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Russia: Which Ancient Capital Was The Hearth Of The Nation's Soul?

St. Petersburg, 26 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Where was the true capital -- the hearth of the soul -- of ancient Russia?

The usual contenders are Novgorod, located three hours south of St. Petersburg, and Kiev in the Ukraine. But now, with an eminent archeologist in its corner, St. Petersburg -- the seat of Czar Peter the Great -- has emerged as a challenger.

Anything connected to Russia's national identity nowadays is a political event that the country's leaders eagerly sign up for. So, last week, the archeologist, Professor Anatoly Kirpichnikov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, found himself flanked by leading politicians from the Leningrad region.

He told reporters about 25 years of excavations at Staraya Ladoga and talked about the origins of the Russian state. Among Russian academics and intellectuals, few things arouse such passions.

Archeological discoveries in the Leningrad region at Staraya Ladoga can only intensify the debates. Staraya Ladoga was a key commercial city-state from the eighth century to the 10th. It stood on the trade routes to Byzantium and other parts of the Middle East.

The prize is big -- nothing less than the title of capital of ancient Russia. But, Professor Kirpichnikov says he has enough evidence to believe that it was the center of political power in ancient Russia during the 8th and 9th centuries. Only later, he says, did the capital move to Novgorod and Kiev.

"In Staraya Ladoga, Russia saw the dawn of its state and urban civilization. The city was a center before the Vikings came," he says.

Kirpichnikov says that the Rurichovich dynasty established itself in Russia there in 862. The Rurichovichi, Vikings in origin, were Russia's ruling house from the 9th century until the dynasty ended with the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584.

At a press conference Kirpichnikov displayed some of the latest finds, the most interesting of which were rare examples of ancient Scandinavian and Slavic jewelry. He said that the specimens found weren't made merely by village craftsmen, and that they are artifacts meeting the highest standards of the time.

The professor's description of life in Staraya Ladoga 1000 years ago should make sweet music in the ears of today's reformers in the Kremlin.

"It was a free society and a commercial city-state. We might say it was a free economic zone that attracted merchants from throughout the Baltic Sea civilization," he says.

A lack of of funding for restoration at Staraya Ladoga, and the crumbling state of many other historical sights in the Leningrad region was a sore topic at the press conference. As if to underscore the current Russian government's frustrations without an official ideology and searching for a national identity, Vitali Klimov, the chief deputy governor of the Leningrad region, wrapped up the press conference on a philosophical note with the following:

"Recently, we've lost that which always had united us -- our spirituality, which is based on our historical and cultural heritage. When we succeed in getting back our historical roots, we will once again obtain that spirituality. Then we will probably find that it will be much easier to solve some of our more pressing everyday problems."