The population of the duchy of Novgorod consisted of two groups: vyatshie ("better") people and menshie ("smaller"), or "black" people. The former group included boyars, zhityi people and "good merchants". It was the rich nobility, who possessed lands in various parts of the duchy and sent goods to the markets of Novgorod. Those who were often elected as the city officials, were called boyars. Equally rich people who were rarely involved into the public life, were called zhityi. (The distinction is similar to the distinction between Roman senatores and equites.) As it always happens in large trading cities, the gap between these groups and other, not as rich, people, quickly became almost impenetrable. The poorer people constituted the mass called chern' (black people). In Novgorod and other cities chern' included small merchants, craftsmen and workers. In pyatinas, chern' consisted of smerds (free peasants) and polovniks (semi-dependent peasants, who worked on the land of the land-lord and payed him one half (polovina) of the harvest). Smerds lived on the state lands and formed communities called pogosts. Kholops, or the serfs, were another large group of population.
During its history, Novgorod was always the scene of competition and animosity between the social groups. Boyars used their dependent villages, pogosts, to increase their influence on veche. Free chern' couldn't tolerate this violation of rules and easily rose against those boyars who were guilty in such violations. Since boyars also competed with each other, some of them often allied with chern' against their rivals and started open bloody feuds.
These feuds became the reason of the fall of Novgorod. The internal disorder made the defense of the state a difficult task. The neighbours of Novgorod, Lithuania and Muscovy, were eager to take an opportunity and to subjugate Novgorod. There was only one chance for Novgorod to survive: to ally with one of the neighbours, but even here they couldn't find a solution that would satisfy all social classes. The rich classes tended to ally with Lithuania and the poorer people inclined towards the union with Muscovy. At the end, in 1478, Muscovy conquered Novgorod and adjoined all its territories (more details in chapter 47). The richer vyatshie people were killed or lost their capitals and influence, and chern' got a new state formed on the principles of Muscovy. The trade of Novgorod fell into the hands of the Muscovite merchants and the importance of the city as the trade centre declined.