As much as you probably want to forget this fact, the election is tomorrow. I’ve been at a loss how to deal with it, so I decided to seek solace in old Russian history (I do that a lot). As many of you probably know, Russia had its experiment in democracy as well. Novgorod–the city ruled by a council of the people called the Veche. In searching for interesting facts, I found a half-historical tale called “Martha the Mayoress” by Nikolai Karamzin.
The beginning of it is a rousing paean to how democracy should be. It’s beautiful. So I decided to translate it for your reading pleasure. Sadly, I doubt this is how anyone will feel tomorrow on election day.
Interestingly, I already read this amazing op ed in the NY Times about how perhaps America, given the madness of the election process, should simply choose monarchy. This story is exactly about that. Enjoy!
Martha the Mayoress of Novgorod
a story by Nikolai Karamzin (1802)
The Veche’s bell sounds, and all hearts in Novgorod dance. Fathers tear themselves from the embraces of their wives and children to heed the call of their fatherland. All citizens—moved by confusion, curiosity, fear, and hope—rush in loud crowds to the great square. All have questions, but none have answers…
There, across the ancient house of Yaroslav, the nobles have gathered with their golden medals clinking on their chests. The leaders of thousands stand with their tall staffs. The boyars from all five quarters of the city with their silver ceremonial axes. But no one stands on the raised platform.
The crowd outshouts the bell, demanding the Veche begin. Joseph Delinskii—a famous citizen chosen to be mayor seven times, and every time with new benefits for his city and added honors to his name—rises up the metal steps and uncovers his grey hair. He humbly bows to the people and tells them that the prince of Moscow has sent his boyar to Great Novgorod, and this boyar wishes to read the wishes of the prince of Moscow aloud to the people.
The former mayor leaves the stage, and the boyar of Ivan, Prince of Moscow, appears on the platform. His face is proud and he wears a longsword. His name is Holmskii, a wise and firm man, a leader of warriors. He was the right hand of Ivan in all military matters, and even dabbled in the political arena. He was a brave man in battle, and an eloquent one in council.
The boyar wishes to speak, but the young, proud Novgorodians cry out, “Bow yourself before the great people of Novgorod!” He hesitates. Thousands of voices repeat, “Bow yourself before the great people of Novgorod!” The boyar takes off his helmet, and the people are appeased.
“People of Novgorod,” he began, “The Prince of Moscow and all Rus speaks with you. Attend! Only wild nations love their independence. Wise peoples love order, and there is no order without autocratic rule. Your ancestors and ours wanted to rule themselves. And yet, were we not always the victims of external attacks? Or worse, we fell prey to bickering among ourselves!
“An old man, virtuous and wise, who stood at the threshold of eternity, exhorted them to choose a single ruler. They believed him, for a man at the doors of the tomb can only speak truth. And so, citizens of Novgorod, it was within you walls that the autocracy of the Russian lands was born, was confirmed, and was glorified. For here, the great-hearted Riurik ruled righteously. In this place, your fathers cursed their dangerous independence and glorified the authority of a single prince.
“When before Novgorod was only a laughingstock for all other nations, after Riurik, it became the terror and envy of all others, and when Oleg the brave traveled to the very limits of the south with his army, all the races of the Slavs joyfully submitted to him. Your ancestors, the fellows of his glory, hardly believed their own greatness.
“Novgorodians! The land of Rus is coming alive again! Ivan has awoken the ancient courage of the Slavs, and already the Mongols are shaking in their books. But his joy will not be complete while Novgorod—ancient, Great Novgorod—will not return to the embrace of the united fatherland. Ivan, who is worthy of ruling the entire world, wishes only to be the lord of Novgorod!
“People and citizens! Let Ivan rule in Novgorod, as he rules in Moscow! Or…and hear this, his final word…or the brave army, ready to destroy the Tatars will instead appear before your eyes, to pacify your stiff necks! Peace or war? Answer!”
With these words, the boyar of Ivan put on his helmet and came down from the stage.
The silence stretched out. Rulers and citizens alike are in shock. Suddenly, the crowd begins to shudder, and loud clamors are heard: “Martha! Martha!” She ascends the metal steps, quietly and with dignity. She looks at the countless multitudes of citizens and says nothing.
Pride and sorrow are seen in her pale face…But then inspiration flashed in her gaze, her face reddened, and she said, “Here I invoke heaven as my witness, that my heart loves the glory of my fatherland and the good of my fellow citizens. I will speak the truth to the people of Novgorod and I am ready to prove it with my blood!
“Behold! A woman dares speak at Veche, but my family is an ancient one, and I was born in a military camp to the sound of swords clanging. My father, my husband both died for the honor of Novgorod. It is my right to be the defender of our independence, for it has been bought with the price of my happiness!”
That’s it for now. I’m more than happy to translate more, but that depends on you. If you’d like to read more, tell me so in the comments section, or email me directly. When get enough interest, I’ll continue translating this story.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more about Russian traditions and culture, consider joining my Readers’ Group. I’ll send you two chapters of my new novel as a thank you. Just tell me where to send them: