RAMBAUD ON ALEXANDER NEVSKI (1252-1263)

[excerpted from Alfred Rambaud, Russia, Leonora B. Lang, tr., vol. 1 (New York: Collier, 1900), pp. 119-123]

Iaroslaf, after his defeat at Lipetsk, entered Souzdal on the tragic death of his brother, the Grand Prince George II. Iaroslaf (1238-1246) found his inheritance in the most deplorable condition. The towns and villages were burnt, the country and roads covered with unburied corpses; the survivors hid themselves in the woods. He recalled the fugitives and began to rebuild. Bati, who had completed the devastation of South Russia, summoned Iaroslaf to do him homage at Saraï, on the Volga. Iaroslaf was received there with distinction. Bati confirmed his title of Grand Prince, but invited him to go in person to the Great Khan, supreme chief of the Mongol nation, who lived on the banks of the river Sakhalian or Amour. To do this was to cross the whole of Russia and Asia. Iaroslaf bent his knees to the new master of the world, Oktaï, succeeded in refuting the accusations brought against him by a Russian boyard, and obtained a new confirmation of his title. On his return he died in the desert of exhaustion, and his faithful servants brought his body back to Vladimir. His son Andrew succeeded him in Souzdal (1246-1252). His other son, Alexander, reigned at Novgorod the Great.

Alexander was as brave as he was intelligent. He was the hero of the North, and yet he forced himself to accept the necessary humiliations of his terrible situation. In his youth we see him fighting with all the enemies of Novgorod, Livonian knights and Tchouds, Swedes and Finns. The Novgorodians found themselves at issue with the Scandinavians on the subject of their possessions on the Neva and the Gulf of Finland. As they had helped the natives to resist the Latin faith, King John obtained the promise of Gregory IX. that a crusade, with plenary indulgences, should be preached against the Great Republic and her Protlgls, the pagans of the Baltic. His son- in-law, Birger, with an army of Scandinavians, Finns, and Western Crusaders, took the command of the forces, and sent word to the Prince of Novgorod, "Defend yourself if you can : know that I am already in your provinces." The Russians on their side, feeling they were fighting for Orthodoxy, opposed the Latin crusade with a Greek one. Alexander humbled himself in Saint Sophia, received the benediction of the Archbishop Spiridion, and addressed an ener. getic harangue to his warriors. He had no time to await reinforcements from Souzdal. He attacked the Swedish camp, which was situated on the Ijora, one of the southern affluents of the Neva, which has given its name to Ingria. Alexander won a brilliant victory, which gained him his surname of Nevski, and the honor of becoming under Peter the Great, the second conqueror of the Swedes, one of the patrons of St. Petersburg. By the orders of his great successor his bones repose in the Monastery of Alexander Nevski. The battle of the Neva was preserved in a dramatic legend. An Ingrian chief told Alexander how, in the eve of the combat, he had seen a mysterious bark, manned by two warriors with shining brows, glide through the night. They were Boris and Gleb, who came to the rescue of their young kinsman. Other accounts have preserved to us the individual exploits of the Russian heroesGabriel, Skylaf of Novgorod, James of Polotsk, Sabas, who threw down the tent of Birger, and Alexander Nevski himself, who with a stroke of the lance "imprinted his seal on his face" (1240). Notwithstanding the triumph of such a service, Alexander and the Novgorodians could not agree; a short time after, he retired to Peréiaslavl- Zaliesski. The proud republicans soon had reason to regret the exile of this second Camillus. The Order of the Sword-bearers, the indefatigable enemy of orthodoxy, took Pskof, their ally ; the Germans imposed tribute on the Vojans, vassals of Novgorod, constructed the fortress of Koporié on her territory of the Neva, took the Russian town of Tessof in Esthonia, and pillaged the merchants of Novgorod within seventeen miles of their ramparts. During this time the Tchouds and the Lithuanians captured the peasants, and the cattle of the citizens. At last Alexander allowed himself to be touched by the prayers of the archbishop and the people, assembled an army, expelled the Germans from Koporié, and next from Pskof, hung as traitors the captive Vojans and Tchouds, and put to death six knights who fell into his hands,. This war between the two races and two religions was cruel and pitiless. The rights of nations were hardly recognized. More than once Germans and Russians slew the ambassadors of the other side. Alexander Nevski finally gave battle to the Livonian knights on the ice of Lake Peïpus, killed 400 of them, took 50 prisoners, and exterminated a multi. tude of Tchouds. Such was the Battle of the Ice (1242). He returned in triumph to Novgorod, dragging with him his prisoners in armor of iron. The Grand Master expected to see Alexander at the gates of Riga, and implored help of Denmark. The Prince of Novgorod, satisfied with having delivered Pskof, concluded peace, recovered certain districts, and consented to the exchange of prisoners. At this time Innocent IV., deceived by false in. formation, addressed a bull to Alexander, as a devoted son of the Church, assuring him that his father Iaroslaf, while dying among the Horde, had desired to submit himself to the throne of St. Peter. Two cardinals brought him this letter from the Pope (1251).

It is this hero of the Neva and Lake Peïpus, this vanquisher of the Scandinavians and Livonian knights, that we are presently to see grovelling at the feet of a barbarian. Alexander Nevski had understood that, in presence of this immense and brutal force of the Mongols, all resistance was madness, all pride ruin. To brave them was to complete the overthrow of Russia. His conduct may not have been chivalrous, but it was wise and humane. Alexander disdained to play the hero at the expense of his peo. ple, like his brother Andrew of Souzdal, who was immediately obliged to fly, abandoning his country to the vengeance of the Tatars. The Prince of Novgorod was the only prince in Russia who had kept his independence, but he knew Bad's hands could extend as far as the Ilmen. " God has subjected many peoples to me," wrote the barbarian to him : " will you alone refuse to recognize my power ? If you wish to keep your land, come to me; you will see the splendor and the glory of my sway." Then Alexander went to Sara! with his brother Andrew, who disputed the Grand Principality of Vladimir with his uncle Sviatoslaf. Bad declared that fame had not exaggerated the merit of Alexander, that he far excelled the common run of Russian princes. He enjoined the two brothers to show themselves, like their father Iaroslaf, at the Great Horde ; they returned from it in 1257. Kouïouk had confirmed the one in the possession of Vladimir, and the other in that of Novgorod, adding to it all South Russia and Kief.

The year 126o put the patience of Alexander and his politic obedience to the Tatars to the proof. Oulavtchi, to whom the Khan Berkaï had confided the affairs of Russia, demanded that Novgorod should submit to the census and pay tribute. It was the hero of the Neva that was charged with the humiliating and dangerous mission of persuading Novgorod. When the possadnik uttered in the vetché the doctrine that it was necessary to submit to the strongest, the people raised a terrible cry and murdered the possadnik. Vassili himself, the son of Alexander, declared against a father "who brought servitude to free men ; " and retired to the Pskovians. It needed a soul of iron temper to resist the universal disapprobation, and counsel the Novgorodians to the commission of the cowardly though necessary act. Alexander arrested his son, and punished the boyards who had led him into the revolt with death or mutilation. The vetché had decided to refuse the tribute, and send back the Mongol ambassadors with presents. However, on the rumor of the approach of the Tatars, they repented, and Alexander could announce to the enemy that Novgorod submitted to the census. But when they saw the officers of the Khan at work, the population revolted again, and the prince was obliged to keep guard on the officers night and day. In vain the boyards advised the citizens to give in : assembled around St. Sophia, the people declared they would die for liberty and honor. Alexander then threatened to quit the city with his men, and abandon it to the vengeance of the Khan. This menace conquered the pride of the Novgorodians. The Mongols and their agents might go, register in hand, from house to house in the humiliated and silent city to make the list of the inhabitants. " The boyards," says Karamsin, " might yet be vain of their rank and their riches, but the simple citizens had lost with their national honor their most precious possession" (126o).

In Souzdal also Alexander found himself in the presence of insolent victors and exasperated subjects. In 1262 the inhabitants of Vladimir, of Souzdal, of Rostof, rose against the collectors of the Tatar impost. The people of Iaroslavl slew a renegade named Zozimus, a former monk, who had become a Moslem fanatic. Terrible reprisals were sure to follow. Alexander set out with presents for the Horde at the risk of leaving his head there. He had likewise to excuse himself for having refused a body of auxiliary Russians to the Mongols, wishing at least to spare the blood and religious scruples of his subjects. It is a remarkable fact, that, over the most profound humiliations of the Russian nationality, the contemporary history al. ways throws a ray of glory. At the moment that Alexander went to prostrate himself at Saraï, the Souzdalian army, united to that of Novgorod, and commanded by his son Dmitri, defeated the Livonian knights, and took Dorpat by assault. The Khan Berkaï gave Alexander a kind greeting, accepted his explanations, dispensed with the promised contingent, but kept him for a year near his court. The health of Alexander broke down; he died on his return before reaching Vladimir. When the news arrived at his capital, the Metropolitan Cyril, who was finishing the liturgy, turned towards the faithful, and said, " Learn, my dear children, that the Sun of Russia is set, is dead." " We are lost," cried the people, breaking forth into sobs. Alexander by this policy of resignation, which his chivalrous heroism does not permit us to despise, had secured some repose for exhausted Russia. By his victories over his enemies of the West he had given her some glory, and hindered her from despairing under the most crushing tyranny, material and moral, which a European people had aver suffered.