On April 29, 2016, the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia welcomed Sergey Sokolov for a lecture on “The Emergence of Republicanism in Russia (18th – early 19th c.): from Historical Writings and Literature to Politics.” Sokolov, an Associate Professor at Ural Federal University, was introduced by Ilya Kliger, Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU.
In his presentation Sokolov brought together his research of Russian literature, politics and history to trace the development of the classical republican discourse in Russia. “It’s not usually noticed that Russian democracy was born far earlier than Russian monarchy,” he began. While it is a common belief that only the philosophy of the Enlightenment and early liberalism influenced Russian political centers, this is a Western-centric version of history, he explained. Nonetheless, it is true that there was little comparative political discussion in Russia before the 18th century. “Few could imagine something differently from the existing government,” a monarchy, Sokolov said. “Only the case of the Novgorod Republic might have changed their official version of Russian political history.”
Sokolov’s lecture focused on questions regarding republicanism as a political system congenial to Russia, and illustrated the case of the Republic of Novgorod as an example of early Russian democracy and an anomaly in Russian history. Until Moscow conquered the republic in 1478, the citizens of Novgorod enjoyed freedoms incomparable to their contemporaries. Once it surrendered, however, Moscow rewrote its history. For centuries historical accounts presented Novgorod’s political system as incompliant with divine law, and its demise was seen as a result of the citizenry’s inability to self-govern. Inherent to this narrative was the idea that monarchy was the only viable political system in Russia. In the 16th-century Moscow treatise The Tale of the Prince of Vladimir, for example, the conflict between Moscow and Novgorod is settled by inviting a foreign prince to rule Novgorod, “a typical narrative in the Middle Ages,” Sokolov said. Over time, “official Moscow chronicles reluctantly admitted that the Novgorod Republic enjoyed a kind of sovereignty,” he added, though “[they] implicitly promote the idea that monarchs ruled Novgorod from the beginning.”
Still, discussions portraying Novgorod as republican in nature did not automatically lead Russia to embrace republicanism. Russian thinkers began to adopt a secular political language based on natural law, theory and Greco-Roman texts. Once the American and French Revolutions were underway, they allowed the concept of “republic” to gain traction as a viable political system in Russia, but monarchy was still upheld and endorsed by prominent figures like Archbishop Feofan Prokopovich and Catherine the Great.
It was the connection between the notion of military strength and the history of Novgorod that brought about a turning point in Russian political history. Russian historian Aleksei Mankiev’s 1716 book, The Kernel of Russian History, first called Novgorod a democracy. “[Mankiev] did not use the word republic […] but he added some lines about the military power of Novgorod,” Sokolov said. “It was important for early modern historians to prove that in the beginning of history, Russia had achieved glory and greatness.” Even those who didn’t support the idea that Novgorod was a republic nevertheless spoke of its military prowess.
This historiographical shift is also connected with the phenomenon that saw various nations “trace” their roots back to Ancient Greece and Rome. In 18th-century Russia, for example, “the name of the ‘Novgorod Republic’ first emerged not as a symbol of liberty or a part of the political discussion, but simply as a means to make Russian history similar to Roman and therefore glorified,” Sokolov said. Writers who endorsed a republican Novgorod crafted stories around two heroes: Vadim of Novgorod, a defender of Novgorod’s freedom and Martha the Mayoress, who led the Novgorodians in a 15th-century confrontation with Moscow. At the time of the Decembrist uprising in the 19th century the fall of the Novgorod Republic was mourned by poets like Vladimir Rayevsky, although Moscow was never blamed for putting an end to the democracy. Still, by the beginning of the 19th century the concept of a republican Novgorod had come a long way, becoming commonplace in Russian political thought. “For at least some political elites, Russian republicanism had become a reachable goal, a system which could compete with a monarchy and being in compliance with national culture, could be implemented here, now,” Sokolov said.
In the Q&A session that followed, Sokolov was able to expand on the advent of republicanism in Russian intellectual thought. Rossen Djagalov, Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU asked the speaker whether the discussion of republicanism, once it emerged, occurred outside of the Moscow-St. Petersburg axis. In response, Sokolov said that only a tiny layer of the Russian elite—mostly living in the capitals—debated republicanism as a legitimate political system. However, these thinkers did manage to influence local elites in Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. In fact, “Poland was a part of Russia at that time and the situation was completely different, because it had a kind of republican prehistory: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,” Sokolov said. Jordan Center Fellow Evgeny Dobrenko asked about the connection between Sokolov’s lecture and the debate among the Westernizers and the Slavophiles in the 19th century. Sokolov explained that under Nicholas I in the 1830s notiond of democracy developed simultaneously with the Slavophile ideology, and that the two were mutually reinforcing.