Early accounts of the Russian Chronicles note in the year 1221 that Nizhnii Novgorod, “Lower New City” was founded by Yury Vsevolodovich, prince of Vladimir, after expansion into the Volga region. The founding of the city marked a conclusion to the conflict between the Rus and the surrounding tribes for control over the strategic location at the confluence of the Volga and Oka River. A century and a half later in 1391, Nizhnii Novgorod would be officially incorporated into the folds of the early Russian Empire after decades of conflict between Muscovy and the local princes. The story follows thus:
Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan II died in 1359, complications with the succession of his son Dmitrii led the ruling Khan, Navruz, to issue in 1360 the patent for the principality of Vladimir to another Dmitrii Konstantinovich of Suzdal’ and Nizhnii Novgorod, strengthening his position against the imperial ambition of Muscovy. The next three decades Grand Prince of Moscow Dmitrii consolidated his territory around Moscow, gaining a number of victories in the 1370s. His growing empire allowed him by 1375 to defeat the Prince of Tver with an army that consisted of “all the Russian princes.” By 1380, Prince Dmitrii of Moscow was able to marshal an army tens of thousands strong from seven major principalities and defeat the Golden Horde at the battle of Kulikov. It was at this point that Mongol Influence in Russia began its steady decline, and Muscovy was able to assert its independence (Dunning 165).
Nizhnii Novgorod, however, was still in control of rival princes. It was not until Dmitrii’s death in 1389 and the succession of his son Vasily I that Nizhnii Novgorod would finally be conquered by Muscovy. Despite the loss of land in Western Russia to Vasily’s Lithuanian father in law, in 1391 the ruling Khan granted the rulership of Nizhnii Novgorod to Vasily I, who conquered the city in 1392. The Novgorod Chronicle reads under the year 1392 that “Vasili Dmitrievich came away from the Horde” after receiving the title to the city, “and took Nizhni Novgorod and took away the [nobles] and their wives as hostages” (Novgorod Chronicle).
This would not be a definite end to the story of control for Nizhnii Novgorod. The Chronicle of Novgorod details an attack upon Muscovy by the Tartars who “spread their troops over Russian lands, taking … Nizhny Novgorod, …cutting down Christians all the time like grass,” ultimately leaving after receiving a ransom of 3,000 rubles. A century later the Nizhni Novgorod Kremlin was built with stone and never again conquered, serving as an outpost for both Ivan III the Great and Ivan IV the Terrible in their campaigns against Kazan.
Despite the defeat of the Mongols at Kulikov in 1385, Muscovy still paid tribute to the Mongol Khans throughout the reign of Vasily I. Despite being required to collect 7,000 rubles – or almost 3,000 pounds of silver, in tribute each year, the responsibility to collect taxes provided an economic advantage for Vasily, who was able to keep some of the taxes in the Muscovite treasury (Dunning 160).
A Mutual History:
The early incorporation of Nizhnii Novgorod into the lands of Muscovy, as well as strong trade connection, allowed a natural russification which organically influenced Nizhnii Novgorod. A native of Nizhnii Novgorod, upon visiting Moscow for the first time, was struck by how ordinary Moscow was, and how similar it was to Nizhnii Novgorod (or rather, how similar Nizhnii Novgorod was to Moscow). He wrote: “I did not find anything special about Moscow as one of the capitals . . . I did not feel any particular discomfort as a visitor from the periphery” (Dunning 77). The centuries of shared experience made Moscow seem very much like home, but still acknowledge Moscow as “the center, the source of all things,” with little misgiving.