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Chronicle Stories of the Victory Over Novgorod


The most noteworthy of the fifteenth-century chronicle stories are those of Moscow’s victory over Novgorod in 1471. Several of these stories have survived. One of them is Novgorodian (in a redaction of The Novgorod Fourth Chronicle) and two are Muscovite: the story in the grand prince’s compilations of 1472 (the Nikanor and Vologda-Perm chronicles) and 1479 (the Moscow compilation of the late fifteenth century), and the separate Selected Passages from Holy Writings, which served as a kind of supplement to the compilation of 1448 and completed the later redaction of The Sophia First Chronicle.

In the Muscovite stories we find features reminiscent of The Life of Alexander Nevsky of the chronicle story of the Battle of Kulikovo. The enemy (the Novgorodians) have grown proud and unruly, forgetting the exhortations of the Scriptures: the grand prince (Ivan III) grieves* sheds tears, and prays to God, and only when his cup of endurance is full does he give battle. The victory of the grand prince’s army is portrayed in many respects as a miracle that takes place with Divine assistance. In the Selected Passages from Holy Writings the tempting of the Novgorodians by the Devil is seen, inter alia, in the fact that they were led by an “accursed woman”, the mayor’s widow, Martha Voretskaya, who is barely mentioned in the other chronicles and who became known to historians and writers (Martha the Mayor’s Wife figures constantly in scholarly works and fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) from this very source. In the Selected Passages miracles accompany the Muscovite army all the way to Novgorod: God makes the marshes dry up, helps the Muscovites to cross deep rivers, and at the sight of the grand prince’s forces the Novgorodians stagger “like drunken men” and flee. They are terrified “by the invisible power of the living God and the aid of the great Archangel Michael, the commander of the heavenly hosts”; everywhere, even when no one is chasing them, the Novgorodians seem to hear the word “Moscow”, the terrible battle-cry of the grand prince’s men.

In the story in the grand prince’s compilations the miraculous aspect is not so obvious, but here too the outline of the story is the same: the Novgorodians themselves are made to speak of the miraculous nature of the victory, saying that as well as the Muscovite army they saw some “other hosts” — “and then did terror come upon us, and fear seized us, and trepidation gripped us”. The stories of the campaign against Novgorod differ somewhat from those of the Battle of Kulikovo and similar tales in that in the latter it is usually the “infidels“ and persecutors of Christianity who are the enemy; but the chronicler assures us that by plotting with the Catholic Prince of Lithuania (against the Grand Prince of Moscow) the Novgorodians had lapsed into Catholicism and apostacy.

The account of Moscow’s victory over Novgorod is quite different in the Novgorod chronicle which was compiled shortly before Novgorod became part of the Russian state (at the end of The Novgorod Fourth Chronicle which continues the compilation of 1448). Here the Novgorodians see no sign of a miracle in the grand prince’s victory; they find the cause of their defeat on the ground, not in the heavens. The Archbishop of Novgorod, who was traditionally in charge of the cavalry, dared not “raise his hand against the grand prince”. There was also some outright treachery: a certain Upadysh, who supported the grand prince, put five Novgorodian cannons out of action by thrusting iron bars down them. Describing the strife and “mutiny” in his native town, the chronicler relates how during the battle the Novgorodians “howled” at their “important people”, to demand a decisive battle or complain about the poor arms: “I am a young man, fallen into poverty, and have not a good steed nor armour.” 12