The Principality of Novgorod was a medieval principality centered on Novgorod, in northern Russia. It was one of most powerful and major Russian successor states of the Kievan Rus. However, the creation of the independent principality was not directly related to the defeat the Rus had sustained at the hands of the Khazars, rather it had broken away from the Kievan Rus' a few weeks prior to that event.
Despite its name, Novgorod is among the most ancient cities of the East Slavs. The Sofia First Chronicle first mentions it in 859; the Novgorod First Chronicle mentions it first under the year 862 when it was allegedly already a major station on the trade route from the Baltics to Byzantium. Archaeological excavations in the middle to late twentieth century, however, have found cultural layers dating back only to the late tenth century, the time of the Christianization of Rus' and a century after it was allegedly founded, suggesting that the chronicle entries mentioning Novgorod in the 850s or 860s are later interpolations.
The Varangian name of the city Holmgård (Holmgarðr or Holmgarðir) is mentioned in Norse Sagas as existing at a yet earlier stage, but historical facts cannot here be disentangled from legend. Originally, Holmgård referred only to the stronghold southeast of the present-day city, Riurikovo Gorodishche (named in comparatively modern time after Varangian chieftain Rurik, who supposedly made it his "capital" around 860 CE). Archeological data suggests that the Gorodische, the residence of the Knyaz (prince), dates from the middle of 9th century, whereas the town itself dates only from the end of the 10th century, hence the name Novgorod, "new city", from Old Norse Novgarðr, also rendered as Naugard in Old High German and Middle High German.
Early Principality of Novgorod
In Norse sagas the city is mentioned as the capital of Gardariki (i.e., the East Slavic lands). Several Viking kings sought refuge in Novgorod from enemies at home. No more than a few decades after the death and subsequent canonization of Olaf II of Norway, in 1028, the city's community had erected a church in his memory, Saint Olaf's Church in Novgorod.
Princely titles in Novgorod were often awarded to favorites of the Kievan Rus'; princes ruling there had no real self-sufficiency or independence.
Fall of the Kievan Rus'
The Norse Principality of Novgorod was founded in early March 964, when Vésteinn, a Norwegian prince, taking advantage of the preoccupation of the central Rus' government with the invasions of the Khazars that were occurring around that time, seized the city of Novgorod and the surrounding province with troops provided by his relative, Egill of Norway. Henceforth, the links between Novgorod and the Scandinavian states remained close, but their nature and extent have been disputed.
Throughout the 960's, the Khazars fought several wars of retaliation against the Kievan Rus' after Kiev had tried to annex Khazaria. The Rus' warlords Oleg and Sviatoslav I of Kiev, who had been leading the war against the Khazars, met with defeat after defeat. The Byzantine Empire provided indirect backing to the Khazars from the south and supplied a number of Bulgar mercenaries. In order to prevent Kiev from uniting against his new state, Vésteinn forged a temporary alliance with the Khazars.
The death of Sviatoslav in battle against the Khazars marked the fall of the Kievan Rus'. Due to his death and the murder of his alleged heirs, the Kievan Rus' quickly broke apart, degenerating into minor states and kingdoms. Having achieved victory over the Rus', the Khazars returned to Khazaria.
Rise to Power
With the withdrawal of the Khazars and the fall of the Kievan Rus', the Principality of Novgorod quickly absorbed the smaller Russian states around them. By 1000, Novgorod was the most powerful of the remaining Russian nations. By 1040, the prince Úlfr of Novgorod had annexed southern Finland. He was the first known Russian prince to lay claims to Finnish territory.
In 1092, a dispute between the Principality and the new dynasty of Norway led the Novgorodians to war against the king of Norway. Their more organized fighting forces had swiftly overrun Gotland and eastern Sweden by 1096. However, these gains were soon lost under his successors. The war with Norway proved costly, ineffective, and ended with no clear victor. The principality decayed though the 1100's, after a series of wasteful and despotic princes. In 1112, the prince of Novgorod annexed the traditional northern area of the Baltic states, including Livonia and Estonia.
By 1126, the Byzantine Empire had conquered the Khazars and swept across Russia, checking further Novgorodian expansion southwards. In 1154, the Byzantines conquered the last of the Russian states south of Novgorod and shared a direct border with the principality.
By the 1200's, the prince of Novgorod had only limited power; the real decisions were made by an appointed council of clergy and leading citizens of Novgorod. They pushed for an alliance with the Greeks to their south; and by 1265 the Principality was an ally of Byzantium. In 1400, a new prince came to the throne, a direct descendent of the original ruling dynasty. He proclaimed himself Karl I of Novgorod and immediately dissolved the popular council by force. Karl I was often regarded as a tyrant. He won the popular support of the people at first, and even more so when he broke up the council, which was dismissed as a privileged class of aristocrats rather than a real governing body.
Karl I's first moves, however, were pure aggression. He annexed a handful of eastern provinces for Novgorod, but was unable to advance further due to a series of crushing defeats at the hands of several Asiatic tribes. The people of Novgorod soon became angry due to the heavy military losses and the rising tax rate. By 1409, they had revolted. Karl himself went to go meet the angry mob with a sword in hand; he was trampled to death after slaying four people in the street. For days his body was hung upside down from a tree. The old Norse dynasty and princely titles were abolished; and the Republic of Novgorod was established in 1415.