Did the 1478 Annexation of Novgorod by Muscovy Fundamentally Change the Course of Russian History?
These prophetic words by Alexis de Tocqueville appear at the end of Volume I of his famous essay Democracy in America (De la démocratie en Amérique), first published in 1835.1 Until quite recently, and certainly since the end of the Second World War, what in the first half of the last century could merely be a perceptive, indeed brilliant prediction, has become a reality, or near-reality — a reality, as Tocqueville foresaw it, on a global scale. Yet it was this same French observer and interpreter of peoples and events who elsewhere in his writings remarked that repressive regimes are at the greatest risk of popular revolt when they try to reform, not when they are at their most oppressive. Therefore, as Tocqueville’s prophecy is once again about to become reality — and I am referring, of course, to what amounts to the gradual disintegration of the Russian-dominated Soviet empire following perestroika and glasnost’, a disintegration taking place right before our eyes — perhaps now is the proper time to look back in history and reexamine the very beginnings of that empire.
There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans… The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting-point is different and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.
KeywordsFifteenth Century City State Golden Belt Russian History Free Citizen
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- 2.Cf. A. V. Isachenko (Issatschenko), ‘Esli by v kontse XV veka Novgorod oderzhal pobedu nad Moskvoi (Ob odnom nesostoiayshemsia variante istorii russkogo iazyka)’, Wiener Slavistisches Jahrbuch, vol. 18 (1973) pp. 48–55; the quote (in my English rendition) is from p. 50.Google Scholar
- See further A. Issatschenko, Geschichte der russischen Sprache, vol. 1 (Heidelberg, 1980) pp. 212–13; here we also find the reference to Herzen’s statement quoted below.Google Scholar
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- On the changing function and significance of the Novgorod town assembly (veche), cf. esp. K. Zernack, Die burgstädtische Volksversammlung bei den Ost-und Westslaven. Studien zur verfassungsgeschichtlichen Bedeutung des Veče (Wiesbaden, 1967) pp. 126–97;Google Scholar
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- For the precise wording of the relevant portion of the agreement between Novgorod and Poland-Lithuania, see Gramoty Velikogo Novgoroda i Pskova, S. N. Valk (ed.), (Moscow and Leningrad, 1949) p. 130.Google Scholar
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- For a different comparison and contrast, see further H. Birnbaum, Novgorod and Dubrovnik: Two Slavic City Republics and their Civilization (Zagreb, 1989).Google Scholar