November 23 – Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky (1220–1263) was the grandson of Vsevolod “Big Nest” Yuryevich, so called because he had fourteen children (one hoped for some less prosaic reason, but history isn’t always as glamorous as one might like), one of which was Alex’s dad Prince Yaroslav II of Vladimir. Alexander was the second son, and as such didn’t look likely to inherit his father’s throne, but when he was 16 he was given command of Novgorod the Pretty Darned Good. Three years later, he led the Novgorodians to resounding defeat over an army of Swedish invaders, earning him the sobriquet “Nevsky” or “[defender] of the Neva.”

After a brief exile (boyar trouble; the usual), he was called back to defend the city against the Teutonic Knights, Livonian Order, who had invaded Pskov and were closing on Novgorod the Actually Not Bad. On the ice of frozen Lake Peipus, Alexander’s Ragtag Band (like that?) of foot soldiers defeated the heavy horses of the German knights, and this without pikemen, which was a turning point in the history of the Rus’ and proved something or other about medieval warfare.

After this, Nevsky’s ambassadors to Norway were greeted politely, and a peace treaty was worked out. When Sweden invaded Finland in an attempt to block Russian access to the Baltic, Alexander led his forces on the “Dark Campaign,” so called because it was winter in the Land of the Mid-Day Lack of Sun. He sent the Swedes back to Stockholm with a resounding “Get lost.” When the Roman Curia tried to get him to go to war with the Tatars, he considered that paying tribute to the Khans was a better fate than being absorbed by Catholicism. At that time, the Fourth Crusade was in actual living memory, unlike today, when—well, okay, that hasn’t changed any, depending on whom you ask. Historians see this move as allowing the Rus’ to strengthen and consolidate behind what amounted to a protective wall, allowing them ultimately to throw off the Khans, which is ironic, in a hysterical historical kind of way. It also led to a great Christianization of the pagans in and around the Rus’, Finland, and so on.

In 1252 Alexander was made Grand Prince of Vladimir, the grandest princedom in the Rus’ at the time. In 1262, he declared an end to payments to the Khanate of money and military conscripts in many of his cities, which ultimately led to the local Khan declaring independence from Mongolia, marking the beginning of the gradual melding of the Tatars and Rus’ into a single multicultural Russia. (No “tater” jokes, we promise.) On his way back from his last diplomatic mission to the Khan’s capital of Sarai (near modern Selitrennoye, about 125 km. NNW of Astrakhan on the A340), Alexander took ill, and stopped at the monastery in Gorodets to die. As he lay there, he took monastic vows under the name Alexis. Historians have been seeking the lost “ander” ever since. He was survived by five children, all of whom have their own Wikipedia pages, and his second wife, who does not.

Upon hearing of Alex’s death, the Metropolitan of Vladimir announced, “Children, the sun of Russia has set.” “Well yeah,” they said, “it’s late in November.” “That’s not what I meant,” the Metropolitan said. (Sorry; couldn’t resist. He did say the sun part, though.)

Alexander was made a saint in 1547, and made into an Eisenstein movie in 1938. The latter had a soundtrack by Prokofiev; the former, not so much. Orthodox churches all over the world have been named after the Grand Prince, as well as a succession of Russian, Soviet, and then Russian again warships. He was voted Russia’s “main hero” by readers of Kommersant and the “greatest Russian” by the viewers of Name of Russia (edging out Stolypin and Stalin). He is the patron saint of the soldiers and borders of Russia.