It is about 200 km from Saint Petersburg, on the banks of the Volkhov. At first glance, the city of Novgorod seems frozen in the Soviet era. The heart of the city is Novgorod’s fortified Kremlin. It is one of the oldest fortified citadels in Russia. It is over 1200 years old. And the locals say that this is the city from which Russia emerged and it is their main pride.
Rurik and his legacy
Who was Prince Rurik? The story begins in the 9th century. Novgorod was a thriving settlement along one of the main Viking trade routes. It was between Scandinavia and Greece. But it was a lawless place. In order to create order, the Novgorodians invited the then powerful Viking chief and Prince Rurik. They offered him a fair and just government.
After Rurik’s death in 879, his relative Oleg took over and expanded the empire. He conquered areas north of Saint Petersburg and as far as Kiev (more than 1,000 km from Novgorod). It united the nearby Slavic and Finnish tribes to the Russian Rus state Kiev.
Novgorod’s prosperity came. The city was now free to develop its own legislative systems. Their leaders were elected and had limited mandates. It was the first democratic government in the region that we now call Russia.
Over time, Rurik became an almost symbolic legend. The Soviet Union opposed him as the founder of Russia. His name sounded like German or Scandinavian. Not Slavic, as modern Russians identify themselves.
The spread of the Orthodox Church
Vladimir the Great ruled the Kievan Rus between 980 and 1015. After a series of conflicts between Christians and Gentiles, he united his people under the same religion. He chose Orthodox Christianity. Today the Russian Orthodox Church plays a prominent role in Russian culture and politics.
In the middle of the 13th century, Mongolian troops invaded Rus from Kiev. They replaced their democratic society with a feudal one. This led to the disintegration of the state and the increase in power of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. After fierce fighting, the Novgorod leaders surrendered to the powerful Moscow government. Their elected leaders were replaced by the Moscow nobility. But Rus’ influence from Kiev remained.
From «Rus» to «Russia»
The Grand Duchy of Moscow continued to refer to his country as Rus. This became “Russia” between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. The name was retained when Peter I founded the Russian Empire. At that time, it changed its seat of power from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in the early 18th century.
The Soviets evaded the name of Russia and opted for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But it was restored after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Novgorodians have not forgotten their roots. You still feel like the people who gave birth to Russia.
Apart from the Kremlin walls, a few small pieces of cultural pride can still be seen in modern life. In the Kudesy Folk Theater, traditional dances are danced and music with roots in Viking culture is heard. The Rhat Ethnographic and Historical Club offers courses on weapons and warfare in the time of Prince Rurik.
There is no doubt that in a country with such a geographical reach as Russia, the origin of national culture is still under discussion. But at least in Novgorod people know about their history and identity.