Alexander Nevsky, Revisited


Now for my Russian history papers, I have expanded the section about the most famous hero during Russia’s darkest days.

Alexander Nevsky

Last but not least, the Russian city of Novgorod got involved in the Baltic region, by gaining control over the Karelians, the Finnish tribe living between the Gulf of Finland and the White Sea. In 1227, Novgorod’s Prince Yaroslav II led a successful raid against the Tavastians, a tribe in central Finland. The Tavastians tried to retaliate with an attack of their own upon Novgorod in the following year, only to suffer a devastating defeat, because the Karelians, traditional enemies of the Tavastians, fought on Novgorod’s side. However, the pope was alarmed by Novgorod’s success, because the Russians were Orthodox Christians; from the Catholic point of view, the Orthodox Church was a heresy, and belonging to it was almost as bad as being a pagan. Thus, in 1229 the pope ordered a trade embargo on Novgorod. The embargo came at the same time as a crop failure caused by early autumn frosts, so thousands of Novgorodians starved to death that year. However, the merchants of the western Baltic, those Germans who would soon found the Hanseatic League, were not willing to give up their profitable trade with Novgorod because the pope said so, and for that reason, the embargo did not last very long.

In 1236, Yaroslav got to become the prince of Kiev, and he handed over rule of Novgorod to his fifteen-year-old son, Alexander. Then in 1240, Novgorod faced the first of three military threats that were more serious than the economic threat had been. It came from the Swedes, who marched an army up the Neva River toward Novgorod, backed by their Suomi and Tavastian allies. The Swedish commander, a noble named Birger Jarl, thought Novgorod wouldn’t be a tough opponent, but he was no match for the young Alexander, who charged at the first opportunity and inflicted a crushing defeat. Because of this battle on the banks of the Neva, modern-day Russians call the Novgorod prince Alexander Nevsky.


This statue of Alexander Nevsky was erected in 2002, on one end of the avenue named after him in St. Petersburg, Nevsky Prospect. Source:

When the Teutonic Knights took over the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and their holdings, King Waldemar of Denmark reminded them of his claim to Estonia. They agreed to a compromise where the Danes got the northern half of Estonia, and the Teutonic Knights got the southern half. When the pope heard about this, he got involved in Baltic affairs again, declaring that he would only approve of this division if the Danes and Germans both went on a Crusade against the Russian heretics. Accordingly, in 1240 a combined German-Danish force took the towns of Izborsk, Pskov and Koporye. Alexander staged a counterattack in 1241 that recovered Pskov, but then the Germans, Danes and their Estonian allies marched on Novgorod itself. Alexander could not defeat the heavily armored knights in a straight slugging match, so on April 5, 1242 he let them charge toward him across the frozen Lake Peipus, and on the other side he hit them with an attack on each flank. Nowadays, in part because of the movie Sergei Eisenstein made about Alexander Nevsky, popular imagination sees the battle ending when the ice on the lake broke and knights sank out of sight. Although we have no medieval documents saying this really happened, the unusual conditions of the battle have given it the name we use, "the Battle on the Ice."


The Battle on the Ice.

The Mongols were the third threat to Novgorod, because they had wasted the rest of Russia by this time. Alexander chose to pay tribute, instead of fighting them. For that reason, and because the northern Russian forest made it difficult for the Mongol cavalry to get at Novgorod, the Mongols spared the city. Buying off the Mongols may have been the right decision, but it raises questions about Alexander for us. Today he is remembered as the only Russian hero in the country’s darkest time, the thirteenth century, so keep in mind that he was also a loyal vassal to the Mongols for the rest of his life. In 1252 Sartaq Khan, Batu’s son, rewarded Alexander by appointing him Grand Duke of Vladimir, and a few years later, when the Novgorodians revolted against the census and tribute the Mongols had imposed on them, Alexander used the threat of another Mongol invasion to make them pay the full amount (1259). Finally, in 1262 another anti-tribute insurrection broke out in the city of Suzdal, and showed signs of spreading to the rest of the Russian states. Alexander went to Sarai, the Mongol capital, to plead their case before the Khan; he succeeded in not only getting the Mongols to reduce the tribute, but also persuaded them to stop requiring that Russian states contribute soldiers to fight in the Mongol army. Unfortunately, he had to stay in Sarai for the whole winter of 1262-63 to do this; he fell ill during this time, and died on the way home afterwards. Nearly three hundred years later, the Russian Orthodox Church would canonize him as a saint.


Alexander Nevsky before the Khan.

It was left to Alexander’s successors to settle the conflicting claims by Sweden and Novgorod over the Finnish tribes. Birger Jarl completed the Swedish conquest of the Tavastians in 1249, and from 1256 onward, Russian chronicles acknowledge that most of Finland was under Swedish rule. Forty years of infrequent but fierce border raids between the two sides followed, and then in 1293 a Swede named Tyrgils Knuttson tried to conquer Karelia as well. He only succeeded on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, where he captured the mouth of the Neva River and built Vyborg Castle nearby. For the next four hundred years, until Peter the Great captured it in 1710, Vyborg would be Sweden’s easternmost city. After that came another thirty years of hostilities; in 1318 the Novgorodians burned down Turku, Finland’s oldest city. Neither side could win a decisive victory, though, and in 1323 they signed the Treaty of Nöteborg, the first attempt to define the border between them.

This was not the last word on relations between the Russians, Finns and Swedes; more wars involving them would be fought for centuries to come. In that sense, the treaty was really a cease-fire. Still, after this Sweden was no longer considered a participant in the northern Crusades. Finland had never attracted many knights, because this was a land with much hardship, few profits, and no glory. The soldiers who ended up settling in places like Turku and Vyborg were called "Food Swedes" by the Finns, because their voracious appetites were more impressive than their fighting ability.

Meanwhile along Scandinavia’s Atlantic coast, the Norse/Norwegians had been steadily expanding northward from Trondheim, their northernmost community at the beginning of the Viking era. By the thirteenth century, they had reached Lapland, where they met expeditions from Novgorod. We know this because in 1251 Novgorod sent an embassy to the king of Norway, complaining about clashes between Norwegians and Karelians in this area. The next three quarters of a century saw the building of forts here, and a series of raids and counter-raids. What makes this amazing is that it all happened above the Arctic Circle; this is probably the northernmost war of all time. It was settled by the Treaty of Novgorod in 1326, which declared Lapland a "march" or buffer zone, and stated who could tax each Saami tribe, but did not draw a border between Norway and Novgorod. Even so, it left the Norwegians in control of the North Cape district (henceforth called Finnmark), while the Novgorodians (and later the Russians) got the Kola peninsula; that arrangement has lasted to this day.

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