During his short life, Saint Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263), born Aleksandr Yaroslavovich, made his mark in history as one of Russia’s best-known Christian military commanders; he protected Russia against European invasion during the Middle Ages. He was heralded as savior of the Russian Orthodox Church.
A military strategist of the time, Nevsky’s triumphant defense against the invasion of Russia by the Swedes, the Teutonic Knights, and the Lithuanians saved Russian culture. Many historians believe that, through his collaboration with the Mongols, Nevsky was able to save Russian lives and land and also saved Russia from Roman Catholic control, thus preserving the Orthodox faith. He also did much to advance the centralization of the Russian government.
Nevsky’s role as defender of Russian land from the German and Swedish feuDalí lords began when he was at the tender age of 16, when he became the duty-bound prince of Novgorod. His legendary victory over the Swedes, who in 1240 attempted to block Russia’s access to the Baltic at the Battle of Neva, earned him both the name of Nevsky and a place in history by raising him to legendary status. The military tactic of a surprise lightning attack in this battle ensured Nevsky’s victory. This was an especially significant event because it prevented an all-out invasion of Russia by the Swedes. This victory further strengthened the young prince’s political aspirations.
When the invasion of Russia was again at hand, Alexander Nevsky again went to war. His victorious battle with the German Knights in the Battle of the Ice in 1242 was a significant historical event of the Middle Ages, for it was in this victory that foot soldiers first defeated mounted knights, a military tactic that was to become a timeless battle strategy. This victory and the victory over the Lithuanians in 1245 established Nevsky as a one of the greatest military leaders of that time and ensured the survival of Russia.
In 1246, Nevsky faced a problem that would require his skills not on the battlefields but in diplomacy. The problem concerned a loss of Russian independence. At this time, with the Mongols’ conquest of eastern Russia, Nevsky wisely cooperated with them. He was made Grand Prince of Vladimir (1252-1263), and his cooperation with the Mongols allowed him to protect the Orthodox Church from aggression, to spare Russians from further hardship, and to achieve some stability in northern Russia.
Nevsky died in 1263. The end of his leadership was a loss deeply felt by the country, but his heirs ruled Russia until 1917. With his successors and descendants, princes came to be monarchs in Moscow. In death, he continued to be an influence in Russian history. In the 14th century (1381), Nevksy was elevated to the status of a local saint, and in 1547 he was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, because his collaboration and intercession with the Mongols helped to maintain Russia’s way of life and religious freedom and prevented much bloodshed. This endeared him to the Russian people.
The Alexander Nevsky Monastery, founded in 1710, now includes some of the oldest buildings in the city of St. Petersburg and burial places for some of the giants of Russian culture. In 1725, one of the highest Russian military decorations, the Order of Alexander Nevsky, was established to revive the memory of Alexander’s struggle with the Germans, and in 1836 a triumphal arch was erected in his memory and a principal street was named for him in St. Petersburg. In 1937, Sergei Eisenstein made a classic film to promote Russian nationalism using Nevsky as the subject. The Soviet Order of Alexander Nevsky was introduced during the Great Patriotic War of 1942.
Several Russian naval vessels were named for him, including the 19th-century frigate Alexander Neuski. Without Nevsky’s leadership the history of Eastern Europe and thus of the world might have been very different.
Joyce K. Thornton
See also Attila the Hun; Genghis Khan
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