Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The New Novgorod?

It's 1150 years since the foundation of 'Novgorod the Great'. Now a pretty county town in Russia's northwest, Novgorod was once the centre of the Russian-speaking world. Between the fall of Kiev to the Golden Horde in the 13th century and the rise of Moscow in the 15th, Novgorod was the capital of what became known as the 'Novgorod Republic'.

It was a curious affair constitutionally, with princes that could be sacked and with ultimate power nominally being vested in the city itself ("Lord Novgorod"). There were the rudiments of a democratic state, for example a representative assembly and a separation and dispersion of powers. The economy was oriented westwards, exporting to the city-states of the Hanseatic league on the Baltic sea. The wealth of the city was evidenced by the presence of a picturesque church on the corner of every block, as well as by the boardwalks that had been constructed to keep the mud off the feet of the genteel citizenry.

It is interesting to speculate on what might have been had 'democratic, bourgeois' Novgorod prevailed over 'autocratic, feudal' Moscow. Would Russia still have turned east and conquered Siberia, or would it have become a comfortable member of the European democratic family, not unlike, say, Poland or Sweden? We will never know.

What we do know is that in 2009 a small country to the south-west of Russia began establishing its own democratic tradition. It's a country that, like Novgorod, now understands the perils of concentrating power in a single pair of hands. Like Novgorod, it's people have demanded that their voices be heard and that they be given the right to sack their prince and replace him with someone who will promote their interests. Like Novgorod they yearn for a better quality of life and want to benefit from a close association with the West.

Could we dare to hope that the modern-day 'princes of Muscovy' will withdraw their swords and allow this "New Novgorod" to grow and flourish?

Could we dare to hope that this republic might even punch above its weight and, by example, begin to influence Russia itself to adopt more democratic and humane ways?

As the country's leadership systematically dismantles authoritarianism and builds liberal, democratic institutions, could we dare to hope that their Russian cousins will watch, listen and learn?

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