If you are not very proficient in the history of Russia, if you often mix the chronology of events and the names of tsars and princes - you definitely need to spend a weekend in the oldest city in the country - Veliky Novgorod. If you arrive unprepared you will be totally confused by dates, important historical events, persons who have been included in the chronicles of the country, and ancient temples. There are more than 50 temples and 117 monuments of urban architecture in the city, almost 60 of them are protected by UNESCO! However, it is quite easy to skip a day of historical chaos by having a good plan for a Saturday walk. Well, you’re in luck, because I’ve made one for you.
This is the beginning of the route. The monument stands in the centre of the Novgorod Kremlin, in front of the St. Sophia Cathedral. You need to walk around the bronze monument several times, as if around a sacred mountain, gazing at the faces of tzars, scholars, public figures, poets, and historians. After a couple of loops, you will remember who is who.
The monument was erected in 1862 - the year when Russia celebrated the millennium since the Varangian Prince Rurik was called to the Rus throne. Tsar Alexander II was personally responsible for the choice of the characters depicted on the monument, there are 129 in total, and only 6 of them are women. They include: Prince Rurik, the Kievan Grand Prince Vladimir the Great, and Tsar Michael of Russia, and Prince Alexander Nevsky, and Yaroslav the Wise, and Catherine the Great, and, of course, Emperor Peter the Great.
The monument stood for 55 years, but after the revolution, the attitude to autocracy changed dramatically, the monument was covered up with planks. In 1941, the German General Kurt Herzog decided to take the "Millennium of Russia" Monument as a trophy and present it to a friend. So, for almost a year, the Millennium of Russia was disassembled into many pieces, sorted by centuries and other details. But only the bronze grate and lights were taken away. By January 1944, the disassembled monument was in poor condition. Bronze sculptures of all the Greats were lying around the dilapidated orb (cross-bearing orb) and the cross was bent into an arc, small details - swords and sceptres disappeared. By November 1944, the monument “Millennium of Russia” was fully restored. The guides usually make a long stop at the foot of the huge monument, which is almost 16 meters high and looks like the Monomakh's Cap. They explain the symbolism of the monument: the woman kneeling in front of the Angel is Russia. Each of the levels of the monument represents: Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality.
The Monument to the Millennium of the Russian Statehood is depicted on the five-ruble banknote. But it is almost out of use.
The Novgorod Kremlin, which was established by Prince Vladimir Yaroslavovich at the beginning of the XI century, is called Detinets - an ancient city-fort. The Novgorod Kremlin together with the first buildings of Novgorod were the foundation of the statehood of Rus. Detinets is one of the best examples of military-defensive architecture, and, of course, the oldest Russian Kremlin (there are 12 Kremlins in total in Russia, by the way). By the time the Novgorod Kremlin was rebuilt many times after numerous fires, Moscow became the capital of Russia, the Novgorod principalities were united by Ivan III into a single state.
Once upon a time, Detinets was surrounded by a deep moat and walls from 8 to 15 meters high, up to seven meters thick with 12 towers. Most of them - 9 have survived: Palace, Spasskaya, Knyazhaya, Kokuy Watch Tower, Pokrovskaya, Zlatoustovskaya, Metropolitan, Fedorovskaya and Vladimirskaya. Through five towers, roads from five districts leading to the Kremlin; in general, this city plan has survived until today. By the way, the streets in Novgorod had been paved much earlier than those in Paris and London.
The most important events took place behind the high brick walls: the chronicles were kept there, Veche (people's assembly for elections) was held there, religious services were conducted in St. Sophia Cathedral. Today, the whole area of Kremlin is the Novgorod Museum, and inside there are: the philharmonic, the library, college of art, art and music schools.
Every day hundreds of Novgorodians pass through this impressive history: crossing through the Kremlin it is easy to get from the Sophia Side and the Prechistenskaya arch to the Trade (Slavonic) Side over the bridge that connects both sides. The gates are closed only from midnight until six in the morning. Those who didn’t leave on time, have to spend the right inside the architecture ensemble, which is included in the UNESCO World Heritage.
If you take the medieval guards path, you can pass by tower loopholes and high battlements from the Sophia belfry through the Palace Tower to the Princes' Tower. They say, once there was a wooden roof over the Battle Course of the Kremlin, but it was dismantled in Tsar Peter's times, cause people were afraid of fires very much. The Battle Course was built on the whole length of the Kremlin wall, its length was about 1.5 km. This wall used to be a part of a large 16th century bastion fortress, which no longer exists. After the victory in the Great Northern War, the borders of Russia moved to the northwest, and Novgorod no longer had a defensive value, the northern fortresses were not needed anymore. In 1720, according to a decree the Streltsy regiment (shooters unit) was disbanded. The Kremlin began to fall into decay slowly.
You should try to pass along the Battle Course slowly and carefully like an ancient guard; to inspect the southern part of the Kremlin from a height of several meters, and the small church of Andrew Stratilates. The small church replaced a large church which was built by a merchant prototype of the epic hero Sadko - Sotko Sytnich, according to legend. On the left side there are the overflowing basins of the Volkhov and Nereditsa rivers; and also the Trade Side, where Yaroslav’s Court can be seen.
The Battle Course is closed for visits from early November to early May. In the spring and summer months, it is closed on Wednesdays, in the autumn months it only works on Saturday and Sunday. Ticket price: 170 rubles for adults, 120 rubles for schoolchildren.
In 1569, Ivan the Terrible suspected the Novgorodians of treason - colluding with the Polish King Sigismund. To punish the Novgorodians for betrayal, Ivan the Terrible, together with Malyuta Skuratov and the guardsmen, destroyed and massacred the city in 1570. Well, the treason probably did take place, the local merchants did not like the tsar's policy very much. The boyar and the merchants were tortured with fire, and then executed. Up to 15 thousand people died in the massacre. The treasuries of the Sophia Cathedral and other monasteries were looted. This was how Ivan the Terrible started the stagnation of the city of Veliky Novgorod. 40 years later, the Swedes finished off the city which was already exhausted from hunger and the plague.
To realize that St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod is the most ancient stone building in Russia, you need to touch its walls and the original bronze 12th-century Magdeburg Gates with scenes from the Old Testament. Inside the temple you will feel like you are in a museum where unique rarities are exhibited, well despite the sounds of service from the chapels and religious people kissing the icons in prayer. However, over its many years throughout history, the cathedral was also once a museum.
The cathedral was founded by Vladimir Yaroslavovich in 1050, yet the order to build the temple was given earlier by his father, Yaroslav the Wise. The grand prince ordered the construction of “Three Sophias”; the temples in Kiev and Polotsk are 20 years older than the one built in Novgorod, they were founded in 1030. The stone cathedral St. Sophia the Wisdom of God in Novgorod was built in only 5 years, which was incredibly fast for those times. The six-domed cathedral with domes in the shape of Old Russian helmets is very small and low - only 38 meters tall. Despite the fact that it was built by Byzantine and Kiev masters, Sophia turned out to be authentically Russian: the masonry was made from rough limestone slabs, which made the walls uneven; the decorations in the sacristy were made by local craftsmen. Prince Vladimir died only twenty days after the consecration of the Cathedral in 1052. His relics are stored in Sophia Cathedral, as well as the relics of Alexander Nevsky's son - Fyodor, who died on the day of his wedding at the age of 14.
There are a lot of ancient things in the Cathedral: a well-preserved part of a 12th century fresco which depicts Saint Constantine and his mother Helena; old floors protected by glass; the church chandelier made by German masters, which was donated by Boris Godunov. In the far corner of the cathedral there is the prayer place of Ivan the Terrible, built on his order. After the bloody massacre in Novgorod, the tsar repented his deeds, but after this story he visited Novgorod only a couple of times. It is not known whether he prayed in the cathedral or not. One of the rarities is the dome cross. During World War II, Novgorod was destroyed, including the Cathedral. One of the artillery shells directly hit the dome of St. Sophia Cathedral. The cross from the dome which was hanging on the chains with the lead figure of a dove was picked up by the Spanish Blue Division, stationed there at the time. The cross was returned from the Toledo Museum only in 2004. It is displayed inside Sophia Cathedral, it was decided not to install the original cross, since there is a copy of it on the dome.
The most important icon of the temple is dedicated to Sophia - Our Lady of the Sign. It was made in the 12th century. The relic is framed in a case, inside of which a certain temperature and humidity is kept. Sophia saved Novgorod from the warriors of Suzdal in the 12th century, the icon was carried out onto the battlefield, the whole army apparently was praying for protection. One of the arrows of the enemy immediately hit Sophia directly in the eye, and according to legend it started to cry, immediately turned away from the Suzdal warriors, sent panic and darkness to them in the middle of a bright day. It is difficult to say what really happened there, but the attackers went crazy, they began to kill each other and then rushed away from the battlefield. That was a legend, but If you look closely, you can see the traces of the arrowheads on the icon.
At the belfry, you can see the bells, which layed for several centuries at the bottom of Volkhov river. Also you can listen to stories about the day when the belfry collapsed into the river during a flood. Sometimes there are concerts in the bellfry, bellringers from all over Russia come to Novgorod. The cathedral is open daily from 8 am to 8 pm. The church services are held at 10:00 and at 18:00.
In the XI century in Veliky Novgorod many people were able to read and write. During the reign of Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, the first school was opened for the children of priests, where they were taught the basics of literacy.
Across the bridge over the Volkhov river, you can get to the Trade side, where many important decisions and profitable deals were made. All the princes lived on the grounds of Yaroslav's Court and Veche was held there, but in reality the local merchants ruled everything on that bank of the Volkhov river. In the Middle Ages, Novgorod was considered an important transit point on the way from the Baltic countries to the Mediterranean, that was the historical route "from the Varangians to the Greeks." Merchants who controlled their business in northern Europe founded the Goth court here, which later became the Hanseatic. But Novgorod was never a member of the Hanseatic League, although trade relations tightly connected the local merchants with the members of the league, so it became the leading trading partner of Hanseatic League. The merchants were selling wood, fur, honey, leather, and hunting birds. They were buying fabrics, silver, non-ferrous metals and salt. At the Ancient Market there were almost 500 shops! Local merchants even managed to avoid a Mongol invasion, and maintained a positive balance of their finances. The thoughtful merchants paid a tribute to the Horde. It is a pity that there is not even a trace of the former trading scope and huge commodity circulation, only the stone arcade of the Former Marketplace (Gostiny Dvor), the Gate Tower, the Hanseatic sign and fountain are left.
In a small area of the former prince’s court a lot of interesting buildings are concentrated - temples from the XII-XVIII centuries, merchant buildings and warehouses. The oldest temple there is St. Nicholas Cathedral. It was built in 1116, now it is a museum with a multimedia panorama. There you you can watch a couple of historical films about medieval Novgorod on a 360-degree screen. Sessions begin every hour.
The red brick “Church of St. Parasceva the Friday” located on the Marketplace is closed due to the restoration work. You can only walk around it. There is an old Novgorodian tradition: the young girls should walk around the church three times and count all the stone ledges, so that they will get married in the coming year. Well, here I am, waiting.
Numerous excavations proved an amazing fact, the Novgorodians were fashionable and barely wore bast shoes. Archaeologists found only one pair of bast shoes out of the thousands of leather shoes.
Far from the historical centre, Novgorod lives its own life without regard to the past. It is trying to leave something in the present, not competing with the greatest objects of its heritage. It builds universities and colleges, art centres and galleries. In Novgorod, you can set a goal and find some funny sculptures of a new era - an electrician, a cabbage, and a monument to the family of Wash’em’clean (Moydodyr – character of the famous Russian Fairytale by Korney Chukovsky).
And also, before to go home, I would recommend to make a detour to the village of Savior on Nereditsa river. There, almost in an open field, stands the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior on Nereditsa Hill, which was built in the 12th century by Prince Yaroslav the Wise after the death of two of his sons. A small building is all that remains of the Nereditsky Monastery. Before WW II, there were original mural paintings still inside, now the church is under restoration.
The fastest way to get to Veliky Novgorod from Moscow is on the “expresses of Russian Railways”, first take the "Sapsan" to Chudovo, then take the express train «Lastochka» (Swallow) to Novgorod on Volkhov. Travel time is about 5 hours. A little slower, in 8 hours, you can get on the usual direct train. It’s easier to get to Veliky Novgorod from St. Petersburg - from the Moscow station it will take just three hours by the express train «Lastochka».
But the most convenient way to spend a weekend in Novgorod is to go by car along the M10 highway. Distance from Moscow - 524 km, from St. Petersburg - 180 km.
Hotel "Rachmaninoff", one of the most decent hotels in the city, where foreign guests like to stay. In summer, the room price reaches the level of capital hotels though, apparently, the laurels of the ancient capital haunt the owners of the hotel.
"The Four Seasons of Russia" project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A trip to Veliky Novgorod is recommended by the Russian geographical society.