In the twelfth century, Novgorod's social and political organization assumed the features of a city - state with a peculiar form of republican self - government. Its prince, now a mere military commander, moved his residence to a place assigned to him outside the city's limits. Each of the Five Ends - self - governing districts of Novgorod - was responsible for the administration of a piatina (from the word piat', five), a fifth part of the city's possessions. St. Sophia's was thus not only the centre of the city itself, but also of the whole Novgorodian state.
Throughout Novgorod's history as an independent state - in fact, until its integration with Moscow in the sixteenth century - its church architecture was distinguished by great simplicity of forms. The aesthetic impact of church buildings rested on the beauty of their smooth light - coloured walls and strikingly expressive silhouettes. Skilfully designed to be observed from a distance, they appeared against the wide expanse of marshland and meadow as shining beacons, their lightness of colour accentuated by the dark green of northern vegetation; and within the city, they were splashes of festive beauty amidst the grey sea of timber houses.
The external simplicity of Novgorodian churches resulted not only from the native sternness of a northern temperament but also, partly, from the influence of Byzantine architectural thought: the tendency to maintain the closest cultural ties with Constantinople persisted in Novgorod for many centuries, and was one of the distinctive traits of that city's culture. Byzantine architects customarily exploited the effect of contrast between a plain and austere exterior for church buildings and their magnificent interior decoration, resplendent with costly building and finishing materials, mosaics, and fresco paintings. This effect of contrast apparently appealed to Novgorodian architects as well, for their churches retain to this day fragments of once splendid fresco decorations executed by both local and foreign artists. But the externals of Novgorodian churches had none of the sombre austerity of Byzantine religious architecture. They were bright and radiant in their simplicity.
With all its respect for Byzantine cultural traditions, Novgorod nevertheless was inseparable from the rest of Russia in the general evolution of its art and culture, differing only in certain individual features which arose from its social and political structure.
In the nineteenth century and up to the early forties of the twentieth, the cultural and artistic monuments of Novgorod were still in an excellent condition, and this offered an extremely valuable field for studies in ancient Russian architecture, painting, literature, book production and art, and way of life.
Many hitherto obscure aspects of Russian cultural history have been elucidated with the help of data obtained by archaeological excavations in Novgorod. These activities also served to train numerous young archaeologists, historians, and art specialists, some of whom were to achieve eminence in their respective fields of study.
The basic principles of Novgorodian town - planning first took shape at an early time, when Novgorod was linked with Kiev by the close political, commercial, and cultural ties. The subsequent evolution of Novgorod's social and political structure materially affected the character of those ties.