Alexander Nevsky: a symbol of Russia,or The paradoxes of Russian mythmaking
On the Sunday evening of December 28, 2008, Russia TV channel announced live the personality chosen as symbol of the nation. In a three-month-long nationwide Internet and SMS vote, the public chose the Ancient Rus Prince Alexander Nevsky. Out of the total 4.5 million Russians who voted, over 520,000 preferred this figure. The second best was Pyotr Stolypin, architect of the farming reform and Russia’s prime minister in the early 20th century. Coming off third was Joseph Stalin, followed by Aleksandr Pushkin, Peter I, Vladimir Lenin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Suvorov, Dmitry Mendeleyev, Ivan IV the Terrible, Catherine II, and Alexander II. The voting could not avoid scandals. For example, it was Stalin who was leading at first, then Alexander Nevsky outran him by a mere 2 percent.
Nevsky and Stalin are equally odious personalities who are still stirring up controversy and disputes about their role in Russian history. But while the life story of Alexander Nevsky is covered with centuries-old dust of history and ordinary Russians get information on him mostly from school manuals, Stalin’s “deeds” still remain in the memory of a considerable part of the Russians. The fact that Stalin, a cruel tyrant who wiped out tens of millions of innocent people, almost became the symbol of Russia arouses great alarm and preoccupation over the Russian nation’s ethnic health, for a great-power psychosis is clearly being instilled again.
A LIGHT ON THE HERO’S SHADOW
History text books portray Alexander Nevsky as a hero and protector of Rus. A kitschy and mellow image of the “Saint” Alexander Nevsky was created by the efforts of Russian official-line historians and the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet some Russian historians call Alexander Nevsky a traitor, a butcher of Russia, and even the “Satan” of Russian history. Almost the entire European historical thought adheres to the idea that “it is Alexander’s collaboration with the Tatar Mongols and betrayal of his brothers Andrei and Yaroslav in 1252 that allowed the Golden Horde to impose a yoke on Rus.”
Very few can deny that no other than Alexander Nevsky is to blame for 240-year-long slavery of Great Russians. It is he who ordered the people to surrender to the Golden Horde without fighting back. So what are Nevsky’s merits to the Russian Orthodox Church? The answer of Nevsky’s apologists boils down, in some variations, to this: Alexander made a fateful choice between the East and the West in favor of the East. Opting for an alliance with the Horde, he forestalled the absorption of Rus (Muscovy) by Catholic Europe and thus saved the Russian Orthodox faith.
Among the prominent Russian historians who achieved the greatest success in building a majestic image of Nevsky, the palm belongs, by all accounts, to Nikolai Karamzin who said the following words: “But history is said top be full of lies. Let us say better: like any other human endeavor, it does have a smattering of lies but still more or less preserves the nature of the truth, and this is enough for us to make a general idea of people and acts.” A thorough study of Karamzin’s works clearly shows that the historian himself really sinned against the historical truth.
One who played a big and unattractive role in whitewashing and embellishing Russian history was Catherine II who had collected a host of original documents and chronicles to perpetrate a major hoax. When Catherine II became the empress of Russia by decree of fate and owing to her own perfidiousness, she decided to airbrush Russia’s historical background, which would majestically accentuate her own “great rule.” By her edict of December 4, 1783, Catherine II ordered establishing the Commission for Essays on the Ancient History of Russia under the supervision of Count Andrei Shuvalov, later replaced by Gerard Miller.
By the end of the 18th century, Catherine II had amassed all the original ancient literary and historical sources until that time kept in monasteries, churches, educational institutions, and by individuals. The commission’s work resulted in the five-volume Collected Chronicles of the Russian State edited by the empress herself. However, when Catherine died, some original chronicles, such as the legendary Nestor’s Tale of Bygone Years and The Comprehensive Book of Tsarist Lineage by Ivan the Terrible’s private priest Afanasiy, and many others, disappeared altogether. What has reached us is the so-called compilations of chronicles, i.e., chronicles that were rewritten, corrected and supplemented in order to unite the histories of Kyivan Rus and Muscovy. All the “compilations of chronicles” were made or found by “Catherine’s guys.” Thus did Empress Catherine II finally “streamline” Russian official history, placing lies under protection of the state. A considerable part of Alexander Nevsky’a life story still remains affected with those lies.
According to most of the Russian historical sources, Alexander, born in 1220, was the second son of Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich by his Cuman wife. Both Vsevolod Yuriyovich the Big Nest and his son Yaroslav may also have been married to Cuman women. In other words, judging by some sources, Nevsky’s great-grandmother, grandmother and mother were also of Cuman origin. When Batu Khan invaded Rus in 1237—1238, neither Yaroslav Vsevolodovich nor Alexander and his younger brothers offered resistance and, hence, were not killed by the Tatar Mongols. Having surrendered to Batu Khan, Prince Yaroslav and his relatives volunteered to serve the Tatar Mongols.
Official historiography ascribes to Alexander Nevsky victories over the Swedes in 1240 and the Teutonic knights in 1242. Many historians believe, however, that the importance of Nevsky’s victories in these battles was too exaggerated. In any case, there is no reason why they should be called “fateful.” The 20-year-old prince won the first victory on the Neva bank, in the mouth of the river Izhora, on July 15, 1240, over a Swedish unit commanded by Birger Jarl, the would-be ruler of Sweden. No more than 300 men from both sides took part in that “battle.” The Russian side lost a mere 20 warriors. Under the veil of night, the remaining enemy troops got on the boats and sailed away. Old-time Muscovy saw fist-fights even on a greater scale than that on the Neva, when a village would face up to a village on Christmas Eve. It is believed that the prince began to be called Nevsky for this victory, although this nickname occurs for the first time in 14-century sources. The traditional view is that the 1240 battle helped Rus keep on the Gulf of Finland shores and repelled the Swedish aggression against the Novgorod-Pskov lands.
Of almost the same level was Alexander’s “battle” with the Germans and Ests on April 5, 1242, on Lake Peipus. What testifies to the true “scale” of this battle is the fact that it is not even mentioned in the Hypatian Codex. After returning from the Neva banks and provoking one of the many conflicts, Alexander had to leave Novgorod for Pereyaslavl-Zalesky. Democratic Novgorod just banished Alexander because of his despotism.
Meanwhile, Novgorod was facing a danger from the west. Having gathered Baltic German crusaders and Danish knights from Revel, and enlisting the support of the Papal Curia and the residents of Pskov, an all-time rival to Novgorod, the Livonian Order invaded the Novgorod lands. Novgorod appealed to Yaroslav Vsevolodovich for help. The latter sent to Novgorod an armed detachment led by his son Andrei who was soon replaced by Alexander on Novgorod residents’ demand. He liberated Koporye and Vodskaya Pyatina, occupied by knights, and then ousted a German garrison from Pskov. Encouraged by the success, the Novgorodians invaded the Livonian Order’s territory and began ruining settlements of the Estonians, Danes, and crusaders. The knights who advanced from Riga forced Alexander to withdraw his units to the Livonian Order’s border that passed across Lake Peipus. Both sides began to prepare for a decisive battle, which took place on the ice of Lake Peipus, near the Crow’s Stone, on April 5, 1242, and went down in history as Battle on the Ice. According to the Livonian Order, 20 Teutonic Nights were killed and six taken prisoner
The Livonian Order faced the necessity of concluding a peace treaty, under which the crusaders dropped their claims to Russian lands and handed over a part of Latgale. In the summer of the same year, Alexander defeated seven Lithuanian detachments that had been attacking north-western Russian lands, and in 1245 he won back the Lithuania-occupied Toropets and routed a Lithuanian militia near Usviat.
Thanks to these and other victories, he has remained in the minds of people as a protector of homeland. A monastery, Alexander Nevsky Lavra, was built in his honor in Petersburg on Peter the Great’s orders, where his remains were transferred in 1724. Peter I also decreed that his memory be honored on August 30, The Day a victorious treaty with Sweden was signed. In 1725, Empress Catherine I established the Order of Prince Alexander Nevsky, one of the Russian Empire’s highest awards. It existed until 1917 as the second most important one after the Order of St. Andrew the First Called. An Order of Alexander Nevsky was also established in the USSR in 1942, during the Great Patriotic War, to be conferred on Red Army officers who displayed conspicuous gallantry and courage on the battlefield. The order is also part of the awards system in the Russian Federation.
A LOYAL SERVANT OF THE TATARS
It is traditionally believed that Alexander Nevsky’s successful military actions guaranteed the security of Rus’s western borders for a long time, but Rus princes in the east had to bow to the Tatar Mongols, a far stronger enemy. Having conquered Vladimir-Suzdal Principality in 1237, Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, posted his men to administer the land. Prof. Lev Gumiliov confirms that most of the Suzdal settlements voluntarily submitted to Batu Khan. Throwing themselves at the victors’ mercy, they remained safe and sound. Among those who surrendered was Alexander Nevsky’s father Yaroslav Vsevolodovich who received a yarlyk (permission) in 1238 from Batu Khan, which allowed him to be a “grand” prince in Vladomir-Suzdal ulus (district). That he threw himself at Batu Khan’s mercy is beyond any doubt – otherwise he could not have hoped to ascend the grand prince’s throne. If Batu Khan had not been sure of Prince Yaroslav’s loyalty, he would have hardly allowed him to collect tribute for the Golden Horde. Besides, from 1238 on, for two and a half centuries, not a single prince could occupy the thrones of the Rostov-Suzdal land and Muscovy without a Tatar yarlyk. Still, Batu Khan could not fully trust Yaroslav and told the prince to leave his elder son Alexander with him “as a surety,” of which Plano Carpini, the Pope’s envoy to the Golden Horde, informs.
On returning from his European expeditions in 1242, Batu Khan summoned the rulers of all the appanage principalities, including Prince Yaroslav, to render an account. As Karamzin writes, “the Grand Prince set off, with many Boyars, to Batu’s headquarters and sent his younger son Konstantin (Alexander Nevsky’s brother) to Grand Khan Oktai in Tatarstan. Batu received Yaroslav with respect, appointed him Head of all the Rus Princes, and allowed him to rule in Kyiv. Thus our sovereigns solemnly repudiated the rights of an independent nation and bowed to the yoke of barbarians. Yaroslav’s action was an example to follow for the local Suzdal princes who kowtowed to the vainglorious Batu in order to peacefully reign in their regions... Having obtained a gracious permission to go back, Yaroslav departed this life en route. The loyal Boyars brought his body to the capital city of Vladimir. It was rumored that he was poisoned...”
In 1247 Sviatoslav Vsevolodovich, Yaroslav’s younger brother, became the Grand Prince of Vladimir, while Alexander Nevsky was given Tver. Later that year, dissatisfied with the received appanage property, the brothers Andrei and Alexander went to see Batu Khan in the Golden in an attempt to win the grand prince’s throne over from their uncle. The brothers stayed in the Horde until 1249, when the throne of the Grand Prince of Vadimir was bestowed on Andrei. Karamzin’s allegation that Alexander was given the entire southern Rus and Kyiv seems to be incorrect because southern Rus was ruled at the time by Grand Prince Danylo of Galicia, who had the title of “king of all Rus.” Besides, Alexander was still kept hostage at Batu Khan’s headquarters, which Plano Carpini confirms.
As Alexander was kept hostage, he fraternized himself with Batu’s son Sartaq in about 1238—1242. Some compilations of chronicles claim that Alexander was Batu Khan’s “foster son.” The ancient Mongols had a touching custom of fraternization. Boys or youths would exchange gifts, cut their hands, mix their blood with milk, then drink the cocktail by turns, pronouncing the words of a joint oath, and become andas, i.e., foster brothers. Sworn brotherhood was considered higher than blood relationship: the andas are like one soul, they never abandon and always rescue one another in a fatal danger. At the same time, Sartaq was converted to the Nestorian branch of Orthodoxy.
In 1249 Batu Khan gave his son Sartaq lands from the Volga to the Don, which also included the entire Rostov-Suzdal territory. In 1252 Sartaq ceded one his uluses, the Rostov-Suzdal land, to his confidant and anda Alexander, although this land had thitherto been administered by his brother Prince Andrei. Yet Alexander, who was brought up in the Tatar Mongol environment, assumed the Horde’s outlook and became Sartaq’s anda, found it only natural to betray his brother and seize the yarlyk for the Vladimir grand principality’s throne. Alexander knew only too well that the only chance to ascend this throne was to liquidate his brother Andrei.
In 1250 Daniel of Galicia (Danylo of Halych) gave his daughter in marriage to Andrei (Alexander’s brother), the Grand Prince of Volodymyr-Volynsky, thus forging a secret military alliance against the Tatars, which Yaroslav of Tver also joined. In 1252 Andrei also invited his brother Alexander to join the anti-Tatar alliance, but Alexander denounced him to the khan. The khan rewarded Alexander for loyal service by installing him as the Grand Prince of Volodymyr instead of Andrei. Alexander himself led “Nevruy’s horde” to Rus in order to defeat Andrei, but the latter managed to flee to Sweden. Alexander also denounced Danylo of Halych, after which the khan sent Kuremsa’s horde against Danylo.
According to Vissarion Belinsky, over the many years of living at the khan’s court, Alexander became the first Suzdal prince who was really imbued with a Tatar Mongol domination spirit and fully adopted in childhood the mentality of a nomadic forayer and the customs of the people among whom he had grown up. So Alexander did not let his “dirty” chance slip by. In preparation for overthrowing Andrei Yaroslavovich, Alexander Yaroslavovich Nevsky went to the Horde for help – not to Batu Khan himself but to his son Sartaq. Alexander eventually won a “victory” over Andrei with the help of Sartaq’s troops. Recognized by the Horde as a grand prince, Alexander “solemnly” entered Vladimir. On the advice of the new Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky, the Tatar Mongols did not devastate the entire Rostov-Suzdal land: they plundered and killed on a selective basis. Thus Alexander brought the Tatar Mongol punitive forces to the Suzdal land for the first time. And he would bring over these forces more than once again.
All the next actions of Alexander, his sons and grandsons on the grand prince’s throne were marked with unbelievable cruelty to the Rostov-Suzdal populace and Muscovy as well as to the neighboring peoples. From 1252 onwards, Rostov-Suzdal principalities and later Muscovy and the Russian Empire would build their statehood strictly in line with Tatar Mongol canons which Alexander Yaroslavovych had borrowed from the Horde. Borrowing Asian statehood from the Golden Horde and installing it in the Muscovite ulus was in fact the chief “merit” of Alexander Nevsky. Later on, in the Soviet empire, the Bolsheviks would also adhere to Horde-style methods of rule, such as despotic centralization of power, suppression of even the least dissent, overall encouragement of denunciations and betrayals, and never-ending expansionism under the deceitful guise of internationalism.
According to the official historical version, Alexander’s life story was allegedly written in the late 13th century in the chronicle A Tale of the Life of Alexander Nevsky which nobody has ever seen in the original. What has reached us is only the so-called “compilations of chronicles” written hundreds of years later and embellished with “inclusions of lies.”
Prince Alexander ruled for only about 11 years, five of which he spent in the Golden Horde, meticulously learning Tatar Mongol customs and ulus administration skills. All his actions were aimed at making the Suzdal land part of the Golden Horde’s overall economic and political system. On the khan’s orders, Alexander carried out a census first in the Suyzdal and then in the Novgorod lands. He was the first to introduce a per capita tribute rate. The prince’s troops always took part in the Horde’s hostilities against the rebellious populace of Muscvovy and Novgorod. In the course of 11 years, Alexander brought Tatar Mongol troops to the Suzdal and Novgorod lands at least five times.
Only with the “help” of Alexander did the Tatar Mongols manage to conquer Great Novgorod. In the winter of 1257—1258 Alexander brought Tatar Mongol units to the Novgorod land, where an uprising of freedom-loving Novgorodians had erupted. He allowed the Mongols to brutally kill his own son Vasily, who called his father traitor, and cruelly punished the populace, cutting off noses and gouging eyes. In 1259 Alexander brought again the Mongol troops to Novgorod. This time the ancient Novgorod was conquered. Alexander fulfilled his “great predestination.”
In 1262 the Tatar Mongol troops crushed a Suzdal rebellion in protest against tribute collection. “Grand Prince” Alexander personally participated in suppressing rebellions in Rostov, Vladimir, Suzdal, and Yaroslavl. Nevertheless, the Mongol baskaks (tax collectors) remained dissatisfied because too much Mongol blood had been shed. He was urgently ordered to arrive in the Horde, from where he never returned – in all probability, he was poisoned, as his father had been before. By that time, his protector Sartaq had been dead. Karamzin recounts this as follows: “The grand prince ventured to go to the Horde with excuses and gifts. Alexander found Berku Khan in Sarai. The khan kept Nevsky in the Horde throughout winter and summer. In the autumn, the now ailing Alexander returned to Nizhny Novgorod, from where he moved to Gorodets and fell ill with a grave disease that put an end to his life on November 14, 1263.” His body was buried at Vladimir’s Monastery of the Holy Virgin’s Nativity.
And this how the Russian historian K. Kedrov assesses Alexander Nevsky’s “merits to his fatherland:” “Alexander Nevsky, so haughty before the Roman envoys, was extremely meek and docile before the Tatar Mongolian khan. He would compliantly travel to the Horde for a princely yarlyk, where he, regrettably, crawled on all fours to the khan’s throne, as the Horde’s ritual required. In addition, he was forced to mercilessly quell all kinds of unrest in his lands against the Tatars and would collect tribute for the khan, silencing his compatriots with sword and fire. Alexander Nevsky considered it a disgrace for himself to receive a crown from the Pope, but it did not seem to him shameful to crawl under the yoke and get a princely yarlyk from a ferocious Horde ruler.”
In 1264 Yaroslav Yaroslavovich, Alexander’s next-in-line brother, was installed as Grand Prince of Vladimir. This prince, too, “reigned” on the Vladimir throne with the aid of Tatar Mongol troops. Following the example of his grandfather and father, Grand Prince Yaroslav was doing his utmost to please the khan and, like them, he departed this life in 1271 on his way from the Horde, where he had been together with his brother Vasily.
A SAINT BUTCHER OF RUS
Having lost almost all real-life features, Alexander Nevsky transformed into an historic and patriotic icon of sorts. Nobody would listen the historians who attempted to highlight all the sides, including the negative ones, of his activities. Yet, when people create idols, they feel after some time an acute need to bring them down. As long as credulous idol-worshipping, as a form of learning the historical knowledge, is being phased out, there are more and more of those who wish to “debunk” the myth of Alexander Nevsky. Here are the comments of some of them.
“There is a Satan of Russian history named Alexander Nevsky. He had a dream to be reign as prince in Vladimir, and, to satisfy his mercenary interests, he imposed a brutal Tatar yoke on Rus. And he did this in the most villainous way – by betraying his brother.”
“Prince Alexander Nevsky showed himself not as a hero and protector of Rus but as an unprincipled intriguer, traitor and butcher who, for the sake of his own benefit, did not spare the blood of his brethren and sisters in faith. And what did the church canonize him for? For his devotion to the Tatar khan who exempted the church from taxes, who forbade in his 1279 yarlyk to defile and denigrate Orthodoxy, kill and rob Russian priests. For as long before as in 1261, an eparchy was established in the Horde, and the church preached humility to the Tatar yoke. Alexander Yaroslavovich, a traitor and butcher of Rus, became a role model of meanness and unpricipledness for Ivan the Terrible, Peter I the Great, and other ‘great heroes’ of Russia.”
“The Russian people and Russian freedom were given away and sold out from inside. They fell victim to a certain conspiracy. And its key figure was the Russian ‘national hero’ Alexander Nevsky... Alexander was born into the family of Yaroslav. It is he who marketed the idea of historical treason, it is he who made a fatal decision to throw Rus at the mercy of Asian invaders in order to establish a despotic system of government. The disgrace of Russian historical identity and Russian historical memory is that Alexander Nevsky became... the flag of the same people whose historical destiny he cruelly butchered.”
“Can a Tatar sycophant, capitulator and collaborationist, named Alexander, be considered a great national hero? A man who would impose foreign domination with his own hands and call upon the Mongol horde to assail his own brothers, who fraternized with Batu Khan’s son Sartaq and then signed with Berqe all the conditions for vassalage and tribute payment..., who had no scruples after this about sending his troops against the rebellious Russian populace. The cults of Stalin and Lenin have been ‘exposed’ so successfully and convincingly that there are no chances for their revival. Peter I cannot make a cult – there are so many things about him that make it impossible to create a saintly figure. There only remains Alexander Yaroslavich, nicknamed Nevsky, of the Rurikids’ lineage. The interest in him has never abated, but in the past few years this has assumed the features that are almost the same as the ways of glorifying Joseph Vissarionovich [Stalin]. Much in the same way, facts, controversies, and quite obvious things that do not fit in with the generally-accepted pattern are being ignored. This belongs to the category of social pathologies. How can one judge about people who have invented, sucked out of their finger, and made a major national hero and symbol out of a person who, whatever the case, cannot be called other than a traitor?”
“Aleksander Nevsky was the first Russian grand prince who, instead of resisting the Tatars, opted for direct collaboration with them. He began to wage war, in alliance with the Tatars, against the other princes: he would punish the Russians, including the Novgorodians, for rebelling against the invaders – and he did it the way the Mongols could not even dream of (he would cut off noses, ears and heads, and impale people)... But today’s mythological awareness interprets in no uncertain terms – as anti-patriotic denigration – the information that the prince was in fact ‘the first collaborationist’.”
It would be obviously wrong to consider the past years’ events in strictly unambiguous terms especially if it is difficult to check historical sources. It is up to anyone to judge and assess whether Alexander Nevsky was a hero or anti-hero of Russia. Alexander Nevsky is a figure of Russian history, and only the Russians can find his place in their history. For us, Ukrainians, it is important that the symbols of Russian history should not become today the flag of Russia’s great-power policies that endanger the integrity and independence of Ukraine.
In 1986 I visited Yasnaya Poliana to bow to the grave of Leo Tolstoy, a great personality of the Russian land. I was kneeling for a long time before a little mound of earth on his grave – without a monument or even a cross. I lowered my head to the majestic spirit of the Human who has become a great treasure of global culture. Unfortunately, in modern-day Russia he failed to become its symbol. But I do believe in the moral grandeur of the Russian people, their reason and conscience. I believe that the democratic traditions of Great Novgorod’s viche, so brutally suppressed by Alelsandr Nevsky, will be revived, and Leo Tolstoy is certain to become the symbol of Russia.