On the opposite bank of the Volkhov River, several turrets tower above a solid red wall. From it also projects a cluster of vaults that some lateral shine reveals to us gilded. The sun subjects itself to the Byzantine crosses and sinks behind Novgorod.
For a moment, its apparent bed is no more than a silhouette, but as soon as the daylight gives way to twilight and artificial lighting, the Orthodox temple and the fortress that surrounds it regain their due grandeur.
Novgorod is in troubled days. The morning after our arrival is Saturday. We wake up with the sun already pointed at its zenith. We pass the large Pobedy Sofiyskaya square which is bordered by the Soviet government building and the west entrance to the fortress.
At this hour, a bunch of cyclists, skaters, skateboarders and other sportsmen exercise. They take advantage of the smoothness of the floor, until a long-planned event claims their place.
A Ceremony in the Fashion of Russia
Gradually, hundreds of police in camouflage gather and form before a wing of different authorities in the region: political, military, civilian and – it could not be missing – also representatives of the Orthodox Church. We noticed the acronym OMOH on the back of their uniforms and realized that they are not just any force.
They are part of a special unit of the National Guard of Russia created in 1988 within the Soviet Militsiya and which, after the conflicts generated by the collapse of the USSR, is considered the riot police. Its officers receive awards from the authorities and, from family members and spouses, also kisses and bunches of flowers.
Once the speeches are over, the nation's anthem is played and sung, the ceremony ends and the square returns to its original playful mode.
In Pobedy Sofiyskaya, as in so many other parts of Novgorod, the various "Russias" seem to measure up. To the west, the facade of the Novgorod Region Government building could not have been more Soviet. It is filled, almost in its entirety, by an alignment of columns in the Hellenic style that support a pediment.
This pediment, in turn, is so wide and open that it admits an enormous bronze sculpture cut out around the unavoidable symbol of the period, the sickle and the hammer. On the opposite side of the square, we find the main portico of the ancient and colossal fortress built by the Rus of Kiev.
With no access to the government building, we cross the moat via the drawbridge and go inside the old brick walls dominated by the greenery of the Kremlyovskiy Park (of the Kremlin) and various sumptuous monuments. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in the region.
The Kremlyovskiy Park Rounded Fortress
There is a bronze statue in the city. The great work is, however, the Millennium of Russia, an equally bronze monument, erected in 1862, which celebrates, at different levels, the events that defined the Russia, from the arrival of the Varangians on the shores of Lake Ladoga and Novgorod to the creation of the Russian Empire under the leadership of Peter the Great.
Apart from the cathedral of Santa Sofia, the religious buildings almost rival, in number, the towers of the fortress. We left her again and found Volkhov again.
It's summer. The flow has substantially receded and lends a more than convenient sand that other sportsmen and bathers put to good use. A beach volleyball tournament takes place between the river and the wall.
Kayakers and swimmers ply the fresh water and a multitude of sun worshipers try to tan, some sprawled on the lush grass, others leaning against the base of the Kremlin which, facing the Dvortsovaya Bashnya turret, finally reveals to us the its elegant surroundings.
Kiev's Rus, the embryonic state of what – considered the territory – became the largest nation on the planet, began to define itself in the XNUMXth century.
From Scandinavia, European Rivers Below
By that time, the Varangians (Vikings) had become accustomed to setting sail from Scandinavia and navigating the Baltic Sea and rivers Dnieper, Volga, Dniester below.
During these embarked epics, depending on the opportunities and rivals they faced, they indulged in trade, piracy and mercenary actions. They also sailed the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. More and more away from their Norway and native Sweden, interacted and traded with the Greeks and with the most distinguished Muslim peoples, as far away as Baghdad.
Novgorod, in particular, prospered visibly. It was enriched by an ever more intense trade in fabrics, metals, wine, amber and other products arriving there from the Mediterranean south, which the Varangians who settled there exchanged for skins of ermine, marten and other animals captured in Scandinavia. Once considered a luxury, these skins made Novgorod a desirable place.
But the Varangians also brought warrior habits from the top of Europe. Different clans too often fought with each other or with the Slavic and Finesse tribes with which they shared the area. The inhabitants of Novgorod were fed up with this chaos. To heal it, they invited an already powerful Varangian prince to rule over them.
The Ancestry of the Rurika Dynasty
Rúrik took over Novgorod until he died in 879. Oleg, the brother-in-law to whom he passed power because his son was too young, consolidated a vast domain that encompassed the zones of today's Saint Petersburg (200km to the north) and Kiev (1000 km to the southwest).
Oleg and the descendants of the Rúrika dynasty were quick to exact tribute from the non-Varegian tribes they eventually incorporated. Ultimately, this improbable mix of Varangians and Slavic and Finesse tribes gave rise to the Rus state of Kiev. Novgorod benefited from strong autonomy within the new state.
It established a regime for the election of local chiefs with limited leadership times. This regime is considered the first democratic government in Russia.
The Kievan Rus remained pagan for some time longer. In at least one circumstance, Oleg attacked the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines had built such a fortress as a Sarkel which, in favor of the Khazar people, limited the Rus' trade along the Volga River.
Furious, Oleg assembled an army, distributed it to 200 ships, sailed to the Bosphorus, and besieged mighty Constantinople. It only withdrew after plundering the outskirts of the city and leaving it in a panic.
The Historical and Military Weight of Novgorod
We move away from the fortress that once housed the Rus leaders. A few hundred meters downriver, we come across the Colina de Catarina and a new monument, with a warlike and epic look, of course. A knight who rides a prancing horse, wields a sword vertically and runs over a swastika.
Behind him, atop a towering tower, the prow of a Viking ship was combined with the caterpillar of a tank and a series of spears aimed at the sky.
The ensemble – but especially the knight – attracts a horde of casual photographers eager to stay there forever. Contemplate them with the grace of doing so even next to a T-70M light tank that will have passed through World War II unscathed.
We return to the Sofiyskaya road and, through it, to the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Volkhov towards the unwalled half of the city. At the time we do this, the entourage of a wedding appears in the opposite direction. At the front, a small groom, in obvious difficulty, carries the bride in his arms.
A Punishing Russian Tradition
The narrowness of the bridge and curiosity about the feat make us give them passage. We take the opportunity to strike up a conversation with a blonde lady who is holding an even more fuzzy hazelnut poodle. She enlightens us. “This is customary here in the city. Crossing the bridge with the bride in your arms is seen as a blessing for the wedding.
There is no man who does not try to do it and they will see that, even if he is afflicted, that one will also succeed!" In fact, the ritual was carried out, to the joy of the guests who congratulated him with hugs and lots of champagne.
We resume the tour. We approach the “at Korme” a large vessel turned into a restaurant. To the disappointment of visitors to the city more interested in its past, it is a XNUMXth-century merchant frigate without a declared historical context, rather than a portentous Viking ship.
But, History would never be lacking in Novgorod. In the vicinity of a so-called Gostiny Dvor arcade where we had enjoyed the end of the previous day, a series of new Orthodox temples and other buildings led us to retake it.
Years passed in Kievan Rus. Just twenty before the turn of the eleventh century, and in the midst of serious political events that included the murder of Oleg at the hands of another brother, Vladimir was forced to travel to Scandinavia. There, with the help of the conductor of the Norway his kinsman recruited an army.
The Peculiar Christianization of Kievan Rus
On his return, he not only reconquered Novgorod and solidified the kingdom's borders against the frequent incursions of Bulgarian, Baltic and other tribes. Converted to the Christianity and Christianized Rus of Kiev.
The Chronicle of the Slav Néstor describes how judicious his decision turned out to be. Vladimir decided to send emissaries to appraise the different religions of the powerful states that demanded that the Kievan Rus adopt their faiths. When the envoys conveyed their impressions to him, he was quick to reject Judaism.
Jerusalem it had just been lost to Muslims. In his view, this proved that God had abandoned the Jews. As for Muslim Bulgarians, the emissaries testified that they felt there was no happiness, only heartbreak. Far more serious, the fact that Islam forbids pork and alcohol will have turned out.
Faced with this taboo, Vladimir will have observed “Drinking is the joy of all Rus. We cannot exist without this pleasure.”
Vladimir's envoys also report what they thought of the Latin and Germanic Christian faith prior to the Schism. In the churches of the West, they found a lack of beauty. When they set out to evaluate the Orthodox Christian belief of Eastern Europe, they witnessed a divine liturgy held in the basilica of Hagia Sophia.
The ceremony left them ecstatic: “we didn't know if we were in heaven or on earth. Such beauty, we cannot describe it.” Vladimir was pleased with this final narrative of his men. The fact that the alliance with the Byzantine Empire assured him great political advantage made the decision easier.
Faith, Vodka and the Controversial Rus Origin of Russia
Today, Russians remain Orthodox Christians. For better or for worse, they are also the European people who consume the most alcohol. It's in the blood of the Russian nation.
For a long time, the Soviet authorities did everything to mitigate the origin of the nomenclature “Russia” and to make the population think that it was only and only Slavic.
They went so far as to reject nicknames that sounded Scandinavian or Germanic and to pretend that Rúrik and the Rúrika dynasty had never existed.
In this regard, the Novgorodians do not hesitate: the too often drunk blood of the Russians is also Viking. It was pumped nationwide by Novgorod and Kiev's Rus state.
More information about Novgorod and the Rus origin of Russia on the respective website of UNESCO.