Last week, I translated the first part of the story of Martha the Mayoress of Novgorod by Nikolai Karamzin. A few of you requested that I continue with the translation, and personally, I love the story, so here is the second half of part I. Just a quick note, however. If any of you know the Russian, don’t be shocked if I don’t translate everything. Karamzin’s style is remarkably sappy at times, and since this is my translation, I’m editing Karamzin a bit. I hope he doesn’t mind too much.
Last time, we ended with Ivan III of Moscow’s demand that the free republic of Novgorod submit to his rule. Today, we read the counter-speech of Martha Boretskaia, Mayoress of Novgorod.
Martha the Mayoress of Novgorod
A story by Nikolai Karamzin
“Descendants of the great-hearted Slavs! You have been called brawlers! But remember! When the Great Empire, like a tottering building, was coming apart under the savage attacks of the wild heroes of the North; when the Goths, Vandals, and other Scythian tribes sought booty and lived by murder and plunderer; then the Slavs already had villages and cities. The Slavs already worked the land, already found comfort in the pleasures of a peaceful life. And yet, they loved their independence!
“Under the shade of a tree, the sensitive Slav played on the strings of the lyre that he himself invented, but his sword ever hung on the branches above, ready to be snatched against both tyrant and brigand.
“Yes, it’s true that with the passage of time new passions arose in Slavic hearts, and the ancient, salvific traditions of our elders were forgotten, and then we Slavs called the Varengians. But when Riurik wanted to rule alone, our Slavic pride was horrified, and the lord of Novgorod, Vadim the Great, called Riurik to be judged by the people.
“But Riurik killed him in cold blood! And as he fell, Vadim said to us, ‘Novgorodians! Come to this place, marked by my blood, and bemoan your madness. When you come to your senses and regain your independence, come to this place and glorify your freedom!’
“The death of Riurik—we do admit his wisdom and boldness!—resurrected Novgorod’s freedom. The people, enchanted by his greatness, unwillingly and humbly submitted to him, but soon, no longer seeing the glory of the warrior, they woke up from a great sleep. Even Oleg, having experienced our Novgorodian stubbornness, left us alone to loot from other tribes, less courageous, less proud than we!
“From that moment, Novgorod only chose warriors for their princes. Novgorodian people chose their own rulers, and their rulers submitted to the will of the people. Here
Vladimir himself spend his early years. Here, among our generous people, his own great spirit was formed. Here the wise words of our elders inspired him with the desire to seek the true faith. The name of Vladimir is holy in Novgorod; holy and beloved also is the memory of Yaroslav the Wise, for he, first of all Russian princes, confirmed the laws and independence of this great city.
“The spirit of Yaroslav would be offended in his heavenly mansions if we were not able to preserve our ancient ways, sanctified by his name. He loved us Novgorodians, for we were free! But now, the prince of Moscow rebukes you, Novgorod, for your prosperity. Of course! The flowers of our region bloom. Our fields burst with wheat. Our granaries are full. Riches flow to us on our river. The great Hanseatic League is proud to include us! Foreign visitors seek us out and wonder at the glory of our great city, the beauty of its buildings. They come back home and say, ‘We have seen Novgorod, and there is nothing like it in the world!’
“But Rus is in tatters. Its lands are spattered with blood. Its villages and cities are empty. Its people, like beasts, hide in the forests. Fathers seek their children but cannot find them. Widows and orphans beg for alms at the crossroads.
“So, we are prosperous, but that is supposed to be our fault! For we have dared to follow the laws of our own prosperity by not joining the mad internecine wars of our brother cities. We have dared to save the name of ‘Russian’ from shame and vilification, for we never accepted the yoke of the Tatars, and we have always preserved the precious honor of our people!
“Ivan wants to rule over this great city? It is hardly a shock! He has seen its glory and riches with his own eyes. But all the people on this earth, all future generations, would never cease to wonder if we willingly submit to him. What can he offer us? Only miserable words! Only the pitiful desire change, when they are prosperous. Let Ivan pray heaven that it blind us in its anger, for only then will Novgorod come to hate its own happiness and desire perdition. But while we see our own glory and the pitiful state of the principalities of the Russians, while we are proud of our city and despise them, the rights of Novogorod will be holy for us!
“And yet, the unfairness and power-hungriness of Ivan still do not hide his praiseworthy qualities and his virtues. We have long heard the people speak of his greatness, and our free people desired to have this autocrat as a guest. Our sincere hearts freely poured forth joyful exclamations at his triumphant entry. But these signs of our sincerity seemed to have fooled the prince of Moscow. We wanted to express our hope that he will be the one to throw off the yoke of the Tatars. And he thinks that we require him to destroy our own freedom? No! No!
“Let Ivan be great, but let Novgorod be great as well! May the prince of Moscow find glory in the destruction of the enemies of Christianity, but not in the destruction of his friends and brothers on the Russian land!
“The Khan still dares to call him vassal! Let Ivan attack the Mongol barbarians, and then our own warriors will clear him a path to the very Horde. Then, and only then, when he has destroyed that enemy, will we say to him:
“‘Ivan! You have returned honor and freedom to the Russian land (though we had never lost it!). Take ownership of the riches you find among the Mongols; they were taken from your lands, not ours. We never paid the blood price to Batu-Khan or his descendants. Rule then, with wisdom and glory. Heal the deep wounds of Rus. Make your followers, our brothers, happy, and if any of your princedoms supersede Novgorod in glory, if we ever come to envy the prosperity of your people, if the Almighty punishes us with dissension, misfortune, humiliation—then (I swear to you in the name of my fatherland and my freedom!), then we will come to Moscow and ask you to rule over us, for then we would have no right to rule ourselves!
“Know this, O Novgorod! If you give up your freedom, the source of your wealth will vanish. For freedom animates our love of work. It makes sharp our scythes and it gilds our fields. It attracts the wealth of the West to our markets. It gives wings to the justice of our courts. Only poverty will reward the unworthy citizens who were not able to preserve the inheritance of their fathers!
“Your glory will dissipate, O great city. Your wide streets will become overgrown with grass. Your prosperity, having disappeared forever, will become a byword among the nations. Then, the curious wanderer will stand in the midst of the ruins of Novgorod, trying to find the square of the Veche and the marble statue of Vadim the Great. But no one will show them to him. He will grow thoughtful and say only…here once stood the great Novgorod…”
The terrifying cry of the crowd outshouts Martha: “No! No! We will all die for our city! Novgorod is our Tsar! Let Ivan come with his warriors!”
Martha the Mayoress of Novgorod, standing on the platform where Vadim once fell, glorifies in the ardor produced by her speech. To arouse their minds yet more, she raises a chain above her head, shakes it loudly, then casts it down on the ground. The people, furious, stomp on the chain with their feet screaming, “Novgorod is our Tsar! War, war against Ivan!”
In vain does the ambassador from Moscow try to speak with the voice of the Grand Prince! Now the people raise brazen hands against him, and it is Martha who must protect the boyar. Then he unsheathes his sword and strikes the pedestal that holds Vadim’s marble statue.
Raising his voice, he cries with pain in his heart, “So! Let there be war between the Grand Prince Ivan and the people of Novgorod! Let the papers of accord between our cities be torn to shreds! May God judge those who break their word!”
Once outside the city, the boyar of Moscow sits on his horse and looks at Novgorod for the last time. The great doors clang in his face. He sighs for the coming bloodshed.
In Novgorod, as night falls, the crowds thin. Soon quiet descends, as on a sea after a storm. Even the lights in the houses, where the women of Novgorod eagerly await their fathers, husbands, and sons, begin to go out, one by one.
End of Part I
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