanned by Novgorod masters of the trade. Russian wax candles flickered on giant altars of major European Gothic cathedrals.
Hanseatic cities carried their trade with Old Russian only through Novgorod. Hanseatic merchants did not advance further into Rus. They sold their entire stock in Novgorod, which then was taken by Novgorod merchants to points of sale. Take a short walk from the Kremlin across the foot bridge over the Volkhov River, and you will find yourself at the Yaroslav’s Courtyard, a medieval marketplace, or Torg where one of the largest in Europe Hanseatic office used to be. Take time to look at the beautifully decorated Church of Paraskeva the Friday that was built by the ‘merchants from faraway lands’. They say that if you walk around the church and feel 148 corners with your palm, luck will come to your business. Young Novgorod women would run around it three times to get happily married; and even now, there are always footprints around it...
Traditions of medieval Hansa, which is considered to be an original model for the modern single European market, became the foundation for the Hanseatic League of the New Age, which was created in 1980 and now includes over 160 cities from 15 European states.
Veliky Novgorod – the Museum-City
Nothing will give you the feeling of such peaceful joy and aesthetic pleasure as a stroll down the streets of Veliky Novgorod, the city of real jewels of Russian architecture. The architecture of this ancient city is truly unique: the variety of styles and epochs is fascinating. Despite the eclecticism, they are all joined in amazing harmony.
The Yaroslav’s Courtyard is the only place in Russia where seven Orthodox Christian temples, all different in style, stand on a small piece of land. Novgorod, Byzantium, and Moscow designs can be found in the most astonishing structures erected on the grounds of an ancient marketplace, or Torg. The chronicles say that one of the temples, i.e. St Nicholas Cathedral, was built by the Russian architect named Peter.
If you walk past the Yaroslav’s Courtyard, you will see the charming Church of the Transfiguration of Our Saviour on Ilyina Street and its stunning frescos by the eminent Byzantium artist Theophanes the Greek.
The Novgorod Kremlin guards the Faceted (Archbishop’s) Chamber, a unique building and a puzzle of Veliky Novgorod architecture. This is the first Russian building in Gothic style ‘of thirty three doors’.
There is a place near the Faceted Chamber by the Kremlin wall where the Archbishop’s Palace stood in the 15th century as the residence of Novgorod’s archbishop. It was called the ‘palace of wonders’ and was well-known for its tricky water supply and sewage system that already used some of the modern technologies.
It is almost like touching the figures frozen in time while standing in the centre of history when you visit ‘The Theatre of Time: Troitsky Excavation Site’, a public display of archaeological monuments, which historians have accurately called ‘Russian Troy’. A unique opportunity is offered to you to become the audience of this theatre where decorations are hundreds of times older than you, and to evidence some of the sensational archaeological findings.
The open-air museum of wooden architecture ‘Vitoslavlitsy’ is one of the picturesque spots that are most loved by Novgorodians and the guests of the city. It holds a collection of the greatest examples of wooden construction. The steepled roofs and onion-shaped domes of churches and belfries are seen inside the museum gates and tell us about some other, very different life. Here Novgorodians hold boundless festive revelries twice a year to celebrate Svyatky, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and Maslenitsa, or the ‘Butter Week’ carnival. These lively and joyful celebrations allow you to fully experience the atmosphere of those unique holidays.
Veliky Novgorod – the Birthplace of the Epic Hero Sadko
In the lands of Novgorod, contemporary reality is so intricately interwoven with fiction. The Birthplace of Russia has used its own unique ancient magic to give life to many beautiful legends.
When you find yourself in the very heart of the city, i.e. the Novgorod Kremlin, take a walk along the walls of the Detinets (the Kremlin) to enjoy the awe-inspiring view of St Sophia. As you walk, you may come to the place where the legendary hero of Russian bylinas (epic songs) Sadko put up the walls of the now nonexistent St Peter and Gleb’s Cathedral. Its founder Sadko is commonly seen as the image of the freedom-loving spirit of Novgorodians. A proud and a free-willed merchant, he lived and carried his trade in Novgorodchina (the lands of Novgorod), multiplying the glory of his homeland and praising its virtues in faraway lands.
Vasily Buslayev, another hero of Novgorod epic songs, was highly regarded by Maxim Gorky who considered him the image of the Russian daring soul.
As you walk around the Yaroslav’s Courtyard, imagine that you set foot on the land where another epic hero, bogatyr Dobrynya Nikitich used to engage into government matters before the arrival of Hansa merchants. The Novgorod posadnik (governor) Dobrynya baptized the ancient Russian city and, as legend has it, threw the pageant idol of Perun into the Ilmen Lake and watched it return three times to its place, drifting against the current.
...and when you come back to your comfortable hotel room, don’t forget to throw a coin into the Volkhov River for luck, to make sure that you will return to the city that is so impossible not to love.
Veliky Novgorod – the Birthplace of Russian Geniuses
The lives of many prominent Russians are closely connected with the lands of Novgorod. For eight years, the world famous writer Fyodor Dostoevsky lived and created his prose in Staraya Russa. Today you too can go for a stroll down the very scenic side streets of this cosy little town frequented by ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ in the Staraya Russa setting of this famous novel. The celebrated poet Gavrila Derzhavin found peace in his ever restless soul in the estate of Zvanka of the Novgorod province. The enigmatic lady of the Silver Age of Russian poetry Anna Akhmatova was deeply in love with Veliky Novgorod, writing about the unbreakable bond between them:
‘For I have got a tiny drop of blood
From you, the Novgorodian land.
It’s mine, an ice-cube in that bubbly wine.’
For the great musician Sergey Rachmaninoff, Veliky Novgorod became a place that was very special, unique and dear to his heart. The brilliant Russian pianist and composer was born in the Novgorod province and fell passionately in love with this ancient city which he called his smaller homeland and which he was greatly indebted to for his musical inspiration. When standing today by the Belfry of St Sophia and absorbing the tuneful chimes, one instantly recalls the famous words of Rachmaninoff:
‘One of the most dear to me childhood memories is connected with four notes that the bells of Novgorod’s St Sophia Cathedral used to ring. The bell-ringers were true performers. The four notes joined into the ever repeating melody: four silver weeping notes ringing to the constantly changing accompaniments. ..’.
Many years later, when he was in emigration, Rachmaninoff admitted how desperately he missed the chimes of Novgorod bells. Novgorodians honour their great fellow-townsman. The annual program of ‘Sergey Rachmaninoff Memorial Days’ is held in autumn and in spring. Two other related events are held twice in five years: the International Contest of Young Pianists and S.V. Rachmaninoff International Festival. The latter traditionally presents eminent masters of musical arts, who have been recognized by the critics around the world as the living symbols of ‘the best of everything in musical arts’.