The Attempted ‘Correction’ of Central Europe

Ukraine's connection to Central Europe saves it from the fate of Novgorod

16 June 2022

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

The Novgorodians died in loneliness and darkness. The Ukrainians are still fighting in front of the whole civilised world. History is painfully repeating itself.

In its heyday, Novgorod was one of the largest and most famous cities in northern Europe — a part of Western civilisation. A tourist who comes to Novgorod today sees a small provincial, regional centre from afar. This text is not a historical essay but a description of Russian rulers’ political plans and the fate of the nations at their centre.

Editor’s Pick: Recognising Own National Identity in the Post-Soviet Space Is the Necessary Defence Against Imperialist Russia

The wife and son of Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kyiv, have their tombs in St. Sophia Cathedral. He was also a prince of Kyiv for many years. It is with his name that many places from the times of ancient Rus are associated. It would seem that these facts should prove the truth of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement about the unity of Russia and Ukraine, about ‘one nation.’ But this is untrue! Kyiv and Novgorod were close even when Moscow and other cities of northern Russia did not exist. But even then, it was not the proximity of two settlements but two civilisations.

Novgorod merchants were known all over the continent, and trade routes from south to north of Europe passed through Novgorod. Perhaps that’s why Novgorod’s state structure can be described as a feudal republic — the rights of merchants and boyars, the people’s assemblies, and the special relations of the people with the princes invited to the throne surprisingly resemble the Republic.

Conquest and Ruin 

The Novgorodians had every chance of becoming not only another prosperous state in northern Europe but also an important Slavic people. The expansion of Moscow, however, sealed their fate. Moscow’s rulers did not just conquer Novgorod. They ruined it. They expelled and destroyed the local elite — both aristocrats and merchants. Now we would call the actions of the Moscow authorities genocide. 

Contemporaries were horrified by the atrocities committed by the army of Tsar Ivan the Terrible in the land of Novgorod. But because the Tsar committed the same crimes throughout the Moscow state, the death of the city of Novgorod was not seen as a particular act of hatred.  

Ivan the Terrible also captured the Khanate of Kazan and Astrakhan and annihilated their entire civilisations. This destruction is the foundation of the Russian state, whose legacy no one in modern Moscow is in a hurry to give up. 

And now let us return to Kyiv, in whose St Sophia Cathedral is buried Yaroslav the Wise himself, now separated from his closest relatives not only by a national border but also by a bloody war. During the reign of Prince Yaroslav and his relatives, the Kyiv princes sent their children and brothers as princes to Novgorod. They competed with the distant northern city in trade and political influence.  

Now hardly anyone remembers this. In the consciousness of modern Ukrainians and their recent ancestors, there is no Novgorod. And the current cultural and civilisational rupture with Russia, on whose territory Novgorod is located, leaves no chance for memories. 

History Repeats Itself Painfully

But now Kyiv itself — which the new Ivan the Terrible’s troops had visited this spring — has found itself in the position of Novgorod. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin is denying Ukrainians their right to exist and is also trying to destroy local infrastructure, creating lists of ‘undesirable elements’ and hunting down Ukrainian activists in the occupied regions. The same scenario was prepared by Ivan the Terrible’s Kremlin for Novgorod. And it succeeded.

When Ivan the Terrible dealt with Novgorod, the inhabitants of Kyiv and other future Ukrainian lands were subjects of an entirely different monarch living in the lands of the Commonwealth. There were more than a hundred years left before the annexation of some Ukrainian lands to Moscow. 

If the land of Kyiv had come under the terror of Ivan the Terrible, perhaps now Kyiv would look precisely like Greater Novgorod — a small provincial centre of the Russian Federation. And observers would discuss that, had it not been for the Moscow Tsar, another Slavic people with their language, culture and historical heritage might have emerged. It could have, but it did not!

However, the annexation of Ukrainian lands to Moscow, which occurred not under Ivan but in the era of the first Romanovs, gave the Ukrainians a chance to survive and preserve the memory of their own civilisation and statehood. The efforts of the empire, which did everything possible to destroy this memory — but still did not embark on the path of genocide — proved futile. 

Genocide had already begun in the 20th century under Stalin. But then, the Ukrainians were already a well-established nation, with its own language, culture, literature, and music. They had their elite and historical memory. And even the communist rulers of Russia were forced to acknowledge this.

The New Ivan the Terrible

The Ukrainians have met their Ivan the Terrible only now, at the beginning of the 21st century. Only the army of this ruler, who, in his approach to other nations, follows the logic of the Moscow princes of the early Middle Ages, is equipped with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Will Vladimir Putin make use of them? I am convinced that Ivan the Terrible would have used them without a second thought.

In the 16th century, the Tsar of Moscow exterminated a country that could have become a prosperous state in the north of Europe, a neighbour of Finland, Estonia and Sweden, their trade and cultural partner and competitor. He destroyed not only a country but a civilisation and a people. The Novgorodians disappeared, but the Ukrainians survived. 

The Ukrainian experience of civilisation is that of a Central European nation. They are a nation that went from international trade and colonisation of neighbouring lands to the development of municipal self-government, the opening of universities and vocational schools, and interaction with other peoples of the Commonwealth. Well, it ended up then in the Moscow state. For a long time, but not long enough to forget all previous historical experiences.

Ivan the Terrible’s aggression against Novgorod the Great was a ‘correction’ of northern Europe. The territory, which could have become the centre of an original strong state, became a desolate Russian province, forever falling into ruin, itself even forgotten.

The ‘Correction’ of Central Europe

Today, Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine represents a ‘correction’ of Central Europe. Ukraine has every chance of becoming one of the Central European states, a partner of Poland, Lithuania and other countries in the region. But if Putin succeeds, Ukrainian lands will become the same abandoned Russian province that Greater Novgorod became. 

There is already evidence of this — the degradation of the once fast-growing Donetsk. The city fell into a ‘grey area’ in 2014 and became a springboard for further attacks. The bombing of Kharkiv. The death of Mariupol, which in recent years has become one of Ukraine’s most interesting and modern cities. 

When I read in one publication that a writer, a Greek Azov woman, who had devoted her whole life to books about her native region, died of cold and hunger in Mariupol in bomb shelters, I vividly imagined the Novgorod boyars, builders of famous monasteries and authors of literary works that Tsar Ivan boiled alive in boiling water. Our Novgorod brethren went through this whole nightmare of destruction and disappearance several centuries ago.

And yet we still have a better chance of survival. But it is essential to understand that this is not just about helping people fighting for their own country’s survival. It is also fighting against the very ‘correction’ of the future of Europe that Vladimir Putin has started. The future development of the countries of Central Europe seems much more promising and harmonious in the neighbourhood of European Ukraine, not the missile void that the Russian president would like to create in its place.

The text was also published in Polish at Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship. Read more about the project here and consider contributing here.

Picture: Klavdy Lebedev artist QS:P170,Q2369257, LebedevK UnichNovgrodVecha, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vitaly is an author and renowned journalist working in democratic media in Central and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of analytical articles in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Baltic media. He hosts television programs and his own analytical channels on YouTube. He is currently broadcasting at the office of the Espreso TV channel in Lviv and continues to cooperate with the Ukrainian and Russian services of Radio Liberty. On the Russian service of Radio Liberty, he continues the project about the post-Soviet space “Roads to Freedom”, which was aired first from Moscow, then from Kyiv, and is now being produced in Lviv as a joint project of Radio Liberty, the Current Time TV channel and the Espreso TV channel.


Weekly updates with our latest articles and the editorial commentary.