What was Prince Alexander Nevsky's contribution to Russian History?

An icon of St Alexander Nevsky

Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky or St Alexander Nevsky (1221-1263), is one of the great heroes of Russian history. He was a member of a Princely House and a great military commander, one of Russia’s greatest. Nevsky is revered to this day, yet he collaborated with the Mongol conquerors and he actively helped them to maintain their rule in Russian lands. What did Nevsky achieve and what were his contributions to Russian history and society? Nevsky halted the eastern expansion of the Germans and Swedes, preserved the Russian Orthodox faith and did much to ameliorate the rule of the Mongols. Additionally, protected the ordinary people from their cruelty. He also laid the foundation for Russia’s revival and eventual independence from Mongol rule.

Background

In 1224 the Mongols arrived in the Russian Steppe and after they conquered the various neighboring tribes they turned their attention to the Kievan Rus (modern-day Russia). The great Kievan Rus Empire was in a state of disintegration and much of modern Russia was in the hands of local princes and city-states. The Mongols under the command of Bantu Khan invaded the Russian territories and took advantage of the Russians disunity. The Khan attacked the titular capital of Rus and sacked it. At the battle of Battle of the Sit River in 1238 the Mongols destroyed a large Mongol army.[1]

Bantu Khan and his army devastated nearly all the south and central Russian cities. The Khan then as the representative of the Great Khan set up his headquarters in the south of Russia and he demanded the obedience of the remaining Russian principalities. The Russian states had to supply the Mongols with annual tribute and soldiers when required. Thus, began the period that is known in Russian history as the ‘Tartar Yoke’. The Mongols, who became known as the Golden Horde, did not rule the Russians directly but they would regularly terrorize them. They launched devastating raids during which they captured many slaves. In general, the Mongols were religiously tolerant, and they did not impose their beliefs on others and did not seek to appropriate any lands. The Mongols usually ruled through the native princes and on occasion they would appoint one prince to represent their interests in the rest of Russia. These would effectively govern the Russian lands in the name of the Khan.

Career of Alexander Nevsky

A drawing of the Battle of the Ice from a medieval manuscript

Alexander was the son of Yaroslav II, grand prince of Vladimir, the leading Russian ruler. In 1236 Alexander was elected ruler of the city-state of Novograd which dominated a huge area of Northern Russia. Soon later a large Swedish force invaded Novgorodian territory. When he was only nineteen. Alexander gathered together a small army and defeated the Swedes at the River Neva (1240), which earned him the epithet of Nevsky after the river where he routed the invaders. However, Alexander argued with the wealthy merchants of Novograd and he was expelled.[2]

About this time the Pope had urged the Military Orders to Christianize the Baltic region and Northern Russia. This meant destroying the Orthodox Church and imposing the Catholic faith on Russians and others. The Livonian Knights, a German military religious order with their allies advanced deep into Novgorodian territory. A fearful Novograd invited Alexander to return which he did to lead the defense of the Russian territory. After some skirmishes Alexander faced the Livonian Knights and met the Germans and their allies on a river near Pskov, during winter (1242). He defeated the Germans nights in a battle on the frozen river and destroyed much of their army. This has gone down in Russian history as the Battle on the Ice.[3]

Alexander also protected northern Russia from attacks from pagan Lithuanian tribes who attempted to seize territory. He later defeated several later German and Swedish incursions. Alexander’s father the Grand Prince served the Mongols and cooperated with them until he was assassinated. Alexander who was on good terms with the Khan was appointed as Grand Prince with the understanding that he would rule in the interests of the Golden Horde. He was to prove to be an effective collaborator and very loyal to the conquerors. When his own brother along with other Russian Princes conspired against the Mongols he denounced them to the Khan. He made sure that the local rulers in Russia did not rebel against the Mongols. For example, when the people of Novgorod installed a Prince who wanted to resist the ‘Tartars’ he attacked the city and installed his son as ruler.[4] He even forced them to pay tribute to the Golden Horde. Alexander urged the Princes and the Boyers to accept the ‘Tartar Yoke’ as he knew that resistance was futile.

Alexander feared that the Mongols would devastate the Russian lands and that the Russian peoples would disappear. Alexander was a patriot, but he was also a pragmatist and he knew that any Russian revolt would be crushed and that the ordinary people would suffer most. He forced much of Russia to comply with a Mongol census and the exactions of Muslim tax collectors Janet Martin, From Kiev to Muscovy: The Beginnings to 1450, in Russia: A History (Oxford Press, Oxford, 1997, edited by Gregory Freeze), p. 72.</ref> Alexander tried to reduce the burdens that were placed on the ordinary Russians. He was by and largely successful, for example, he persuaded the Mongols not to draft Russian levies into the Mongol army for an invasion of the Middle East.[5] Alexander was able to maintain peace and to secure the acceptance of Mongol rule by the force of his personality and the alliance he created between the local princes, church, and nobles. Prince Alexander Nevsky died in Vladimir in 1263 and he was succeeded by his sons. In the aftermath of his death, the various Russian principalities began to feud with each other and occasionally rebelled against the Golden Horde, at this time the ordinary people suffered greatly.

Alexander Nevsky and the west

A military decoration named after Alexander Nevsky

It seemed that after the Mongol invasions that Northern Russia would come under the sway of western states and become Catholic. However, Alexander’s defeats of the Swedes and the Germans ensured that the Russians in the North remained free of western interference and were able to retain their own distinctive identity. By far the greatest threats to the Russians were the Livonian Knights. They and their brethren in the south the Teutonic Knights had conquered large areas of the Baltic in the name of the Pope. If Alexander had not defeated the Livonian Knights at the Battle on the Ice they could have advanced deep into Northern Russia.[6]

Alexander also ensured that Northern Russia was not added to the expanding realm of the Pagan Duchy of Lithuania. This was to be of tremendous importance for the Russian people. If the Germans, Swedes and Lithuanians had not been defeated then, Northern Russia would have been absorbed into Europe. Instead northern Russian lands was to remain outside of the European kingdom’s orbit [7]. These lands were to retain their distinctive Russian character and helped to preserve Russian culture during the era of the Tartar Yoke. Today, we acknowledge Russia to be distinct from Europe and much of this is because of the victories secured by Alexander Nevsky.

Alexander Nevsky and the recovery of Russia

Alexander was aware of the vulnerable state of the Russian lands after the Mongol invasions. The lands had been devastated and there had been a catastrophic collapse in the population. Many areas were left wastelands and cities and towns abandoned. Alexander knew that the Russian people could not defy the Mongols and that they needed time to recover. There are many who argue that Nevsky was willing to collaborate with the Mongols for his own interests. Because of their support he was the de-facto ruler of the north and much of the east. However, he was genuinely concerned with the common people and the interests of Russia. This is evident in his rebuilding measures in the aftermath of the devastating Mongol invasions. He ordered the rebuilding of towns, churches, and fortifications.[8]

Alexander began the long process of restoring Russia. His policy was in hindsight a pragmatic one even though it made him very unpopular. He was able to persuade the elite to accept his approach and they put aside their personal feuds. This brought a measure of peace to many Russian areas. Nevsky was an important figure in the reconstruction of Russia after the Mongols. His great achievement was to preserve the territorial unity of the traditional Russian lands, after the hammer blows of the Mongolian invasions.

Alexander and the re-birth of Russia

Many other Russian princes adopted the strategy of Alexander and they choose to collaborate rather than confront the Golden Horde. For example, there was not to be a revolt in the north east of Russia for over a century after the death of Alexander. After a brutal struggle between his sons, his youngest son Daniel became the Duke of Moscow, then a small principality. He followed his father’s policies and he cultivated the arts of peace and worked with the Golden Horde. Under his benign rule Daniel was able to transform Moscow. He reigned in peace for thirty years and Moscow became a haven for many fleeing Mongol raids and attacks. His successors established the State of Muscovy and over many decades became the most powerful state in the Russian lands. This was all possible because by and large the Dukes of Muscovy followed Alexander Nevsky policy of collaboration. Eventually, the Dukes of Muscovy became so powerful that it was able to defy successfully the Mongols and it was to become the nucleus of the future Russian state and indeed Empire. The rulers of the House of Moscow were to become the Tsars of Russia and to rule it until 1598.[9] This would not have been possible without the far-sighted policies of Alexander Nevsky.

Alexander Nevsky and the Orthodox Church

Alexander was reputed to be a very religious man and he was crucial in helping the Orthodox Church in recovering from the first Mongol raids and invasions. He helped to build many Churches and he styled himself as a protector of the Orthodox faith. Nevsky declared his faith to the Khan and refused to engage in any pagan ceremonies even though a similar refusal had resulted in the death of other princes. He told the Khan that the Church would recognize his authority and that he was anointed by God. Nevsky was able to persuade the Mongols that the Church was not to be feared and as a result they protected it and even granted it immunity from taxes.[10]

This allowed the Orthodox Church to flourish during the following centuries. Alexander framed his conflict with the Swedes, Germans and others as a religious war. His victories were widely seen by many as a sign of God’s continued favor of the Russia people. Nevsky’s victories came at a crucial time and helped to strengthen the position of the Orthodox Church and indeed preserve it in Northern Russia. If he had not defeated the Livonian Knights, Catholicism could have become established in Russian territories. Alexander Nevsky also became the ideal Christian ruler for the Orthodox faithful and in the 16th century he was canonized as a saint by the head of the Church. His son Daniel followed his policy of supporting the Orthodox clergy and he too is a saint in the Orthodox Church.

Conclusion

Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky is a very heroic figure in Russian history. He was used by successive Tsars and even the Communists during times of national peril. Alexander’s achievements include maintaining the territorial integrity of Russia and resisting the advance of Germans and others into the Orthodox lands. He was a champion of the Orthodox Church and he helped it to flourish even in the wake of the Mongol invasions. Yet this national hero was also someone who actively collaborated with his people’s oppressors. However, he seemed to have been a pragmatist who collaborated with his people’s enemies to save them from devastation and even annihilation. Nevsky understood that Russia needed to recover. He helped Russia to recover and his policy was followed by his successors in Muscovy. Ultimately, this patient policy was to lead to his descendants to casting off the ‘Tartar Yoke’. For this reason, Nevsky was a crucial figure in the history of the Russian state and Empire.

References

  1. Bushkovitch, Paul. A Concise History of Russia (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011), p. 17
  2. Isoaho, Mari. The Image of Aleksandr Nevsky in Medieval Russia: Warrior and Saint. (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2006), p. 14
  3. Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades (2nd ed.) (Penguin Books. Harmondsworth, 1997), pp. 102–103
  4. Isahao, p. 114
  5. Isahao, p. 145
  6. Andrejs Plakans, A Concise History of the Baltic States, (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 44
  7. David Christian, A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia (London, Blackwell Publishing, 1998) p. 286–288
  8. Christian, p. 113
  9. Ishago, p. 134
  10. Christian, p. 117