April 18, 2016

Alexander Nevsky: Russia's Hero

Alexander Nevsky: Russia's Hero

In 2008 a public poll chose Alexander Nevsky as Russia’s most notable personality. If you’ve never heard of him – don’t worry! You’re not alone, and you’ve come to the right place. In honor of his 795th birthday,* allow us to offer a short introduction.

It was the spring of ’42. The Germans were advancing into Russia from the West, apparently unstoppable, threatening the very existence of the free Russian state. But under the courageous leadership of one man, the Russians earned a decisive victory and eliminated the German threat.

No, we’re not talking about Stalingrad. Turns out, the twentieth century wasn’t the only one where Russia faced a German invasion. The decisive victory in question actually occurred in the thirteenth century, on April 5, 1242, and the courageous leader was none other than Alexander Nevsky.

The Novgorod Chronicle says of Alexander that his "beauty was like that of Joseph, his strength was like part of Samson's, and his voice reached the people like a trumpet." Might come with being a prince, though.

Unlike Minin and Pozharsky, heroes from a few centuries later, Nevsky was no commoner. He was, in fact, a prince (knyaz), from a long line of rulers. At the age of 7 he was already nominally ruling Novgorod with his brother. By age 15 he was ruling all by himself, even independent of his father, Yaroslav.

And it was a tricky time to be a ruler. The “Germans” of the thirteenth century were Teutonic knights, ordered by the pope to embark on a crusade toward Finland and maybe crush Russia along the way. Meanwhile, the Mongolian Golden Horde was expanding into Russian territory, crushing armies and demanding tribute. Caught between two (three, if you count a vaguely-threatening Lithuania) fires, throughout his life Nevsky made the choice to buy off the Mongols but fight all the Catholics head-on.

Despite the Teutonic invasion, the people of Novgorod – who considered themselves a republic and retained the right to “fire” princes – kicked Nevsky out of the city in late 1240, just as the Germans took the nearby city of Pskov and the Izborsk fortress. Whatever the Novgorod people were thinking, they soon realized their mistake, as the Germans kept advancing. With the enemy just 30 versts away, the people wrote to Yaroslav and asked to have Alexander back. No other son would do, they said.

This time around, Nevsky delivered. He had already led a successful raid on the knights’ Swedish allies on the Neva river (hence Alexander's surname) in July 1240. Upon his return to Novgorod, he immediately cleared the area of German forces, then pursued them toward their Baltic lands. On April 5, 1242, Nevsky retreated onto the thick ice of Chudskoye Lake (Lake Peipus), on the modern-day border with Estonia, and the knights made the mistake of following him. After suffering defeat on the ice, the knights and their allies left Russia alone for at least a century.

Nikolay Cherkasov as Nevsky in Sergei Eisenstein's epic film Alexander Nevsky. Possible origin of the myth that the knights were so heavy they fell through the ice.
Watch a subtitled clip of the Battle or the entire film (Russian only).

Long story short, Russia’s most notable historical figure eliminated a major foreign threat to his country at the age of 21. What did you accomplish by that age?


* In fact, based on information on his older brother and the saint he was named after, Nevsky was most likely born May 13, 1221. This date is about one year off from the traditional guess, which placed his birthday on May 30, 1220. (Russian source [x])


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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