Novgorod the Great and the Hanseatic League: The Cultural and Economic Development of Novgorod, 950-1500
By Zachary Hoffman
Introduction: Veliky Novgorod itself is a northwest Russian city that lies about 100 miles south of St. Petersburg along the Volkhov River. Its current size and population appears small compared to that of Petersburg or Moscow, but belies a rich heritage as arguably the center of Russian trade for a large part of its history. The story of Veliky Novgorod (which can be translated as “Novgorod the Great”) extends back into the semi-legendary foundations of Russia itself, and its importance to the development of the Russian culture is difficult to overstate. In addition to this position as a cultural and religious center it was also a thriving commercial hub in the eleventh through early fifteenth centuries. Novgorod played a significant role in the complex maritime networks that connected Russia with Northern and Western Europe during this period, the most important of which being the Hanseatic League, and developed into a thriving cosmopolitan society while most major Russian cities were still struggling to rebuild and adjust after the Mongol invasion.
According to legend, in the ninth century the disorganized and warring Slavic tribes of far-eastern Europe summoned Scandinavian princes to be their sovereigns. The Russian Primary Chronicle states that these tribes sent out a call to these princes from “beyond the sea,” inviting them saying: “our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it… come to rule and reign over us.” In 859 three brothers answered this request and oldest, Riurik, settled in Novgorod – laying the foundations of the medieval Russian state. The historical accuracy of this story is difficult to prove, but archaeological evidence places early settlement in the region to around the late ninth century, with the growth of a substantial urban center by the mid to late tenth. Outside of the often conflicting and somewhat vague information found in various Russian medieval chronicles, Novgorod likely appears for the first time in a treatise on statecraft by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII in around 952. The mention of Novgorod in Byzantine texts attests to the critical link the city maintained with this powerful empire that at the time held a controlling share in Mediterranean and Black Sea trade.