Between the Hammer and Anvil: The Life of Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky
Today, the Slavic peoples are the largest ethno-linguistic group of Europe, and number over 360 million persons worldwide. Their long and rich history is a crucial part of the very foundation of Europe - but it was always difficult.
From oppression and slavery, all the way to wars and conquests - the Slavic people endured a lot. And through all the centuries, these peoples were bound together not by myths and legends - but by real life heroes.
Freedom fighters, kings and emperors, peasant rebels, hajduks and Cossacks - all gave their fair share of heroic men that were immortalized by their deeds. And one such man is Alexander Nevsky - an important figure in the history of the Kievan Rus ’, and all of the modern East Slavic nations. Our today’s article is all about this key figure, a man that was a big part in the history of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
The Origins of Rus’ and the Early Life of Alexander Nevsky
The Kievan Rus’, also known in Old East Slavic as Рүс̑скаѧ землѧ (Rus’skaya Zemlya), was the name given to a somewhat loose tribal federation that connected the many tribes of East Slavs and their mainly Finnic neighboring tribes. Today, the modern Slavic nations of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, all stem from the Kievan Rus’, and were formed in the turbulent medieval and subsequent periods. At its zenith, this federation stretched all the way to the White Sea and deep into modern Finland, with its core along the Dnieper River, and all the way down to the shores of the Black Sea.
The origin of the term Rus’ and the emergence of the federation is still a subject of some debate, but we know several certain facts that paved the way for its creation. The East Slavic tribes in the 8th and 9th century AD were living their agricultural, herdsmen life and generally lacked cohesion and political unity.
They were skilled boat builders and generally dominated the rivers of their homeland, but never venturing out to conquests. They weren’t in an inner conflict, but rather a loose gathering of tribes of the same Slavic origin and using the same language. But when coming under the constant threat of the neighboring expansionist Khazar Khaganate, these largely peaceful Slavs desperately needed unity and leadership in order to defend themselves.
For help, they turned to the Varangians, Scandinavian Vikings who settled and exploited the waterways and shores of these Slavic lands. From this alliance was born the Kievan Rus’ a federation of Slavic tribes under the guidance of Viking rulers.
The invitation of the Varangians, Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga. (Butko / Public Domain )
In time, the term “Rus’ people” became widely used for the rulers of the Kievan Rus’, and today scholars debate whether the Rus’ were Scandinavians, Slavs, or Slavicized Vikings. Whichever it was, the latter still remains true - these Viking rulers certainly did assimilate into the society around them, completely adopting the Slavic identity, and incorporating some iconic Viking elements into it as well.
The Kievan Rus’ was thus established in 882 AD and lasted roughly until 13th century and the Mongol invasion of Rus’. From the get-go, this federation was ruled by a Varangian origin dynasty started by a chieftain named Rurik and called thence as the Rurikid dynasty. And the hero of our article, Alexander Nevsky, is a member of that dynasty, a direct descendant of all the great Rurikid rulers before him, including Svyatoslav and Vladimir the Great.
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Realm of Kievan Rus' at its height. (Pofka / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Alexander was born in 1221, to Yaroslav II, Grand Prince of Vladimir, an able ruler who restored much of his country and capital after the Mongol invasion of Russia. His mother was Theodosia, a Ryazan princess. He spent his youth in Pereslavl-Zalesk, the place where he was born and where his father ruled from.
Ever since his early youth, Alexander was groomed to be a military leader, and this was finally bestowed to him through the ceremony of a princely tonsure. The tonsure tradition, also known as *постриг (postrig), is deeply rooted in the pre-Christian Slavic tradition of the ritual of the first haircut - which was maintained by the ruling families. Thus, Alexander was proclaimed as a Prince of Novgorod, a title that also signified military command.
He campaigned alongside his father, mostly on the western borders of their territories, where he took part in his first significant battle. This occurred in 1235 in today’s Estonia and is known as the Battle of Emajogi River. Here, Yaroslav’s forces defeated the Germans.
In 1236, Yaroslav chose to return to Kiev and gave independent rule of Novgorod to Prince Alexander. Soon after, the young prince took a wife - the daughter of Bryacheslav, the prince of Polotsk.
Novgorod (meaning New Town), Alexander’s seat, was an important and old trade hub, and close to the boundaries with Finnic regions. For a time, Novgorodian forces made repeated incursions into these Finnic territories, which were under the Swedish control. This escalated into a conflict and an invasion of the Swedish army into the Russian territory in 1240.
They landed with a significant army at the confluence of rivers Izhora and Neva. Reacting quickly, Alexander launched a surprise attack with a smaller army and thoroughly defeated the Swedes at the ensuing Battle of the Neva.
Afterwards, he was known as Alexander Nevsky (of the Neva). He was just 19 at the time. This crucial victory diminished further possibilities of Swedish attacks from the west.
Alexander Nevsky Against the Western Tide
But Alexander Nevsky soon experienced a different threat, also on his western border. This time, it was the Catholic pope that brought conflict to the lands of Russia. The pope called for a “Christianization” of the Baltic and Slavic lands, even though the latter were almost entirely Christian. It was the Baltic Lithuanian tribes that remained pagan until 1387.
Either way, under the blessings of the pope, an army of Teutonic Knights launched the so-called Northern Crusade , and invaded Russian territories and made quick gains. In 1241, Alexander Nevsky responded by launching a decisive and quick campaign that gave him moderate success. He managed to capture and destroy a Teutonic wood fortress of Koporye close to the shores of the Baltic Sea.
Still, the situation was not resolved, and the Teutonic army made further incursions and captured Pskov in 1242. But soon after, Alexander Nevsky would make a daring move. He launched a winter campaign - a generally risky decision - and initiated an offensive that allowed him to liberate the lost territories and Pskov.
Prince Alexander Nevsky after victory in Pskov. (Berillium / Public Domain )
After the winter, on the 5th of April 1242, Alexander Nevsky clashed with the Teutonic army at the famous Battle on the Ice . Fought on the entirely frozen Lake Peipus, on today’s border between Estonia and Russia, it was a decisive victory for Alexander.
The battle was again one against all odds - the Teutonic army fielded a large number of mounted knights, an elite unit that was not available to the Russians. But with shrewd leadership and a wise choice of the icy battleground, Alexander won and left many Teutonic soldiers dead.
Prince Alexander Nevsky defeats the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of the Ice in 1242. (Messir / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
After this comes a very difficult part for Prince Alexander Nevsky and the East Slavic peoples as well. Just as the western threats were dealt with, he had to turn to the east, to a much larger and quite dangerous threat - the Golden Horde , a powerful Mongol Khanate. His father Yaroslav agreed to pay tribute, but he died soon after, in 1246, seemingly from being poisoned.
This left only Alexander and his younger brother Andrey as possible heirs to the throne. To resolve this peacefully, they went to the capital of the Mongol Empire, Karakorum, and sought guidance from the Great Khan Guyuk. Against the Russian tradition, the khan appointed the younger Andrey as the Grand Duke of Vladimir, not Alexander.
But soon after gaining the throne, Andrey increasingly sought independence from the Horde and began taking large parts of the Horde’s tribute. And thus, in 1252, Andrey was forcefully removed from the throne by the Golden Horde and was forced into exile in Sweden. In his stead, Alexander Nevsky at last became the rightful Great Prince of all Rus lands - of Novgorod, Kiev, and Vladimir.
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Medallion of the Grand Prince St. Alexander Nevsky. (Jan Arkesteijn / Public Domain )
When Peace is Better than Bloodshed
Alexander Nevsky proved to be a shrewd and gifted politician from the get-go, managing to secure the boundaries of Russian land and to secure alliances - resorting to war only in dire need, which he had shown in the 1240’s. But more than often his tactics were centered around negotiations and alliances.
In 1251 he sent envoys to Norway and managed to secure the first ever peace treaty between these two nations. Afterwards, he successfully defended his western borders - once again - from the invading Swedes, in 1256.
His biggest issues though, were as always the Tatars and Mongols of the Golden Horde. He proved his shrewdness in avoiding any conflict with these powerful nomadic warriors, especially when the Catholic Church attempted to interfere into the Orthodox Russian politics and to instigate a war between Russia and the Horde.
He agreed to pay the tribute to the khan of the Golden Horde and thus ensure peace, repeatedly dismissing the provocations of the Catholic Church. He saw the greater threat in the Catholic Church, recognizing their attempts to undermine the identity of the Rus.
By remaining an ally to the Mongols, Alexander Nevsky also solidified his own rule as the Grand Prince, especially up north in Novgorod. He went as far as to suppress the anti-Mongol riot of 1259 which broke out in Novgorod, and to cut off the noses of several Novgorod officials as punishment. But then again, he had shown a benevolent side as well - he made repeated journeys to the khan, where he managed to negotiate a deal that would exempt the Russian men from fighting in the wars of the Golden Horde.
Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky died only 10 years after becoming the ruler, on the return journey from one of his trips to the capital of the Golden Horde, Sarai. He departed this mortal kingdom in the town Gorodets-on-the-Volga (Small-Town-on-the-Volga), after becoming ill. On his deathbed, he accepted monastic vows as per the tradition of most Orthodox Christian rulers of Europe and became Alexis.
Burial of Alexander Nevsky. (Shakko / Public Domain )
An interesting account of his death survived in the Second Pskovian Chronicle, an important historical source. It states the following:
“Returning from the Golden Horde, the Great Prince Alexander reached the city of Nizhny Novgorod, and remained there for several days in good health, but when he reached the city of Gorodets he fell ill …
Great Prince Alexander, who was always firm in his faith in God, gave up this worldly kingdom ... And then he gave up his soul to God and died in peace on 12 November 1263, on the day when the Holy Apostle Philip is remembered … At this burial Metropolitan Archbishop Cyril said, ‘My children, you should know that the sun of the Suzdalian land has set. There will never be another prince like him in the Suzdalian land.’
And the priests and deacons and monks, the poor and the wealthy, and all the people said: ‘It is our end.’”
This poignant writing clearly confirms that Alexander Nevsky was greatly adored by the people of his nation, as a stern but also benevolent leader who managed to single handedly turn the tide of the Russian future for the better. He successfully stopped the advances from the west and the Catholic Church into the Eastern Lands, and quite possibly secured the division between Orthodox and Catholicism. He was only 42 when he died, and was buried in the capital Vladimir, in the Great Abbey of The Church of the Nativity of the Holy Mother of God.
Alexander Nevsky Reaches Sainthood Through Glorious Deeds
In the decades and centuries that followed, the deeds of Alexander Nevsky were more and more recognized as being critical in a turbulent period of Russian history . His figure gained a legendary status, and he was finally canonized as Saint Alexander Nevsky on 1547.
Mosaic of Saint Alexander Nevsky on the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia. (Gmihail / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Today, this saint is celebrated on 23rd of November, 2nd of May, and 30th of August. In 2008, he was voted as the greatest Russian. And so, we see, that the names and the deeds of competent, victorious, and heroic leaders, will live for millennia to come.
Top image: Prince Alexander Nevsky receiving papal legates. Source: Shakko / Public Domain .
Auty, R., and Obolensky, D. 1991. Companion to Russian Studies: Volume 1: An Introduction to Russian History . Cambridge University Press.
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Snell, M. 2019. Alexander Nevsky . ThoughtCo. [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/alexander-nevsky-profile-p2-1788255