Alexander Nevsky

Did you know…

… that even famous events may not have happened exactly the way we learned about them? Take for example the legendary (yet historical) figure known as Alexander Nevsky. Film students and students of Russian culture and language know him at the very least from Eisenstein’s film of the same name. He is considered a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church; he is one of the people all Russian children know about. And I was married in a Russian church in Paris (yes, in France) dedicated to him.

His life is told in the Chronicles, a record of early Russian history kept by a number of monasteries. It is retold by Western counterparts, and in a Vita, where his sainthood is emphasized. Russian and Western scholars have pored over all that was compiled about him.

Alexander Nevsky is known primarily for three things: his victory over the Swedes on the Neva river, his defeat of the Teutonic knights on Lake Peipus (also known as Lake Chud’), and his mediation with the Mongol rulers. No-one contests that Alexander intervened successfully with the Mongols to protect Russia and its Princes, although some details remain debatable. What is contested is the significance of the two battles he fought victoriously. All scholars agree that he was an excellent military leader. But Western historians argue that since the two battles Alexander is famous for have not been recorded anywhere besides the Novgorod chronicles (they were fought on Novgorod lands), they cannot be as significant as tradition makes them out to be.

The 600 killed, dozens of captured Teutonic knights mentioned in the Novgorod Chronicle in conjunction with the Massacre on the Ice (battle on Lake Peipus/Chud’), are probably an exaggeration of the Chronicler, unless the meaning and significance of the numbers is lost on us. Should we understand “one hundred” as a number (100), or as the designation of some military unit that has nothing to do with the exact numeral? Was it 600 killed or 6 units annihilated? Will we ever know?

Another other interesting element in the legend of Alexander Nevsky is that his nickname (Nevsky = “of the Neva”) was actually given to him a couple of centuries after his death, when the Muscovite rulers were looking for heroes to extol. And it commemorates a minor raid against a small fleet of Swedish ships that tried to land on the Neva river and move south towards the city of Novgorod, a skirmish that occurred several years before the more major battle on Lake Peipus/Chud’.

What conclusions do I draw from this? One, that history is never definitively written. Who knows, maybe there is still an undiscovered chronicle somewhere that will reveal yet more facts about Alexander Nevsky.

And two, that a legend has significance in and of itself, regardless of the cold historical reality. Legends make up history as much as facts. Future actions may rely on legends, because legends are a brighter banner than bare, bland facts. Legends are as much part of a culture as facts: the intangible is as meaningful as the material. If it makes the work more difficult for historians, so be it. I’m merely a writer.