Did the 1478 Annexation of Novgorod by Muscovy Fundamentally Change the Course of Russian History?

  • Henrik Birnbaum


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.

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.


Fifteenth Century City State Golden Belt Russian History Free Citizen 
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  1. 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
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    A. I. Gertsen (Herzen), Sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh, vol. 7 (Moscow, 1956) pp. 31–2. Russian translation, ibid., p. 161; the English rendition of the French original is mine. Incidentally, it should be noted that this statement of Herzen’s is immediately preceded by a theoretical justification on the part of the author for examining potential variants of historical developments, that is, of events that actually did not take place. Yet, as he points out, we must remain on the firm ground of historical facts and thus recognise the latter as constituting the alternative that had the greatest probability of occuring and therefore did in fact materialise.Google Scholar
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    N. S. Trubetzkoy, ‘The Legacy of Ghengis Khan: A Perspective on Russian History not from the West but from the East’, Cross Currents, vol. 9 (1990) pp. 17–68; the quotation is from p. 68.Google Scholar
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    For a detailed discussion of the events of 1470–8, both the confrontation and conflict between Novgorod and Moscow, and the political partisanship within the various social strata of Novgorod’s population, with a pro-Muscovite and a pro-Lithuanian (or more precisely, pro-LithuanianPolish) grouping facing each other, see Leuschner, Novgorod, pp. 131–252. See also Ia. S. Lur’e, ‘K istorii prisoedineniia Novgoroda, 1477–1479 gg.’, in Issledovaniia po sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii Rossii (commemorative volume for B. A. Romanov) (Leningrad, 1971) pp. 89–95.Google Scholar
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    Scientific American (Feb. 1990) pp. 88–90. For a discussion of Ianin’s previously expressed view of the predominant role of the boyar class in the Novgorod veche, see H. Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great: Essays in the History and Culture of a Medieval City-State. Part One: The Historical Background (Columbus, Ohio, 1981) pp. 85–96, 128–9 (notes). Here some recent opinions at variance with those of Ianin are reported as well. Specifically, according to K. Rasmussen, the expression ‘300 golden belts’ refers to a portion of the local administrative sotnia system of Old Novgorod rather than to the veche since the same Middle Low German document where the golden belts are mentioned uses the term dinc with reference to the veche (cf. Scandinavian thing as a designation for legislative assembly). See Leuschner, Novgorod, pp. 163–4.Google Scholar
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    Cf. J. Leuschner, op.cit., pp. 161–2, with references in notes 156 and 159. See further J. Kłoczowski, Europa słowiańska w XIV-XV wieku (Warsaw, 1984) pp. 44–5, 47, 373–4.Google Scholar
  12. 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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    Cf. N. Langer, ‘The Posadničestvo of Pskov: Some Aspects of Urban Administration in Medieval Russia’, Slavic Review vol. 43 (1984) pp. 46–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For some details and discussions, cf. H. Birnbaum, ‘Kiev, Novgorod, Moscow: Three Varieties of Urban Society in East Slavic Territory’, in Urban Society of Eastern Europe in Premodern Times, B. Krekić, (ed.) (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London, 1987) pp. 1–62.Google Scholar
  16. For a different comparison and contrast, see further H. Birnbaum, Novgorod and Dubrovnik: Two Slavic City Republics and their Civilization (Zagreb, 1989).Google Scholar

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© International Council for Soviet and East European Studies, and Lindsey Hughes 1993

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  • Henrik Birnbaum

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