Geography and Climate

Most of Russia, as it is well known, suffers from a fairly severe continental climate. In the northern reaches, the ground is frozen 8 months of the year, and rivers usually freeze all the way to the Black Sea. Summers, though brief, are often quite hot. Novgorod is on about the same latitude as south-central Alaska; however, its climate is somewhat moderated by the fact that it is close to the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. This moderation in temperatures allows a mixed deciduous (primarily oak, maple, elm, and ash) and coniferous (pine and fir) forest to grow in the fertile soil of the Ilmen Basin in the vicinity of Novgorod.

 

The City

The medieval town of Novgorod was situated in a fairly marshy area on the Volkhov River, two or three miles north of where that river meets Lake Ladoga, about 100 miles south of present-day St. Petersburg and about 320 miles northwest of Moscow. From there one may travel up the Neva River and thence into the Gulf of Finland. A number of other waterways also flow through the area and into Lake Ladoga, thus connecting this area with a vast hinterland and aided in navigation and trade. Novgorod is also easily reachable from the upper portions of the Volga River.

According to the Primary Chronicle, Novgorod was supposedly founded in 862 by Rurik, eponymous founder of the Rurikid dynasty which provided the Rus' with their ruling house until the destruction of Kiev by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Archaeological evidence seems to support this date, though it is probably true that smaller settlements may have antedated the birth of the large town. These were likely located in what this evidence reveals to be the three oldest "ends" or boroughs--Slavno End, Nerev End, and Lyudin End. Gradually, within this triangle of settlement, a central citadel (detinets) and surrounding territory (gorod) was built and grew. By the late tenth century, wooden streets had been laid and the town was taking on a truly urban character as its importance on the trade route from Scandinavia down to Constantinople grew.

Novgorod had an ethnically mixed population from very early in its history. Slavno end seems to have initially attracted settlers of Slovenian origin, whereas Finns and another Slavic people, the Krivichi, settled in Lyudin End. Nerev End may have been first settled by Finns as well. Scandinavians or "Varangians", when they arrived in the tenth century, tended to concentrate in Slavno End; Varangian mercenaries were known to be quartered on the right bank of the Volkhov. The Slavno district was also known as Kholm ("Hill"), from whence the Viking name from Novgorod, Holmgar¸r , may have arisen. By the eleventh century, with Novgorod forming the main entry point for Scandinavian tradesmen, mercenaries, and travelers, the town had assumed a rather pronounced Scandinavian flavour, which probably gave rise to statements by chroniclers that the inhabitants of Novgorod were of Varangian stock. Archaeological finds show a mixture of Scandinavian, Finnic, and Slavic settlement.

As I mentioned a moment ago, Novgorod grew from three separate settlements. It has been postulated that Novgorod proper (whose name means "New Town") was constituted when these three communities founded a joint assembly, the veche , as well as a joint place of worship (a pagan temple at that point). At some point, a citadel (detinets) was erected on some of the higher ground. This then became the centre of town, the gorod, and the adjoining areas became focus of administrative and business activity, the posad and torgorvische

This town centre was split in half by the Volkhov River. The two sides of town were called Sophia Side (after St. Sophia's Cathedral, first erected in 989 and rebuilt of stone in the eleventh century) and Merchant Side. The detinets and the gorod were to be found on Sophia Side, extending from Lyudin (Potter's) End up to Nerev End along the river. On the Merchant side were to be found the market (torgorvische) and Iaroslav's Yard, the meeting place of the veche. Most people in the eleventh century were concentrated on Sophia Side, in the detinets and the surrounding area.

Novgorod was huge compared to most Western European cities of the period. Its population in the early eleventh century has been estimated at 10-15,000; by the thirteenth century, it had probably risen to 20-30,000. Of Russian towns, only Kiev was larger.

What would the city have looked like to a visitor passing through in 1036? First, one would have noted the dampness. Novgorod1s situation on clay soils in a marshy area close by a river have been a boon to archaeologists, who have found extensive remains of objects made of wood, leather, and other organic material very well preserved as a result. An outsider, however, in 1036 would probably have found the city unusually damp. He or she would have noted the streets paved in wood--a necessity, to prevent carts and feet from becoming mired in the clay. Looking around, our visitor would see wood everywhere--not surprising in a city famed for its carpenters (Kiev's derisive comments about Novgorod's carpenters is probably rooted in the fact that stone buildings were becoming more common there). Wood, besides being cheaper and more easy to obtain in Northern Russia, is also better suited to cold climates than is stone. Entering the city, he or she would have passed into the detinets--the fortified area--through earthen ramparts reinforced by wood, through a wooden gatehouse. In 1036, these ramparts would have been fairly simple--the "real" fortification--one using significant amounts of stone and incorporating a sizable citadel or kremlin--of Novgorod did not occur until the next decade.

Our visitor's eye would have been drawn to the prince1s residence, at this point still within the city walls, the largest building in the city. It would have taken the form of a dvor or "court"--a number of buildings (izba or kleti ), often at least two stories high, situated close to each other, sometimes linked by galleries. Between the kleti was the seni , the main hall in which the prince held banquets and placed his throne. The upper levels of the kleti were the more private areas, and included the terem, or women's quarters. At this stage in the history of the Rus', the women were not yet so restricted to this area as they would be in subsequent centuries. The living quarters would have been lit by oil lamps in the evening and furnished with elaborately carved wooden beds, chairs, tables with lace tablecloths, benches, and washstands with copper ewers and bowls, and perhaps a splendid icon or two. The buildings themselves would have been made primarily of wood, brightly painted and elaborately carved, though the eleventh century sees an increasing shift towards use of store for princely palaces and boyar residences, which were built similarly to the prince1s residence, though not so large. Our visitor would probably note a number of such boyar residences scattered through the gorod .

The majority of people lived in much simpler dwellings. Rather than multiple kleti linked by galleries, they lived in single izba or kleti, or in a khoromy--a house with multiple rooms. Even the most simple of these had three parts: the main room, a hall, and an extra room, used for storage in the winter and as an extra room in the summer. Furniture was similar to that used by princes and boyars, only not so elaborate. Everyone, from princes on down, also had a bania, or bathhouse, built out in the yard. Most craftsmen1s homes served as their shops as well. In Novgorod these dwellings were not dug into the ground as in Kiev, but due to the waterlogged soil were built completely aboveground. Inside, the focus of the home was the hearth, or later, the stove, which was located in the centre of the main room. These houses were situated in a yard surrounded by either paling or a wattle fence. As the resident became richer, so did the complexity of his home: he could link several kleti into one complex, add more carving and painting, add stories onto his buildings, add windowpanes of mica, or build in stone.

Our visitor would also have noted a number of churches--small wooden structures, perhaps topped by a single dome (not yet in the familiar Russian onion-dome shape)--dotting the city, and would have noted with interest the stone foundations being laid for a great cathedral to replace the older St. Sophia1s inside the kremlin. This stone church still stands in Novgorod today. Churches became not only centres for Russian spiritual life, but also served as libraries, warehouses, guild treasuries, and even centres for defense in times of war.

Since Novgorod (like most major Rus' towns of this era) was situated on a waterway, residents would have pointed with pride to the vymols or landings, where trading ships from far and wide would come to unload their wares. They also would have pointed out the market across the river from the detinets, the great open space where the Varangian mercenaries made their camp, and the other, smaller open space, next to the church of St. Nicholas, where the veche held its meetings. We shall, of course, become quite familiar with these areas..

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll Clark. All rights reserved. 
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