SPB: The Birthplace of Russia

This past Saturday, my group and I went to Veliky Novgorod. Novgorod is not as well known as Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but it’s just as integral to the history of Russia. Those who know their Russian history, know that Novgorod was a prominent city in ancient Kievan Rus`, and was once a bustling port of trade and the ruling city of the first Russian princes. You can feel the history of the place as soon as you step foot on the cobblestone roads of the Kremlin. One of the most famous images of Novgorod is from a bridge crossing a shallow dip right outside the fortress; I couldn’t resist taking my own picture of it. An even more spectacular view is seeing the fortress in the distance as you cross the Volkhov River.

Novgorod is also famous for being the “birthplace of Russia” – in all senses. It contains the first Christian Orthodox church ever built in Russia in the 10th century – St. Sophia’s Cathedral. I had to cover my head to enter, so I bought a beautiful yellow silk scarf and formed a headscarf of sorts (harder than it looks). Being inside the church was surreal; everything is perfectly preserved and they even have an ancient icon on display. It was very moving. From St. Sophia’s many other churches stemmed and began popping up around Russia, especially with the encouragement from Vladimir the Great who is credited with “baptizing Russia”. Plus, almost all of Russia’s greatest heroes, like Alexander Nevsky, found their strength and ultimate win through prayer at churches.

Another reason Novgorod is considered the birthplace is because it helped formed Russian statehood and democracy. When Russia was first forming, it was an ambiguous grouping of Slavic peoples. They eventually called upon the Varangians (Vikings) to rule so order could be created (yes, I know, it’s super interesting that Russia was technically formed through Viking intervention!). One of the Varangians chieftains arose to become the first leader of what he called Rus`; his name was Rurik. Prince Rurik established Novgorod as an important settlement of the Kievan Rus` and the settlement would choose princes of their free will; the prince’s power was also limited and split between himself and the governor. All of these decisions were made by the people of Novgorod. This spark of democracy and statehood lived on and continually inspires and reminds Russians of Novgorod’s success as a democratic establishment. In the middle of the Kremlin sits a massive bronze statue in the shape of a bell. On the bottom are carvings of successful artists, writers, teachers, and thinkers. On top of them is a sphere with Russia’s greatest rulers surrounding it – Peter the Great, Prince Rurik, Vladimir the Great, Ivan the Great, and more. And on the very top is an angel, looking out over Novgorod and all the people who were integral to the history of Russia. The statue is appropriately named the Millennium of Russia and is beautiful yet slightly frightening.

While we were able to explore the Kremlin and the fortress of Novgorod, we also made a trip to the Open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture. It’s not very well known, but Novgorod is pretty famous for its wood. In all seriousness, you can find awesome wood carvings, paintings on bark, flowers made from wood shavings, and much more unique stuff, only in Novgorod! This is because the people there were very talented carpenters. The museum is a lot with some original (and restored) churches and houses. The houses were very interesting to explore because everything was made from wood, and built with zero nails! The people there had taught themselves to carve and construct homes in a unique way that didn’t require the extra expense of construction materials. And despite being made entirely from wood, they survived centuries of weather and people. The most beautiful part though, are the churches. Also built entirely from wood, they look very gothic and haunting. Yet, they all contain extraordinary detail in the trimming of the windows, roofs, and more. It was a fun side adventure, and I got to enjoy the nature of the surrounding area too. Overall, the trip to Novgorod was very fun and informative. It makes understanding Russian history easier when I’m able to breathe in the same air that Prince Rurik breathed when he first stepped foot in Russia and decided to make something of it.

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