“He who comes to us with the sword will die by the sword.” Nevsky laid down the standard for how Russia would conduct diplomacy.
This article is part of a series ‘Russian Christian Military Heroes’, which illustrates the close interrelationship of the church, state, and military in Russian history. In contrast to the uniquely American idea that it is best to keep church and state separate, Russians believe the opposite - that this is, in fact, harmful, and that society is best served by a close cooperation, poetically described as a ‘symphony.’
THANK YOU to everyone who voted in our poll! By popular request, the next article in this series will be about Saint Dmitri of the Don. This article, however, was planned to coincide with the Saint Alexander’s feast day, and it is perhaps providential that you all choose Saint Dmitri, as I always considered him related in many ways to Saint Alexander Nevsky. Thank you to my friend who inspired me to write this article - Будь здорова
Hail and take heed, this is the tale one of the most famous Russian Heroes in history, second only to perhaps Vladimir of Kiev, the Baptizer of All Rus’. Few leaders have captured the hearts and minds of the Russians like Alexander Nevsky, who was voted Russia’s greatest leader of all time in 2008.
His name inspires awe and reverence even amongst the non-religious. He was a Champion Victorious against the Swedish hosts and the Teutonic Knights. He is the Shining Prince of Vladimir, and the Unsetting Sun of the Suzdalian lands. His story is one of the earliest examples of Russian military resistance against impossible odds. He is also the subject of one of the greatest Russian films in history. (Posted at the bottom of the article with English subtitles)
Alexander Nevsky was a man who chose his faith over his power and freedom, therefore winning high favor before the Throne of God.
Read these words of the Second Pskovian Chronicle (an ancient Slavic manuscript) to get an idea of what a colossus we are speaking of:
“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 would defeat but was never defeated …”
Alexander was born on the 13th of May, 1221, in the years after the direct unity of Kievan Rus’ was broken, and Rus' lands lived up to their Norse name “Kingdom of Cities.”
Each Prince ruled his city-state, not unlike ancient Greece, though to be fair, Russia was so vast, many cities could extend their rule over territories comparable to the size of England. After the death of Yaroslav the Wise, Kievan Rus’ was consumed by constant infighting for the thrones of the major cities, principally for Kiev, but also for Vladimir-Suzdal, and Novgorod, among others.
Alexander was the grandson of Vsevolod the Big Nest, High King of Vladimir, under whose reign the city reached its height of power and influence.
Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir was the prototype for the one in Moscow.
This is important, as Vladimir-Suzdal and the legacy of Alexander, is the source from which Moscow, and by extension, the modern Russian State, had its origin.
Dormition Cathedral in Moscow
Alexander was the Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandson of Saint Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles, and Baptizer of All Rus’ and the 7th Great Grandson of Saint Olga. That’s a lot of greats for this Saint!
He was born shortly before the first Mongol attacks on the Russian lands, the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223, and he lived through the full-scale Mongol invasion of 1237, which changed everything for Rus'.
Rus' suffered from the typical struggle of human history. It was the inability of our Princes to unite, and their pride, which were among the key factors that made the Mongol invasion successful, and resulted in our downfall in those days. Alexander taught us to conquer pride with the Russian Faith, putting it above all else.
No one expected this younger son of the Ruler of Vladimir-Suzdal to gain the throne of one of the major city-states, let alone Vladimir; however, the young Alexander was elected to the Throne of “Lord” Novgorod. No, I don’t mean his title was Lord Novgorod, Novgorod is a city with a mind and title of its own.
Great Novgorod Kremlin - the monument to 1000 years of Russian History can be barely seen just above the Cathedral's farthest right dome, as a black orb with statues. Alexander has his own carving on the monument. The Cathedral is considered one of the oldest Churches in all Rus'.
Lord Novgorod the Great was a unique Russian city-state, and the site where Rurik landed, beginning recorded Russian history. The city was allegedly a merchant’s paradise, a “free” city ruled by merchant lords who elected their sovereign from amongst the Rurikids. It was also a member of the international Hanseatic trade league.
Novgorod chose Alexander to rule them in their time of need, to battle against the Swedes; this would be the first, but not the last time he saved the city.
His Majesty, The Republic of Novgorod the Great and Powerful
At age 19, he repelled the invading army on the River Neva where the city of Saint Petersburg currently stands (then a barren swamp).
Before the battle, he reminded his men, “The power of God is not in numbers, but in truth.”
A soldier of Alexander's called Philip later saw an omen, a vision of Saints Boris and Gleb, sons of Vladimir the Great and Protomartyrs of Russia. Boris said: “Brother Gleb, let us help our kinsman Alexander.”
Alexander led the army to an incredible victory there on the Neva, and for this, he was called Nevsky – of the river Neva. The Battle of the Neva was featured in a recent Russian film:
And how did the Novgorod Republic repay their Hero? By deposing him and sending him away, when greedy Boyars grew jealous.
With humility, he departed, though it wouldn’t be long until he was recalled. In the hour of their need, they called for the man they slandered and cast away, and he returned to their aid.
Teutonic Knights and other Catholic crusaders were emerging in the western marches of northern Rus’, a looming threat perhaps more sinister than even the Mongols.
To understand the context of Prince Alexander’s struggle against the Teutonic Knights, one must realize this was happening during the “Northern Crusades.”
The Catholic church was expanding its power northward into the territory of the modern Baltic states, originally, to fight pagans. The Vatican saw the internal strife in Rus’, and just as they had done in the Crusades in the Middle East, they changed their mission from fighting heathens, be they Muslims or pagans, to murdering Orthodox Christians and plundering our lands.
This map shows the extent of Catholic expansionism in the North. Lake Peipus, the site of Alexander's greatest battle, is located in the North West in the Novgorod Republic.
This is one of the earliest examples of the West (for lack of a better term), interfering with Russia, in a most cynical and insidious way.
This occurred when the Roman Curia (the Pope and his cardinals) offered to Alexander an alliance against the Mongol Empire, under whose yoke Russia had been suffering in captivity. The alliance would carry with it the intolerable condition that Russia convert to Roman Catholicism.
At first, this sounds like a great offer, especially to those who are not religious and/or have no understanding of Geopolitics; however, these events set the precedent for Russia’s mistrust of the west. [See this article for more on that mistrust]
Non-Religious people will say, “what does it matter which religion you practice,” and the Geopolitically illiterate are unable to read the writing on the wall: It’s a setup!
Divide and Conquer.
Malbork Castle, the largest castle in the world, built by the Teutonic Order in Poland. The Moscow Kremlin, though larger, is a Citadel, not a castle. The size of this fortress, dwarfing Windsor Castle, is a testimony to how dedicated the Vatican was to occupying Slavic lands.
To be fair, the Vatican had no love for the Mongols; they had reasonable concerns Mongols would invade Catholic lands, however, they also had no love for the Orthodox. Make no mistake, the Pope agreed to fight the Mongol horde to the death…of the last Russian.
Even if Russia won, are we to believe the Vatican would just walk away, and leave us to govern our now Roman Catholic converted lands in peace?
These are the same people who embarked on the crusades to lend military aid to the Eastern Roman Empire and then sacked Constantinople – the largest city in Christendom – four crusades later.
Don’t believe me? Still think the Catholics would have lived at peace with Russia? Simply look to history, in these same Northern Crusades, years later, the Teutonic Knights would wage war against their fellow Catholics, and Russia's fellow Slavs – the Poles.
The Battle of Grunwald in the 15th century, when Poland finally defeated the Teutonic Order. Some of their best troops were Russian soldiers from Smolensk whose fathers fought with Alexander. The Battle was considered such a great Slavic victory over the Germans that in WW1, the Germans would take revenge for it at the "Second" Battle of Tannenberg, as they called Grunwald centuries later.
And what if Russia lost, even with Catholic aid? Which country would the Mongols rape and pillage before moving on to Rome?
Saint Alexander was wise and foresighted; he understood all of this. Moreover, there is a theory that the Pope’s envoys later arranged for Alexander’s father to be poisoned at the Horde, to provoke a conflict.
All those interested in Russia should pay close attention to what Alexander did, as it set the standard and precedent for how Russia would react to such situations even in the present day. Russia will make any sacrifice to protect it’s core values, the individuals will sacrifice their lives to protect the community, it is not the community which exists to protect the individual.
He not only resisted their provocations, but Alexander also did something controversial: he paid tribute to the Mongols. He accepted their rule over him humbly, and without protest, though he would not worship their Gods or break the Orthodox Faith. Some historians regard this as a political or diplomatic move, a choice of a lesser evil, and from a political point of view his actions were incredibly wise, however, in Orthodoxy, we have another view.
The great Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski had some wise words to this effect in his The Witcher series, popular in Poland and Russia, and world famous for the video game franchise. The Protagonist, Gerald of Rivia famously said these words which in my vision, captures perfectly the Orthodox mindset:
“Evil is evil. Lesser, greater, middling… makes no difference. The degree is arbitrary. The definition’s blurred. If I’m to choose between one evil and another, I’d rather not choose at all.
Likewise in Orthodoxy, we do not choose between Satan and Beelzebub, evil is always evil. What Alexander did, in my opinion, was choose the only option to save Russia.
In a way, this makes him no different than all the other great Russian Heroes, yet Alexander would be remembered as the Archetype for all Russian Heroes in the great work "The Life of Alexander Nevsky." His self-sacrificing nature, yet unbreakable in his will and resolve to preserve the Russian faith and his worldview makes him characteristic of the values we admire most.
So it was that he entered the horde as a lamb to the slaughter, but he returned as a Lion of Rus'.
Nevsky before the Horde
He understood that, realistically, Russia could not fight the Mongols at this time. The disunion in his lands was too great. His actions saved Russia to fight another day. He couldn’t stop the Mongols yet, but he could stop the Catholics from destroying Orthodoxy and Russia until his sons would overcome the horde someday.
His choice to ally, or at least make peace with, the Mongols, and fight the West is often touted by both Pro-Russian Eurasianists and Russophobic racial supremacists who consider Russia an Asian culture, as an example of Russia definitively aligning itself with Asia against Europe – against Western Civilization.
A new Church of Alexander Nevsky in Moscow near MGIMO, the most prestigious university for international relations of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Ironic how Alexander Nevsky was a trailblazer and pathfinder for Russian diplomacy. If you want to study international relations there is no better place.
But this conclusion about Russian eastern alignment is untrue. Saint Alexander was faithful to the classical vision of Western Civilization, a civilization supposedly built on Greco-Roman political foundations, and Christian Faith.
And what does the Christian Faith teach us – to humble ourselves even unto death: if an enemy strikes us, turn the other cheek, do not resist him, give him whatever he wants, even your life. These are the words Saint Sergius of Radonezh, wonderworker of all Russia would say to Saint Dmitri of the Don, Alexander's descendent, before his own battle with the Mongols:
“Scripture teaches us that if enemies want honor, gold, or glory, we give it, and God will lift them up to see your humility, and will suppress their unyielding pride.”
But Christianity has another value, give them whatever they want – except for your Faith. Never surrender your faith for any reason. Do not give your faith for your life, but rather your life for your faith. And so it was that Alexander’s choice was obvious.
The Mongols did not want his faith; they cared not for what God he worshipped. It was clear what they wanted, money, and a guarantee he would not wage war on them. The easiest thing a Christian can give. What was this worthless gold and silver to the Russian Orthodox Faith?
But what did the West want? Money and a chance to meddle in the affairs of a people not their own.
The Mongols wanted money and peace – Pax Mongolica. The Vatican wanted money for a war against the Mongols and that alone, maybe…maybe Russia could have won.
But the West wanted something we could not give – something priceless. They wanted to take away our Orthodox Faith.
Alexander braved the road to the Horde in order to make peace. All Russian rulers under the Tatar Yoke had to have the permission of the Horde to rule, and if the Horde did not like them for the smallest reasons, they would often kill them without warning when they arrived.
There, he was expected to perform any matter of pagan signs before the Khan, but he refused, prepared to die in the way of Saint Michael of Chernigov if need be:
“O King,” he said, bowing before the Khan, “I bow before you because God has favored you with authority, but I shall not bow before any created thing. I serve the One God. Him alone do I honor, and Him alone do I worship.”
Batu Khan was so impressed by the courage and handsome demeanor of the young prince that to everyone’s amazement he accepted his refusal and received him with due honor. Source: Pravoslavie.ru
Ensuring that the Mongols would not trouble Russia, Alexander was ready to defend the Faith.
Nevsky at Novgorod
The German Knights bragged about enslaving the entire Slavic nation, but if only they knew God himself arrayed his armies against them to liberate the oppressed peoples, they would have fled rather than face the slaughter coming for them.
Alexander soon recaptured the city of Pskov, where the knights had massacred the inhabitants, and turned his eyes to end their tyranny. He prayed, asking God to help him “in his strife against a boastful nation as [God] helped Moses against Amalek, and my forefather Yaroslav the Wise against Svyatopolk the Accursed.”
His great battle against the knights took place on April 5, 1242, on the frozen shores of Lake Peipus, and was the subject of a famous movie with a phenomenal musical score written by the great Russian composer Prokofiev.
The Battle on the Ice was the bite of white-fanged winter to the throat of the German army. Like a millstone smashed upon the ground, their bones were shattered beneath Russian axes and their bodies sunk beneath the frozen waters.
Alexander was victorious and spoke his famous words
“Those who come to us with a sword will die by that sword”.
The Vatican then offered him that aforementioned deal against the Mongols, which he refused, ever guarding his faith as well as his lands.
The Battle on the Ice as depicted in the "Life of Alexander Nevsky"
He traveled with his Father to the Horde where the latter died, but Alexander lived on to defend the Russian land and the uneasy peace with the Horde. He resisted every attempt of the Vatican to provoke that war between Russia and the Horde. For his actions, he would be considered the ideal model of a Russian Ruler.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, was created in honor of Russian soldiers fallen during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, as a result of which Russia won Bulgaria her freedom from Ottoman occupation.
By 1259, Alexander became the dominant Russian ruler, Sovereign of Kiev, Vladimir, and Novgorod, and at his death, the sun set upon the Russian lands as the chronicles tell:
"Returning from the Golden Horde, the Great Prince Alexander, reached the city of Nizhny 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 12 November , on the day when the Holy Apostle Philip is remembered ...
Silver Sarcophagus of Alexander Nevsky
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.'
Prior to his death, the Saint took monastic vows, though this was not the final march of Alexander Nevsky. The Saint undertook one final journey in the 18th century, when Peter the Great transferred his relics and silver sarcophagus form Vladimir-Suzdal to his new capital in Saint Petersburg.
Saint Petersburg was built upon the Neva river, where hundreds of years before, he fought the Swedes and earned his title "Nevsky - Of the Neva."
His relics were processed through the new capital and laid in the great Alexander Nevsky Lavra, one of the Five Lavras (Great Monasteries) of the Russian Church.
Nevsky Lavra, the resting place of Nevsky and Dostoevsky
The Lavra is the holiest place in Saint Petersburg, being the second Lavra in modern Russia proper, after Trinity Sergius Lavra. The other three Lavras, from oldest to youngest: Kiev Caves, Pochaev, and Svyatogorsk are located in modern Ukraine.
Now Saint Alexander keeps perpetual vigil at Nevsky Lavra, over Russia's Northern Capitol, on the same river where he defended her in the Bygone Years.
The Great Silver Sarcophagus of Alexander Nevsky
And so, the life of Alexander Nevsky passed into song and legend. His legacy was long and far-reaching, his son Daniel of Moscow would become the father of all Moscow’s rulers.
Alexander never lived to see Russia free of Tatar-Mongol rule, but amongst those descendants in Moscow would arise Dmitri of the Don who would finally begin the fight to free Russia. The Labors of Saint Alexander paved the way for Russia to fight another day, and so that someday, another Hero arose to cast off the Mongol Yoke.
Dmitri Donskoi finished his ancestor's work and liberated Russia from the Tatar Yoke
The Mongols and all the world believe the western sun fell hard on the Russian lands and darkness overshadowed them, but through the labors of Saint Alexander, little sparks of national awakening would begin to dance across the vast steppes, gathering up into a flame of the Russian Faith. Under Dmitri of the Don, Alexander’s Great Great Grandson, Russia would rise again like the Firebird.
The Famous Film with English Subtitles
Hymns to Saint Alexander Nevsky:
Christ revealed you, O Blessed Alexander / As a new and glorious worker of wonders; / A man and a prince well pleasing to God / And a divine treasure of the Russian Land. / Today we assemble in faith and love / To glorify the Lord by joyously remembering you. / He granted you the grace of healing, / Therefore entreat Him to strengthen your suffering spiritual children, / And to save all Orthodox Christians.
We honor you as a most radiant, spiritual star, / Rising up from the east; going down in the west! / As you enriched the Russian people with good works and miracles, / So now enlighten us who remember you in faith, O Blessed Alexander. / Today as we celebrate your falling asleep, we ask you to beseech the Lord / That He may strengthen his suffering servants and save all Orthodox Christians!
A video introducing Russian Faith