September 18, 2012 by dsalkowski
Новгород (Новый Город); Novgorod (Noviy Gorod). This translates to English literally to “New City,” and said “New City” is celebrating its 1150th Birthday, making it the oldest city in Russia. As usual, a land of paradoxes.
Nomenclature set aside, Novgorod (Great Novgorod, not to be confused with Little Novgorod, another “new city”), and the surrounding region are a history lesson presented as a geological study may present layers of sediment. The city has some 100 churches, some dating back to the 12th century, and in restoring the facades, the curators have left sections of each subsequent layer of restoration – stone, brick, plaster, etc. – representing centuries of history. While Petersburg is the cultural capital of the nation, Novgorod, with its birch forests and rolling plains evokes more readily the pastoral Russia of Tolstoy and Rachmaninov, the latter of whom was born not far from the city.
I remember driving through Awendaw, SC with my friend Jay looking for a place to eat, and only finding churches (“these people must be pretty holy, but what the hell do they eat?); well, Novgorod rivals Awendaw in number of churches per capita. Here you can see one yard with some five or six old churches; each one has its own compelling lore.
One, for example has something like 180 corners on it and a path worn around it in the grass. The legend here is that if a young woman runs around the church and counts all 180 corners, she will find a good husband. In general, they show the traditional Russian ecclesiastic architecture, but void of the ornate colors. According to tradition, they each havean odd number of spires; three spires represents the holy trinity, five represents Jesus and the evangelists. Also interesting is the crescent shape resting at the bottom of each cross; though this seems to represent the influence of Islam, the Orthodox explanation is that it represents the cup catching the blood of Christ.
At the center of the city lies the Kremlin (which means simply “fortress”). It is a pretty big tourist destination, but it is low-key enough not to overshadow the immense history within its walls. At the center is the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, the oldest church in Russia. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside, so you can only imagine the ornate frescoes and icons inside, but the exterior of the still-functioning church is another example of Russian Orthodox architecture. Not only is mass still held regularly, the bells of the Kremlin are still rung daily. Judging, by the performance we witnessed, however, it seems that the bell-ringer may have a bit too much freedom for improvisation.
In America we make monuments in celebration of the 150th anniversary of some event; in Novgorod, their main monument is celebrating its own 150th anniversary. The monument to the Russian Millennia, commissioned by Katherine the Great is essentially a course in Russian history, depicting at the top an angel blessing the nation, in the middle every tsar up until that time, and at the bottom tableaux of Russian cultural icons. (Shown here is my favorite – the composers Glinka and Bortniansky, along with several writers and visual artists).
Again, contradictions arise. Just beyond this imperial monument lies a huge soviet complex, still bearing a crest with Lenin’s face and statue of Lenin in the courtyard. Go a few more blocks and you see old boyar estates which have been converted to bureaucratic offices with unkempt lawns. Keep going and you see the prototypical Eastern European scene: homey, but ramshackle houses sporting clotheslines and gardens overgrown with lush flowers and weeds, just across from decrepit but inhabited soviet apartment complexes, within view of a historic cathedral and bordered by the mound of the ancient city walls.
I apologize for the verbose and self-indulgent blog post; Novgorod simply captured my imagination, and I feel compelled to share this impression. A few other sights and sounds contributed to the experience. Apparently, the Kremlin is a popular place for traditional Russian wedding receptions, and we ran across a couple of them. I took a video, and, though there are no Russian privacy/copyright restrictions, technical difficulties prevent me from uploading the video of singing, costumes, accordion music, and general merriment.
We also visited a monastery just outside the town. It is technically a working monastery, but only three monks live there. Also nearby was an old village with wooden buildings dating back to the 12th century, some really beautiful countryside, and – most fascinating of all – an iron museum. A country of paradoxes.