Alexander Nevsky (Александр Невский in Russian) (May 30, 1220? - November 14, 1263) was a Russian statesman and Grand Prince of Novgorod and Vladimir (from 1252). He was the son of Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich and rose to legendary status because of his great military victories.
Nevsky was in charge of defending the northwest lands of Russia from Swedish and German invaders. After the Swedish army had landed at the confluence of rivers Izhora and Neva, Alexander and his small army suddenly attacked the Swedes on July 15, 1240 and completely destroyed them. The Neva battle of 1240 saved Russia from a full-scale enemy invasion from the North. As a result of this battle, Alexander was given the name of “Nevsky” (of Neva). This victory strengthened Nevsky’s political influence, but at the same time it also worsened his relations with the boyars. Soon enough, Alexander had to leave Novgorod because of this conflict.
After Russia had been invaded by the Teutonic Knights, the Novgorod authorities sent for Alexander Nevsky. In spring of 1241 he returned from his “exile”, gathered an army in no time, and drove out the invaders from Russian cities. Many Russian historians consider the sieges of Kopor’ye and Pskov as an example of a sophisticated military art of seizing fortresses. Alexander and his men stood up against the Teutonic cavalry led by the Magister of the Order, Hermann, brother of Albert of Buxhoeveden, the Catholic Christianizer of Livonia. Nevsky faced the enemy on the ice of the Lake Chud (Чудское озеро in Russian) and crushed the Teutonic Knights during the Battle on the Ice on April 5, 1242. The German invasion was stopped.
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 they learned how foot soldiers could prevail over mounted knights in Western Europe. Nevsky's great victory against the Teutonic Order apparently involved only a few knights killed rather than the hundreds claimed by the Russian chroniclers; decisive medieval and early modern battles were won and lost with small forces to modern eyes. The cultural value of the victory greatly outshone its strategic value, at the time and ever since.
After the Teutonic invasion, Nevsky continued to strengthen Russia’s Northwest. He sent his envoys to Norway and, as a result, they signed a first peace treaty between Rus’ and Norway (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 (1256).
Nevsky proved to be a cautious and far-sighted politician. He dismissed Papal curia’s attempts to cause war between Russia and the Golden Horde, because he understood the uselessness of such war with Tatars at that time. Historians seem to be unsure about Alexander’s behavior when in came to his relations with Mongols. It could be that he intentionally kept Russia as a vassal to the Mongols in order to preserve his own status and count on the befriended Horde in case someone dared to challenge his authority (he forced the citizens of Novgorod to pay tribute to them). Nevsky tried to strengthen his princely authority at the expense of the boyars and at the same time suppress any anti-feudal uprisings in the country (Novgorod uprising of 1259 ). It is also possible that Alexander’s intentions were to prevent Russia from ruinous invasions of the enormous Mongol army. He is known to have gone to the Horde himself and achieved success in exempt ing Russians from fighting beside the Tatar army in its wars with other peoples.
Alexander died in a town of Gorodets on his way back from the Horde. He was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. In late 13th century, they compiled a chronicle called Alexander Nevsky’s Life (Житие Александра Невского), in which he is depicted as the ideal prince-soldier and defender of Russia. By order of Peter the Great, Nevsky’s remains were transported to Petersburg where they remain to this day. On May 21, 1725, Tsarist Russia introduced the Order of Alexander Nevsky as one of the highest military decorations. On July 29, 1942 they introduced the Soviet Order of Alexander Nevsky.
Sergei Eisenstein made one of his greatest movies about Alexander Nevsky and his victory of the Teutonic Knights. See Alexander Nevsky (film). Music for the film was written by Sergei Prokofiev, who also reworked the score into a concert cantata.
- See also : Famous military commanders