• World

The Once and Future Road

4 minute read

It was late in the day in the middle of last July when one of the archaeological students digging deep in the Novgorod earth suddenly hit something solid. Whatever it was, he struck it so hard that his shovel split it nearly in two. At first, the learned scientists from Moscow feared the precious discovery had been lost. But after a winter of painstaking restoration work and linguistic sleuthing, they can now claim with confidence that the find is a medieval psalter — a book of psalms etched in wax in a triptych of wooden tablets that dates from the first decade of the 11th century. The Novgorod Psalter is not only further evidence of the city’s medieval stature, it is nothing less than the world’s oldest-known Slavic text.

It was fitting that the priceless text should be found in Novgorod. A city of crumbling frescoes an overnight train ride northwest from Moscow, it has always stood apart from the rest of Russia and often in conflict with it. In the Middle Ages, it was the center of a cultural and mercantile flowering. Many historians see medieval Novgorod as the model of “the road not taken” — what Russia could have become had Ivan the Terrible’s storm troopers not slaughtered thousands and finally won for Muscovy the upper hand in the 16th century. Again now, in the post-Soviet decade, the tiny province has moved to the fore with a jaunty young governor, much-fabled reforms to lure investors and a rare respect for civility and civil society.

The discovery of the psalter only enhances Novgorod’s aura. It comprises three wooden tablets, 14 cm by 18 cm, with text inscribed on wax in depressions carved into the “pages.” Russian archaeologists call such a book a tsera, from the Latin cera for wax. Moscow archaeologist Valentin Yanin, who has led the search in the artifact-rich Novgorod soil for half a century, calls it “a miracle.” Novgorod’s 41-year-old governor, Mikhail Prusak, says it’s “the best proof yet that this region strove toward integration with the rest of the world, even back then.”

“Back then” means medieval Novgorod, a city-state whose power extended north into present-day Finland, east to the Urals and south to Smolensk. Novgorod means new city, and the locals like to think of it as the cradle of Russian democracy. Its boyars, the merchant élite of the day, fashioned a new, surprisingly modern, political model in which a public assembly, the veche elected the city’s chief executive, the posadnik. They called their city Gospodin Gosudar Veliky Novgorod — Great Novgorod the Lord and Master. By 1600 Muscovy’s power eclipsed this civic lord and master, although Boris Yeltsin formally restored the appellation Veliky (Great) in 1999.

Novgorod’s post-Soviet comeback started with a hotel — the Beresta Palace — Russia’s first 4-star hostelry outside Moscow and St. Petersburg which helped attract foreign business. In the Yeltsin years of industrial decline, Novgorod was one of the few regions outside Moscow to lure investors and boast economic growth. A Danish firm opened a chewing-gum factory and Britain’s Cadbury’s set up a plant to turn out chocolate for the Russian market. This year, DaimlerChrysler opened a plant to assemble refrigerator trucks. Since 1992 Novgorod has lured 122 companies, all at least partially foreign-owned. “We did it without tricks,” Prusak says. He slashed red tape, exempted foreigners from vat and, above all, gave them title to the land under their factories. It worked, at least until Vladimir Putin carved Russia into seven administrative swaths each with a presidential envoy at the helm. Prusak, though a Putin backer, laments the hunger for centralization. “Our success was due to our economic autonomy,” he says. “Now we can no longer exempt foreigners from vat; tariffs and taxes have to go to Moscow. But the capital Novgorod grows should be recycled here.” After all, he says, “Going to Moscow with an outstretched hand was the worst of the Soviet system.”

The psalter is now being repaired, glued together piece by tiny piece by a single master in Novgorod. “In a good week,” says the restorer, Vladimir Povetkin, “you put one, maybe two pieces back in place.” Testifying to Christianity’s rapid spread across Russia — Kievan Rus’ adopted the faith only in 988 — the find will force historians to rewrite Russia’s past. Prusak and his crew of free-market evangelists, meanwhile, would like to help shape its future. They yearn for the day when Kremlin planners look upon the Novgorod model with approval and seek to emulate it elsewhere. More than a millennium after the psalter fell into the Novgorod soil, Prusak is eager to prove that at least one small corner of Russia is capable of engaging the outside world.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com