The Veche

The veche, or town assembly, of Novgorod has become quite famous to historians, many of whom saw in this institution a cradle of democracy--an assembly in which all the residents of the city had an equal voice in the decisions which affected them all. Is this a true picture? Before I answer this question, a few words about the origins of this assembly.

Novgorod, as mentioned above, seems to have grown out of three earlier independent settlements. Currently it is believed that the institution of the veche was created when these three settlements merged to provide for the town a government which would reflect the wishes of each of these settlements. One duty of the veche from very early times was to elect its posadnik, or mayor; the assembly was also usually convened in times of emergency. Later, as the power of the people behind this institution grew, the veche came to play a role in the confirmation of princes and archbishops-- or their deposition.

But who were the people behind the institution? This has been the subject of much debate. Some historians hold that the veche was truly a popular assembly, pointing to mentions in the chronicles of the role of "the people" (the same Russian word which can also refer to craftsmen in general) in decisions of the veche . Archaeological evidence, however, has lent weight to the opposing theory: that it was the boyars and merchants and perhaps the wealthier craftsmen who were entitled to vote. Excavations in the area where the veche is known to have met (close to the Church of St. Nicholas, on the Market Side) have revealed that the only open area suitable for a veche meeting could hold perhaps 200-300 people -- out of a population of at least 10,000 in the eleventh century, even more in later years. Clearly, this is not an assembly in which all could participate, even if only heads of families could vote. The more likely scenario is that the council was dominated by the more influential and wealthy men of the city. However, the meetings were always held outdoors, in the open, so that all could see and hear the proceedings. This adds an additional factor to veche meetings--the role of the mob, who through force of numbers could be relied upon to carry out decisions reached by the veche, or to shout down unpopular proposals. Veche members probably had to keep this in mind during their deliberations. This probably led to the belief that all decisions of the veche had to be unanimous; this was certainly not enshrined in law, but in actual practice-- making the repair to the Volkhov bridge less a judicial duel between two sides than a disorderly riot using whatever weapons were at hand. With that, a few lines from The Life if Vasily Buslaev, one of the later byliny:

You would think it was the spring flood
Overflowing in the meadows,
But it is the crowd of Novgorod Swelling-surging in Rogatitsa (street).
You would think it was geese and swans
Rising on Ilmen Lake
But it is all the men of Novgorod
Gathering on the Volkhov bridge....
...All the heads are broken with the flail
All the arms are bandaged with handkerchiefs
All the legs are tied with belts.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.