History and Historiography

The Republic of Novgorod

Origins of this medieval “republic”

The Novgorod Republic emerged out of the disarray of Kievan Rus’, early in the twelfth century, but this trading city’s commerce-driven economy fostered an independence of mind and aversion to autocracy that led to a novel form of a feudal republic.

Its “veche”, or an assembly of all free males, selected a prince to govern Novgorod, and similar bodies met in smaller cities of the republic to choose their local executives.

The city that gave its name to the Novgorod Republic is one of the oldest urban settlements in the Slavic realm. Its strategic location on the Volkhov River made it an important link on a trade route that connected Scandinavia to the riches of the Byzantine Empire to the south. As Kiev emerged as the center of power in the region, Novgorod often took sides and at times harbored princes from the Kievan Rus’ Rurikid line during periods of dynastic crisis.

The Republic of Novgorod’s governmental structure

Art depicting the “Veche” in the Novgorod Republic.

The highest political authority in the Novgorod Republic was the “veche”, which was open to all free male residents in the realm, but usually only included those within hearing distance of the peals from its great bell. Theoretically, the veche bell could be rung by any free man wishing to summon an assembly. Its participants elected the posadnik (mayor) and tysyatsky (militia commander). As Novgorod began to assert itself, the veche voted to restrict the prince’s powers by means of an actual contract. The prince was allowed no more than fifty men in his military retinue, was bound by oath to respect all Novgorod laws, and was prohibited from owning land or engaging in commerce.

The veche was dominated by the boyars (the largest landowners) and voted on all issues relating to Novgorod, including matters of war, alliances, and commercial treaties with other nations. It also elected the posadniks from among its own ranks, and over time the duties of the senior posadnik came to include responsibility for the militia; meanwhile, the tysyatsky assumed the duties of a chief constable. In Novgorod the archbishop served as head of the executive branch. He oversaw the republican treasury, conducted foreign relations, and had the power to prosecute offenses.

In 1291 Novgorod’s local authorities enacted a series of reforms that firmly established the city as the center of an independent republic. A supreme council was created, called the council of lords. Its members were the prince’s representative, Novgorod’s archbishop, and several posadniks and tysyatskis. Over the course of the next two centuries, the council of lords grew in number to about fifty, but its actual workings remain undocumented and, therefore, lost to history. Its main function was likely the quiet resolution of disputes that occurred between one or more economic factions or families. That same year, in 1291, Novgorod was reorganized into five boroughs, each of which had its own veche and posadnik. The outer regions of Novgorod were similarly organized into fifths, using the Russian term for a quintile, pyatiny. These stretched to the north and west and included Ladoga, Oreshek, Pskov, Staraya Russa, and Torzhok.


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