Saint Alexander Nevsky (Алекса́ндр Яросла́вич Не́вский in Russian; transliteration: Aleksandr Yaroslavich Nevskij) (May 30, 1220 - November 14, 1263) was the Grand Prince of Novgorod and Vladimir during some of the most trying times in the country's history. Commonly regarded as the key figure of medieval Russia, Alexander was the grandson of Vsevolod the Big Nest and rose to legendary status on account of his military victories over the German invaders while employing shrewd conciliatory policies towards the powerful Golden Horde.
Nevsky, whose name derives from the legendary Neva River which flows through St. Petersburg, is still considered one of the most heroic figures in Russian history. He was memorialized in the film which bears his name by the great Russian filmmaker of the early Soviet era, Sergei Eisenstein. Nevsky's military victories helped to preserve the Russian state at a time when it was facing challenges from Europe and Asia.
Born in Pereslavl-Zalessky, Alexander was the fourth son of Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich and seemed to have no chance of claiming the throne of Vladimir. In 1236, however, he was summoned by the Novgorodians to become kniaz' (or prince) of Novgorod and, as their military leader, to defend their northwest lands from Swedish and German invaders. After the Swedish army had landed at the confluence of the rivers Izhora and Neva, Alexander and his small army suddenly attacked the Swedes on July 15, 1240, and defeated them. The Neva battle of 1240 saved Russia from a full-scale enemy invasion from the North. Because of this battle, 19 year old Alexander was given the name of "Nevsky" (which means of Neva). This victory, coming just a year after the disastrous Mongol invasion of Russia, strengthened Nevsky's political influence, but at the same time it worsened his relations with the boyars. He would soon have to leave Novgorod because of this conflict.
After Pskov had been invaded by the crusading Livonian Knights, the Novgorod authorities sent for Alexander. In the spring of 1241, he returned from his exile, gathered an army, and drove out the invaders. Alexander and his men faced the Livonian heavy cavalry led by the Magister of the Order, Hermann, brother of Albert of Buxhoeveden. Nevsky faced the enemy on the ice of Lake Peipus and defeated the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights during the Battle of the Ice on April 5, 1242.
Alexander's victory was a significant event in the history of the Middle Ages. Russian foot soldiers had surrounded and defeated an army of knights, mounted on horseback and clad in thick armor, long before Western Europeans learned how foot soldiers could prevail over mounted knights. Nevsky's great victory against the Livonian Brothers apparently involved only a few knights killed rather than hundreds claimed by the Russian chroniclers; decisive medieval and early modern battles were won and lost by smaller margins than is seen in contemporary conflicts. Strategic considerations aside, Alexander's victory was an important milestone in the development of Muscovite Russia.
After the Livonian invasion, Nevsky continued to strengthen Russia's Northwest. He sent his envoys to Norway and signed the first peace treaty between Russia and Norway in 1251. Alexander led his army to Finland and successfully routed the Swedes, who had made another attempt to block the Baltic Sea from the Russians in 1256.
Nevsky proved to be a cautious and far-sighted politician. He dismissed the Roman Curia's attempts to cause war between Russia and the Golden Horde, because he understood the uselessness of such war with Tatars at a time when they were still a powerful force. Historians seem to be unsure about Alexander's behavior when it came to his relations with Mongols. He may have thought that Catholicism presented a more tangible threat to Russian national identity than paying a tribute to the Khan, who had little interest in Russian religion and culture. It is also argued that he intentionally kept Russia as a vassal to the Mongols in order to preserve his own status and counted on the befriended Horde in case someone challenged his authority (he forced the citizens of Novgorod to pay tribute). Nevsky tried to strengthen his authority at the expense of the boyars and at the same time suppress any anti-Muscovite uprisings in the country (Novgorod uprising of 1259).
According to the most plausible version, Alexander's intentions were to prevent scattered principalities of what would become Russia from repeated invasions by the Mongol army. He is known to have gone to the Horde himself and achieved success in exempting Russians from fighting beside the Tatar army in its wars with other peoples. The fact that the Muscovite state was still no match for the Army of the Golden Horde (Mongols) must be considered when Alexander's actions vis-à-vis the Horde are considered.
Grand Prince of Vladimir
Thanks to his friendship with Sartaq Khan, Alexander was installed as the Grand Prince of Vladimir (that is, the supreme Russian ruler) in 1252. A decade later, Alexander died in the town of Gorodets-on-the-Volga on his way back from Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde. Prior to his death, he took monastic vows and was given the religious name of Alexis.
From the Second Pskovian Chronicle:
Returning from the Golden Horde, the Great Prince Alexander, reached the city of Nizhney 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 November 12, 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."1
Though he died in Gorodets, Alexander was laid to rest in the city of Vladimir, in the Great Abbey at The Church of the Navitity of the Holy Mother of God.
Marriage and childrenAlexander Nevsky by Vasiliy Shebuev, 1836
According to the Novgorod First Chronicle, Alexander married first a daughter of Bryacheslav Vasilkovich, Prince of Polatsk and Vitebsk, in 1239. Her name is not given in the chronicle. Genealogies name her as Paraskeviya or Alexandra. Possibly birth and marital names respectively. They had at least five children:
- Vasily Aleksandrovich, Prince of Novgorod (c. 1239-1271). He was betrothed to Princess Kristina of Norway in 1251. The marriage contact was broken. Kristina went on to marry Felipe of Castile, a son of Ferdinand III of Castile and Elisabeth of Hohenstaufen.
- Eudoxia Aleksandrovna. Married Konstantin Rostislavich, Prince of Smolensk.
- Dmitry of Pereslavl (c. 1250-1294).
- Andrey of Gorodets (c. 1255-July 27, 1304
- Daniel of Moscow (1261-March 4/March 5, 1303)
He married a second wife named Vasilisa shortly before his death. They had no known children.
Some of Alexander's policies on the Western border were continued by his grandson-in-law, Daumantas of Pskov, who was also beatified in the sixteenth century.
In the late thirteenth century, a chronicle was compiled called the Life of Alexander Nevsky (Житие Александра Невского), in which he is depicted as an ideal prince-soldier and defender of Russia.
Veneration of Alexander Nevsky as a saint began soon after his death. According to legend, the remains of prince were uncovered in response to a vision, before the Battle of Kulikovo in the year 1380, and found to be incorrupt (one of the traditional signs in the Eastern Orthodox Church of sainthood.) He was glorified (canonized) by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547. His principal feast day is November 23. By order of Peter the Great, Nevsky's relics were transported to the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg where they remain to this day. A second feast day was instituted on August 30 in commemoration of this event. He is also commemorated in common with other saints of Rostov and Yaroslavl on May 23.
Twenty different cathedrals around the world are named after Alexander Nevsky. The majority are found in Eastern Europe, three in the United States and one in Jerusalem. The largest cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria is the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It is considered to be the second largest on the Balkan Peninsula after the Cathedral of Saint Sava in Belgrade.
On May 21, 1725, the empress Catherine I introduced the Imperial Order of St. Alexander Nevsky as one of the highest decorations in the land. During the Great Patriotic War (July 29, 1942) the Soviet authorities introduced an Order of Alexander Nevsky to revive the memory of Alexander's struggle with the Germans. There was also a Bulgarian Order dedicated to Saint Alexander which was founded on December 25, 1881 and then ceased to exist when a People's Republic was declared on September 16, 1946.
In 1938, Sergei Eisenstein made one of his most acclaimed films, Alexander Nevsky, based on Alexander's victory over the Teutonic Knights. The soundtrack for the film was written by Sergei Prokofiev, who also reworked the score into a concert cantata. At Stalin's insistence, the film was rushed into theaters and the resulting sound recording was notably disappointing, while the visual images were quite impressive, especially in the spectacular battle on the ice.
Alexander's phrase "Whoever will come to us with a sword, from a sword will perish," (a paraphrasing of the biblical phrase "He who lives by the sword, shall perish by the sword"-Matthew 26:52) has become a slogan of Russian patriots. There is a long tradition of Russian naval vessels bearing Nevsky's name, such as the nineteenth century screw frigate Alexander Neuski and a nuclear submarine commissioned for the Russian Navy.
Alexander Nevsky's fame has spread beyond the borders of Russia, and numerous churches are dedicated to him, including the Patriarchal Cathedral at Sofia, Bulgaria; the Cathedral church in Tallinn, Estonia; a church in Belgrade, Serbia; and a church in Tbilisi, Georgia.
On September 24, 2008, Alexander Nevsky was declared the main hero of Russia's history, in the Name_of_Russia Rating Voting, Kommersant Newspaper reported. Poet Alexander Pushkin was ranked second and writer Fyodor Dostoevsky third.
Memorialized in the Russian Chronicles
From Tales of the Life and Courage of the Pious and Great Prince Alexander found in the Second Pskovian Chronicle, circa 1260-1280, comes one of the first known references to the Great Prince:
By the will of God, prince Alexander was born from the charitable, people-loving, and meek the Great Prince Yaroslav, and his mother was Theodosia. As it was told by the prophet Isaiah: "Thus sayeth the Lord: I appoint the princes because they are sacred and I direct them."… He was taller than others and his voice reached the people as a trumpet, and his face was like the face of Joseph, whom the Egyptian Pharaoh placed as next to the king after him of Egypt. His power was a part of the power of Samson and God gave him the wisdom of Solomon… this Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated… 2
- ↑ Ibid. #1
- ↑ K. Begunov (trans.), Second Pskovian Chronicle (Moscow: Isbornik, 1955), 11-15.
- Isoaho, Mari. The Image of Aleksandr Nevskiy in Medieval Russia: Warrior and Saint (The Northern World; 21). Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2006. ISBN 90-04-15101-X.