Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Fall of Novgorod the Great

The Czar of Russia is the one political deity in Europe, the sole absolute autocrat. More than a hundred millions of people have delivered themselves over, fettered hand and foot, almost body and soul, to the ownership of one man, without a voice in their own government, without daring to speak, hardly daring to think, otherwise than he approves. Thousands of them, millions of them, perhaps, are saying to-day, in the words of Hamlet, "It is not and it cannot come to good; but break my heart, for I must hold my tongue."

Who is this man, this god of a nation, that he should loom so high? Is he a marvel of wisdom, virtue, and nobility, made by nature to wear the purple, fashioned of porcelain clay, greater and better than all the host to whom his word is the voice of fate? By no means; thousands of his subjects tower far above him in virtue and ability, but, puppet-like, the noblest and best of them must dance as be pulls the strings, and hardly a man in Russia dares to say that his soul is his own if the czar says otherwise.

Such a state of affairs is an anachronism in the nineteenth century, a hideous relic of the barbarism and anarchy of mediaeval times. In America, where every man is a czar, so far as the disposal of himself is concerned, the enslavement of the Russians seems a frightful disregard of the rights of man, the nation a giant Gulliver bound down to the earth by chains of creed and custom, of bureaucracy and perverted public opinion. Like Gulliver, it was bound when asleep, and it must continue fettered while its intellect remains torpid. Some day it will awake, stretch its mighty limbs, burst its feeble bonds, and hurl in disarray to the earth the whole host of liliputian officials and dignitaries who are strutting in the pride of ownership on its great body, the czar tumbling first from his great estate.

This does not seem a proper beginning to a story from Russian history, but, to quote from Shakespeare again, "Thereby hangs a tale." The history of Russia has, in fact, been a strange one; it began as a republic, it has ended as a despotism; and we cannot go on with our work without attempting to show how this came about.

It was the Mongol invasion that enslaved Russia. Helped by the khans, Moscow gradually rose to supremacy over all the other principalities, trod them one by one under her feet, gained power by the aid of Tartar swords and spears or through sheer dread of the Tartar name, and when the Golden Horde was at length overthrown the Grand Prince took the place of the Great Khan and ruled with the same absolute sway. It was the absolutism of Asia imported into Europe. Step by step the princes of Moscow had copied the system of the khan. This work was finished by Ivan the Great, at once the deliverer and the enslaver of Russia, who freed that country from the yoke of the khan, but laid upon it a heavier burden of servility and shame.

Under the khan there had been insurrection. Under the czar there was subjection. The latter state was worse than the former. The subjection continues still, but the spirit of insurrection is again rising. The time is coming in which the rule of that successor of the Tartar khan, miscalled the czar, will end, and the people take into their own hands the control of their bodies and souls.

There were republics in Russia even in Ivan's day, free cities which, though governed by princes, maintained the republican institutions of the past. Chief among these was Novgorod, that Novgorod the Great which invited Rurik into Russia and under him became the germ of the vast Russian empire. A free city then, a free city it continued. Rurik and his descendants ruled by sufferance. Yaroslaf confirmed the free institutions which Rurik had respected. For centuries this great commercial city continued prosperous and free, becoming in time a member of the powerful Hanseatic League. Only for the invasion of the Mongols, Novgorod instead of Moscow might have become the prototype of modern Russia, and a republic instead of a despotism have been established in that mighty land. The sword of the Tartar cast into the scales overweighted the balance. It gave Moscow the supremacy, and liberty fell.

Ivan the Great, in his determined effort to subject all Russia to his autocratic sway, saw before him three republican communities, the free cities of Novgorod, Viatka, and Pskof, and took steps to sweep these last remnants of ancient freedom from his path. Novgorod, as much the most important of these, especially demands our attention. With its fall Russian liberty fell to the earth.

At that time Novgorod was one of the richest and most powerful cities of the earth. It was an ally rather than a subject of Moscow, and all the north of Russia was under its sway and contributed to its wealth. But luxury had sapped its strength, and it held its liberties more by purchase than by courage. Some of these liberties had already been lost, seized by the grand prince. The proud burghers chafed under this invasion of their time-honored privileges, and in 1471, inspired by the seeming timidity of Ivan, they determined to regain them.

It was a woman that brought about the revolt. Marfa, a rich and influential widow of the city, had fallen in love with a Lithuanian, and, inspired at once by the passions of love and ambition, sought to attach her country to that of her lover. She opened her palace to the citizens and lavished on them her treasures, seeking to inspire them with her own views. Her efforts were successful: the officers of the grand prince were driven out, and his domains seized; and when he threatened reprisal they broke into open revolt, and bound themselves by treaty to Casimir, prince of Lithuania.

But events were to prove that the turbulent citizens were no match for the crafty Ivan, who moved slowly but ever steadily to his goal, and made secure each footstep before taking a step in advance. His insidious policy roused three separate hostilities against Novgorod. The pride of the nobles was stirred up against its democracy; the greed of the princes made them eager to seize its wealth; the fanatical people were taught that this great city was an apostate to the faith.

These hostile forces proved too much for the city against which they were directed. Novgorod was taken and plundered, though Ivan did not yet deprive it of its liberties. He had powerful princes to deal with, and did not dare to seize so rich a prey without letting them share the spoil. But he ruined the city by devastation and plunder, deprived it of its tributaries, the city and territory of Perm, and turned from Novgorod to Moscow the rich commerce of this section. Taking advantage of some doubtful words in the treaty of submission, he held himself to be legislator and supreme judge of the captive city. Such was the first result of the advice of an ambitious woman.

The next step of the autocrat added to his influence. Novgorod being threatened with an attack from Livonia, he sent thither troops and envoys to fight and negotiate in his name, thus taking from the city, whose resources he had already drained, its old right of making peace and war.

The ill feeling between the rich and the poor of Novgorod was fomented by his agents; all complaints were required to be made to him; he still further impoverished the rich by the presents and magnificent receptions which his presence among them demanded, and dazzled the eyes of the people by the Oriental state and splendor which had been adopted by the court of Moscow, and which he displayed in their midst.

The nobles who had formerly been his enemies now became his victims. He had induced the people to denounce them, and at once seized them and sent them in chains to Moscow. The people, blinded by this seeming attention to their complaints, remained heedless of the violation of the ancient law of their republic, "that none of its citizens should ever be tried or punished out of the limits of its own territory."

Thus tyranny made its slow way. The citizens, once governed and judged by their own peers, now made their appeals to the grand prince and were summoned to appear before his tribunal. "Never since Rurik," say the annals, "had such an event happened; never had the grand princes of Kief and Vladimir seen the Novgorodians come and submit to them as their judges. Ivan alone could reduce Novgorod to that degree of humiliation."

This work was done with the deliberation of a settled policy. Ivan did not molest Marfa, who had instigated the revolt; his sentences were just and equitable; men were blinded by his seeming moderation; and for full seven years he pursued his insidious way, gradually weaning the people from their ancient customs, and taking advantage of every imprudence and thoughtless concession on their part to ground on it a claim to increased authority.

It was the glove of silk he had thus far extended to them. Within it lay concealed the hand of iron. The grasp of the iron hand was made when, during an audience, the envoy of the republic, through treason or thoughtlessness, addressed him by the name of sovereign (Gondar, "liege lord," instead of Gospodin, "master," the usual title).

Ivan, taking advantage of this, at once claimed all the absolute rights which custom had attached to that title. He demanded that the republic should take an oath to him as its judge and legislator, receive his boyars as their rulers, and yield to them the ancient palace of Yaroslaf, the sacred temple of their liberties, in which for more than five centuries their assemblies had been held.

This demand roused the Novgorodians to their danger. They saw how blindly they had yielded to tyranny. A transport of indignation inspired them. For the last time the great bell of liberty sent forth its peal of alarm. Gathering tumultuously at the palace from which they were threatened with expulsion, they vigorously resolved,—

"Ivan is in fact our lord, but he shall never be our sovereign; the tribunal of his deputies may sit at Goroditch, but never at Novgorod: Novgorod is, and always shall be, its own judge."

In their rage they murdered several of the nobles whom they suspected of being friends of the tyrant. The envoy who had uttered the imprudent word was torn to pieces by their furious hands. They ended by again invoking the aid of Lithuania.

On hearing of this outbreak the despot feigned surprise. Groans broke from his lips, as if he felt that he had been basely used. His complaints were loud, and the calling in of a foreign power was brought against Novgorod as a frightful aggravation of its crime. Under cover of these groans and complaints an army was gathered to which all the provinces of the empire were forced to send contingents.

These warlike preparations alarmed the citizens. All Russia seemed arrayed against them, and they tremblingly asked for conditions of peace in accordance with their ancient honor. "I will reign at Novgorod as I do at Moscow," replied the imperious despot. "I must have domains on your territory. You must give up your Posadnick, and the bell which summons you to the national council." Yet this threat of enslavement was craftily coupled with a promise to respect their liberty.

This declaration, the most terrible that free citizens could have heard, threw them into a state of violent agitation. Now in defiant fury they seized their arms, now in helpless despondency let them fall. For a whole month their crafty adversary permitted them to exhibit their rage, not caring to use the great army with which he had encircled the city when assured that the terror of his presence would soon bring him victory.

They yielded: they could do nothing but yield. No blood was shed. Ivan had gained his end, and was not given to useless cruelty. Marta and seven of the principal citizens were sent prisoners to Moscow and their property was confiscated, No others were molested. But on the 15th of January, 1478, the national assemblies ceased, and the citizens took the oath of subjection. The great republic, which had existed from prehistoric times, was at an end, and despotism ruled supreme.

On the 18th the boyars of Novgorod entered the service of Ivan, and the possessions of the clergy were added to the domain of the prince, giving him as vassals three hundred thousand boyar-followers, on whom he depended to hold Novgorod in a state of submission. A great part of the territories belonging to the city became the victor's prize, and it is said that, as a share of his spoil, he sent to Moscow three hundred cart-loads of gold, silver, and precious stones, besides vast quantities of furs, cloths, and other goods of value.

Pskov, another of the Russian republics, had been already subdued. In 1479, Viatka, a colony of Novgorod, was reduced to like slavery. The end had come. Republicanism in Russia was extinguished, and gradually the republican population was removed to the soil of Moscow and replaced by Muscovites, born to the yoke.

The liberties of Novgorod were gone. It had been robbed of its wealth. Its commerce remained, which in time would have restored its prosperity. But this too Ivan destroyed, not intentionally, but effectually. A burst of despotic anger completed the work of ruin. The tyrant, having been insulted by a Hanseatic city, ordered all the merchants of the Hansa then in Novgorod to be put in chains and their property confiscated. As a result, that confidence under which alone commerce can flourish vanished, the North sought new channels for its trade, and Novgorod the Great, once peopled by four hundred thousand souls, declined until only an insignificant borough marks the spot where once it stood.

It is an interesting fact that this final blow to Russian republicanism was dealt in 1492, the very year in which Columbus discovered a new world beyond the seas, within which the greatest republic the world has ever known was destined to arise.