It Don’t Mean a Thing—Orthodoxy’s First Encounter with Democracy

It is a commonplace observation that the Orthodox Church is in relatively new and uncharted waters, finding itself in a world devoid of Orthodox Empire. Until 1917 Russia was under the Tsars, and even the downfall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 is quite fresh in the consciousness of many Greeks. The question looms: How should the Church interact with the state in this new political world? However, many would be shocked to learn that the Church has already existed in a democracy in the least expected place: medieval Russia.

Solon’s Athens claims pride of place in the democracies of history, but a far less known form of democracy was much longer lasting. For centuries Germanic and Scandinavian peoples met in voting legislative bodies called “Things” (this is the root of our English word as well—a similar transformation occurred when the Latin causa—“lawsuit”—became the modern Italian and Spanish word cosa, or the French word chose—which now mean “thing”).

The victory column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (erected 193 AD). Detail: The meeting of a Germanic thing (with artist’s rendering).

Through the aggressive expansion of the Viking peoples, things came to exercise an extremely wide influence. Not only do the modern parliaments of Iceland, Denmark, and Norway all contain the word “thing”— Alþingi, Folketing, and Storting, respectively (meaning “General Thing,” “Thing of the People,” and Great Thing”)—as far west as the Isle of Man, parliament is called Tynwald (in Manx, Tinvaal) or “Thing Meadow,” because to this day they meet in the open air.

It has been convincingly hypothesized that the Varangians (i.e. Vikings) brought this form of government to the Kievan principalities. While many cities had things—called veche (вече) in Russian—that exercised legislative and judicial powers, Novgorod was the high water mark of the power of the veche. Its princes were appointed by the great prince in Kiev until 1136, when the people of Novgorod expelled Prince Vsevolod Mstislavich. After this point, they were able to appoint and dismiss their own princes on a frequent basis, although this was never without some outside influence. The veche represented a broad spectrum of society. In theory, anyone could ring the veche bell, and boyars, merchants, and ordinary citizens would assemble in front of the cathedral of Holy Wisdom to discuss and to vote.

Pskov Veche by Vasnetsov (1909).

However democratic the Republic of Novgorod became, a monarchical ethos is hard to shake, and the people called their city-state “Lord Novgorod the Great” (Господин Великий Новгород). This remarkable chapter in Russian history lasted until 1478, when Ivan III took over the city. He symbolically removed the veche bell, signaling the end of an era.

Veche bell removed by Ivan III (16th century miniature).

In this three hundred and forty-two year Republic (one hundred and five years older than the United States of America), how did the Church interact with an almost purely democratic state? Disappointingly for many moderns who seek an object lesson for our own times, the Church served as a vestige of monarchy. At the very least, the Archbishop of Novgorod was closely involved with the boyars in administering matters of state. But many scholars believe that the archbishop himself became the de facto executive branch of the state. A mere glance at the city of Novgorod’s coat of arms seems to bolster this claim.

Though this form of the coat of arms was approved in 1781 by Catherine II, it had already begun to to take shape in the decades immediately following the fall of the Republic of Novgorod, and sought to evoke its bygone glory. The heraldic emphasis is clear: the throne, the staffs, and the trikheri are all images of the bishop’s office.

While medieval Novgorod may not hold any immediate relevance to modern relations between Church and state (unless Barack Obama is willing to step down and let an Orthodox bishop take the helm), it remains a fascinating time and place, whose rich yet obscure history deserves further research.

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