In the beginning, they were two great cities with much in common. Two Slavic centers of trade and power, with similar social and administrative structures, one in the south, and one in the north.
Both were ruled by public opinion expressed in a public meeting of free males, businessmen, landowners, and other important citizens. These meetings, known by various names but most famously as veche, a word related to the Old Russian verb “vedet” – to know, had no formal structure or officials. The authority lay with the people with the most authority in the city, those with the most respect and sometimes the loudest voices. Decisions were made by acclamation and general consent, and if arguments became too heated, they might result in general fighting.
Still, for a long time, the system worked.
The social structure of the Russian cities was based on trade and crafts, and not so much on land ownership. As we saw earlier, the Rurikid princes were warlords who went from city to city with their retainers and provided military leadership primarily – but they were also judges when necessary, and they had the right to levy a tribute in order to maintain themselves. Of course, when a major threat rose against a city, then the prince would call on all the (male) inhabitants to take up arms and defend themselves. Which means, obviously, that everybody had a right (and a need) to own and bear arms, and to know how to use them.
Kiev was the first, wealthiest, and most powerful city – in the beginning. Its location was auspicious for trade, it was also rich in craftsmen, artisans, and scholars. The city maintained this status and reputation for centuries, in spite of the dissent that rose very quickly within the Rurikid dynasty. Without clear laws of succession, and instead a lateral inheritance that went from brother to brother and left entire generations destitute, the growing Rurikid clan fell into chaos and internecine warfare. Kiev remained the goal to achieve, the seat to obtain, but its true power was more symbolic than anything: the Great Prince of Kiev only held as much power as any man could – by force of charisma and steel.
Of course, Kiev would have fallen fairly quickly if all it had going for itself was prestige. It was still a great city located at the perfect crossroads (or cross-rivers) of trading routes. But Byzantium was weakening, and the great trade route “From the Varangians to the Greeks” – from Scandinavia to Central Asia – wasn’t going to last long if good stopped coming to Constantinople.
The Crusades helped along the demise of the overland trading routes, and between the failing trade and the internal unrest, the Russian principalities became more and more isolated.
The repeated raids of Asiatic nomads, which continued throughout all of Russia’s medieval history, weakened even further Kiev and the other principalities. In their constant quest to attain the coveted seat in Kiev, Rurikid princes failed again and again to ally themselves with each other against the waves of raiders, and left themselves open to a final invader – the Mongol hordes.
Once again, the princes of the Russian cities failed to united and were vanquished one by one. Even Kiev fell and was burned, never to rise again to its full prominence.
In the north, in the meantime, the city of Novgorod kept growing in wealth and in strength. Once just another principality, it soon acquired very individual features. Its position close to the Baltic sea gave it different and additional trade outlets from those of the other principalities. Its geographic location, protected from the steppe-dwellers’ incursions by deep, vast forests, gave it a specialized defense system.
The first major difference between Kiev and Novgorod is that Novgorod always retained the full power of the veche, the popular assembly. While Kiev and other cities progressively lost the power to decide on matters of war (to wage it or not to wage it) and of who would be acceptable as a ruler, Novgorod always retained these rights. In fact, it was written early on into its charters that it could call upon any prince in time of need, and send him away when he was no longer needed.
This meant that a Rurikid prince and his retinue of mounted warriors would come and lead the city into battle – but it also meant the city was able to provide enough armed men (and probably mounted as well) to form a fighting force, since a prince’s retinue on its own would never be enough to conduct anything more than a few skirmishes.
This power certainly set Novgorod apart, and what’s more, it took it out of the inheritance battles. In addition, the nomads’ raids never reached as far as Novgorod. Not even the Mongols penetrated the forests surrounding the city. And while Novgorod did wage an uneasy peace with the Mongols, they didn’t actually pay tribute, and had no Prince who had to pay his respects to the Khan’s court.
So while Kiev and the other principalities were minding the East, danger to Novgorod came more often than not from the West, in the guise of the Livonian knights, and then the Teutonic order. But it’s also the contact with the West that brought continued wealth to the merchant-city, in its relations with the Hanseatic Guild and trade with Scandinavia and even England (and its wool, for instance).
But what brought wealth and power to Novgorod is also what brought about its demise. When the power shifted from Kiev to Moscow, some in Novgorod sought to ally the city more firmly with the Western states, and the dissent that arose created a split that no discussion, not fistfight at the veche assembly could resolve. And so Novgorod fell to Moscow in the late 15C, and its lands were absorbed into the Muscovite state, without any of its singular features.
The respective legends of Kiev and Novgorod have lived on in song and tale, however. The internecine conflicts that doomed Kiev are well recounted in the Song of Igor’s Campaign, but the fame and glory of Kiev have been retained in the epic songs centered around Kiev as the Throne-City under the leadership of a mythical Vladimir. Novgorod has its own songs, but while those of the Kiev heroes are mostly about battles and bragging and martial contests, those of Novgorod center as much around the fate, as the workings, of the city itself.