Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 90

Russia is often described as "a country that colonizes itself," a state whose lack of natural borders propelled it on a 500-year expansion that sacrificed nation-building in the interests of imperial conquest. Russians cite the description of Kiev in the Primary Russian Chronicle as "the mother of Russian cities" to explain why, even today, they have difficulty accepting Ukraine’s independence. This view is contested by Academician Valentin Yanin, an archaeologist who argues that the ancient city of Novgorod has a stronger claim than Kiev to the title of "cradle of Russia."

The argument is not about dates but about alternative models of government, and it has direct relevance to today’s Russia. Whereas Kievan Rus is seen, rightly or wrongly, as representing a centralized form of government, Novgorod is viewed as a model of democracy and political pluralism. Moreover, Novgorod maintained strong commercial and trade links to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. "Rus begins here," Yanin argues, "[and] communicated with the West through Novgorod." (Itar-Tass, April 7)

Novgorod lost its independence when it was subjugated by Muscovy at the end of the 15th century, and Russia was not to see a pluralistic system again for another 500 years. As a model, Novgorod now holds many attractions for Russia’s democrats. The Yeltsin administration is concerned that the absence of a "national ideology" represents a threat to the cohesion of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin-aide Leonid Smirnyagin, leader of a Kremlin team charged with working out a new "Russian idea" for the 21st century, says "We need a new idea to keep us together." (BBC World Service, April 9) Historiography will play a role in this process: how Russia interprets its past will help to determine how it sees its future. The "Novgorod model" could play an important role.

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