03 March 2017

Novgorod, Russia 2006

The city of Novgorod was an unusual inclusion on our itinerary, not then visited by most tourists, but it was an appropriate break on the long drive between St Petersburg and Moscow. That's aka Novgorod Veliky, not to be confused with Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow. It was an interesting prospect since it is older and much more historic than both the principal cities.

 Novgorod is revered territory as the birthplace and fatherland of Russia. First documented in 859 AD before Christianization, it was politically tied to Kiev (Kievan Rus') for some time, then became a princely republic in its own right, controlling wide areas beyond. Its location at the end of the Silk Road and its trade with the Hanseatic League network made it a wealthy, powerful state until Ivan III of Moscow (Ivan the Terrible) sicced his oprichniki on them in 1570. Novgorod declined and Moscow ascended.
Our local guide Galena met us on our arrival to make a tour, since we would have a much longer drive, and early call, the next day. She took us to the ancient kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to Galena, the bridge between the kremlin and the old town is where early citizens would meet to resolve problems; debates often accelerated with much shouting or sometimes physical blows. The peaceful 30-acre kremlin grounds appeared a bit neglected; gigantic old bells were sitting dormant in a courtyard.

 St Sophia is the patron saint of the city, thus the name of the eleventh-century cathedral. Bells in the tower were pealing at the time and the faithful were approaching for a church service — by no means all old people, as I'd expected. We learned the symbolism of the “onion” domes of the Orthodox churches. Of course they are not onions. They are candle flames. Three on a church = the Trinity. Five = Jesus & the four New Testament authors. Thirteen = Jesus & the twelve apostles. Pretty well everywhere we saw in Russia, the domes were painted with gold leaf.

The most famous native son was Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod 1236-1252. I did a little more research later on ... acclaimed for defeating invading Swedish forces in 1240, he also frustrated the Teutonic knights on a bloodthirsty incursion, keeping both at bay. His alliance with the Mongols, who had reached their doorstep, saved Russians from full-scale oppression. Nevsky's acknowledged leadership of the times, supported by church and boyars and other princes, saw him canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church some three hundred years after his death.

Some vendors on our way out of the kremlin made much of birchbark paintings and souvenirs. We had been told many times that many of the poor try to develop a little extra income by selling roadside products like potatoes, mushrooms, berries, dried/smoked fish or crafts. They were not aggressive vendors and we were happy to oblige.

That evening travel buddy and I walked down to the Volnya River which divides the town; lovely place where some men were fishing, an obvious picnic-lovers’ spot. Reality check: a moment grasping a feel for 1,200 years of clamorous events. History, here.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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