City Guide: Novgorod, Russia

Velikiy Novgorod - The Incomparable City

Fast Facts

The breath-taking city of Novgorod is located between Moscow and St Petersburg, on the M10 federal highway that runs between the two cities. Despite this dramatic connection to the modern world, Novgorod is one of Russia's oldest and most dazzling cities, at least in terms of its surviving medieval architecture. Like most Russian cities, it also lies along the banks of a river; in this case, the Volkhov River, just below Lake Ilmen.

In 1998, the city was renamed Velikiy Novgorod, meaning "the great new city", to reestablish its medieval title. According to the 2002 census, Novgorod has a population of about 217,000 people.

An Eye for History

The oldest Slavic city recorded in Russia, Novgorod is first mentioned in chronicles in 859, as a major stop for traders enroute from the Baltics to Byzantium. Earlier records suggest the city's existence some years before its first official record; in Norse Sagas the city is referred to by its Varangian name, Holmgard. The state of the city before 859 cannot be accurately determined, however; it is impossible to disentangle facts from legend about its existence.

In 882, the ruler Novgorod, Oleg, captured Kiev and established the Kievan Rus. In this state, Novgorod became the second most important city; second only to Kiev.

By 1136, however, the status quo of the Kievan Russ was disrupted. Novgorod merchants and boyars seceded from Kiev and proclaimed the Novgorod Republic, establishing it as a powerful city state. It came to control most of Europe's North-East, including territories spanning from modern-day Estonia to the Ural Mountains.

Through the Middle Ages, the city continued to thrive and develop, and most of the population was literate. Archeologists have found some of the oldest Slavic and Finnic language books and inscriptions in the city.

By the mid-15th century, however, Novgorod was vulnerable. The city population had grown so considerably that it relied upon grain from the Vladimir-Suzdal region to feed itself. The rulers of Moscow and Tver used Novgorod's dependence to gain control of the city and the land that it controlled. It was eventually annexed to Muscovy in 1478, although it remained the third largest city in Russia until Ivan the Terrible plundered it in 1570.

After falling under the control of the Swedes six years during the Times of Trouble (1598-1613) the city became the administrative center for the Novgorod Governorate of the Russian Empire in 1727; an administrative division that existed until 1927.

During the Second World War, however, the city was occupied by the Nazis and suffered considerable damage. The Germans took over on August 15th, 1941, and by the time they were removed, on January 19th, 1944, less than 40 of the city's 2536 stone buildings remained standing.

Rebuilding and development followed, leading up to 1998, when the city was officially renamed Velikiy Novgorod in honor of its full medieval title.

Out and About

Just about all the information tourist could ever need about Novgorod is available from Red Izba, the city's tourist information center located at 5 Sennaya Ploschad, near Novgorod's Kremlin. Contact information include a telephone number (816 2) 773-074. Hours of operation are 10am to 5pm daily.

Some of the most interesting places in Novgorod include the Novgorod Kremlin, the Museum of Fine Art, and the Novgorod State Museum, famous for its collection of icons.

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