Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky was the Prince of Novgorod, the Grand Prince of Kiev, and the Grand Prince of Vladimir. He was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church and made a saint. He is regarded as a great leader and a hero by the Russian people. He has been the subject of books and films and is engrained in Russian memory as an important figure who saved Russia during a severe crisis. Indeed, he is still used as a patriotic figure in Russia today.
But who was Alexander Nevsky, and what did he do to achieve so much acclaim?
Early Life of Alexander Nevsky
On May 13, 1221 in the town of Pereslavl-Zalessky in the Grand Duchy of Vladimir, Alexander Yaroslavich was born to Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich and Feodosia Igorevna of Ryazan. He was named after the Christian martyr, Saint Alexander, a prominent bishop who was killed in captivity during the persecutions against Christians under the reign of Emperor Decius.
Alexander was a descendant of Yuri Dolgorukiy, a warrior and statesman who founded the city of Moscow. Although being the second son meant he was not first in line to rule the lands of his father, he was afforded the best education and was prepared from a very young age to be an effective ruler. At the age of three, he was taught to read and write and learned about the history of the Rus’. He also began training as a warrior, learning how to fight and becoming adept at horseback riding.
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He often accompanied his father to court and learned much about governance and diplomacy. According to legend, Prince Yaroslavl was devoted to his people and taught his sons that a ruler should suffer more than their people. These were words that young Alexander took to heart.
In 1236, he was invited to the court of the city of Novgorod. The city had developed its own system of self-governance, but the Novgorodians were in need of assistance. German and Swedish invaders threatened the northwest lands of Novgorod, and the city was in need of a strong warrior and capable leader who could offer them security, so with Alexander’s permission, the city elected him Prince of Novgorod.
Crusaders from the west proved to be a danger to all the lands of the Rus’. They wished to take advantage of the lands of the Rus’ that the recent Mongol invasion had weakened. The lands of the Rus’ were plagued with petty feuds and rivalries that made them an attractive target for invaders, especially Catholic crusaders who saw Orthodox Christianity as heresy.
In 1239, Alexander married a woman who was not named in the chronicles. They had five children together.
The Battle of the Neva
Prince Alexander’s first test came in 1240 when a combined army of Swedes, Finns, Tavastians, and Norwegians attempted to invade from the north near present-day Saint Petersburg. Alexander met them in force on the banks of the Neva River near the settlement of Ust-Izhora.
Not much is known about the Battle of the Neva, and the record we do have is a single source written over a hundred years after the events. The Swedes and their allies wanted to take Ladoga and march on Novgorod, but they were soundly defeated soon after making landfall. The veracity of the account is questionable and relates that a “great number” of the enemy were killed while Alexander lost only 20 men. Regardless, Alexander took the fight to the Swedes instead of waiting for Novgorod to be attacked. This victory was the reason for the addition to Alexander’s name. “Nevsky” means “of Neva.”
Alexander Nevsky was only 20 years old at the time.
A successful policy of his rule would be the tribute he paid to the Tatar-Mongol Horde, which continuously threatened the southern and eastern borders of the Rus’. This policy proved effective in keeping the peace with these dangerous and powerful rivals. However, the tribute to the Mongols and Nevsky’s growing fame made the boyars of Novgorod unhappy, and Alexander Nevsky fled the city. He went to his native town of Pereslavl, where he dealt with local issues.
The Battle on the Ice
Alexander Nevsky would not spend long in exile. In 1241, he was asked to come back to Novgorod, as it was under threat of invasion from the Livonian Order, an autonomous order of Teutonic Knights. They invaded the territory around Pskov, and Alexander Nevsky hastily assembled an army to stop their advance.
This coincided with another Mongol invasion through Rus’ territory, but fortunately for Nevsky and Novgorod, the invasion bypassed Novgorod. It did, however, capture and incorporate much of the Kievan Rus’ territory into the horde, setting up over a century of rule that the Russians finally overthrew at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380.
Hoping to exploit Novgorod’s weakness after the Mongol and Swedish invasions, Bishop-Prince Hermann of Dorpat, leading the Livonians, invaded Novgorod. Officially, the invasion was in the name of Catholicization and was designated as a crusade. In the north, near the coast, the Livonians captured Koporye and immediately began fortifying it by building a castle. In the southwest of Novgorod, they took the fortress of Izborsk and the town of Pskov.
In the counter-offensive of 1241, Alexander Nevsky managed to retake Pskov and Koporye before spreading out into Livonian territory, where he pillaged the land. A detachment of Novgorodians was surprised and defeated south of the Livonian capital of Dorpat. Nevsky rallied his forces and moved, intending to do battle on a site of his own choosing. He deployed his army (about 5,000 men in total) on the banks of Lake Peipus near the straits where the Peipus waters connect with Lake Pskovskoye.
On April 5, 1242, The Livonians caught up with the Novgorodians and surged across the frozen lake. The heavy cavalry of Teutonic Knights, in wedge formation, smashed into Nevsky’s center, and brutal fighting broke out. After about two hours of bloody combat, the casualties were heavy, and the soldiers were tired from fighting on slick ice. At this point, Nevsky brought his flanks forward and enveloped the vanguard of the Livonian army. The enemy could not withstand the assault on their flanks and soon succumbed to overwhelming numbers on all sides. The rest of the Livonian army, which had been largely unengaged at this point, saw the carnage and retreated.
Later embellishments of the retelling of this story would have the ice breaking and the Teutonic Knights drowning in their heavy armor. This addition to the story was first depicted in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 feature film Alexander Nevsky, but it is largely regarded by historians as a myth.
The defeat of the Knights scuppered any plans the Livonians had for further engagements with the Novgorodians. They were prevented from taking Pskov, which was vital for movement eastwards towards the city of Novgorod itself. At home, the weakened Livonians spent the next few decades suppressing rebellions from the local populace.
Alexander Nevksy’s Later Life & Death
Alexander Nevsky was appointed by his father to be the Grand Prince of Vladimir in 1252. Although Novgorod was free from Mongol rule, the other principalities and duchies of the Rus’ were essentially vassal states of the Mongols. As such, Alexander Nevsky continued to pay tribute in order to avoid clashes with the Mongol overlords. As Grand Prince of Vladimir, he even marched an army to Novgorod and forced it to pay tribute that it had refused to honor.
It is unknown when his first wife died, but Alexander remarried around 1260 to a woman named Vasilisa. They had one child.
On November 14, 1263, while returning from one of his visits to the horde, Alexander Nevsky died from an unknown sickness in the village of Gorodets-on-the-Volga. His body was taken to the City of Vladimir, where it was buried.
Alexander Nevsky’s Legacy
Alexander Nevsky is a celebrated figure in Russia, and various tributes to and portrayals of him have been enacted throughout the centuries.
In 1547, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Alexander Nevsky as a saint.
One hundred twenty years after his death, when most of Kievan Rus’ was under the yoke of the Mongol Empire, a vision led to the disinterment of Alexander Nevsky’s body, which became a relic and was placed in a shrine in a church. On September 8, 1380, the Rus met the Mongols at Kulikovo. After a great battle, the Mongols were defeated, eventually causing the disintegration of the Mongol Empire and the release of Kievan Rus’ from subjugation. This battle also led to unity among the various Rus’ states, which would go on to form the Russian Empire.
In 1725, Catherine the Great created the Imperial Order of Saint Alexander Nevsky, as one of the most prestigious decorations in the Russian Empire. During the Great Patriotic War (aka World War II), it was revived as the Order of Alexander Nevsky, which recalled the Russian struggle with German invaders.
In 1938, the famed Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein produced Alexander Nevsky, an award-winning full motion picture, to critical acclaim. The film served to galvanize Russian patriotism, especially in the following years, which would see the Soviet Union on the receiving end of the world’s biggest genocide.
In 2008, two polls in Russia confirmed that Alexander Nevsky, by popular vote, was Russia’s favorite hero.
In life, Alexander Nevsky fought against invaders, saving the northern portion of Kievan Rus’. In death, he inspired the Rus to throw off their shackles and liberate their lands from foreign invaders.
Unlike many other heroes known for their military victories, Alexander Nevsky was not a conqueror. He did not attempt to expand domains and build empires. He defended his country when he needed to and avoided military conflict wherever he could.
Among all those venerated as heroes in popular culture, Alexander Nevsky casts a more wholesome image of a peaceful man who gained fame through a conflict he was forced into.