The Holy NobleBorn Prince Alexander Nevsky
Commemorated on November 23 and August 30
The Holy NobleBorn
Prince Alexander Nevsky was born on 30 May 1220 in the city of
Pereslavl'-Zalessk. His father Yaroslav, in Baptism Feodor (+1246), "a
prince gentle, kindly and genial", was the younger son of Vsevolod III
Large-Nest (Bol'shoe Gnezdo) (+ 1212), brother of the Holy NobleBorn Prince
Yuri Vsevolodovich (+ 1238, Comm. 4 February). The mother of Saint Alexander,
Feodosia Igorevna, a Riazan princess, was the third spouse of Yaroslav. Their
older son was the Holy NobleBorn Prince Feodor (+ 1233, Comm. 5 June), having
expired to the Lord at age 15. Saint Alexander was their second son.
His childhood was spent at Pereslavl'-Zalessk, where his father was prince. The princely tonsure of the lad Alexander (a ceremony of initiation to be soldier) was done in the Saviour Transfiguration Cathedral of Pereslavl' by Sainted Simon, Bishop of Suzdal' (+ 1226, Comm. 10 May), one of the compilers of the Kievo-Pechersk Paterikon (Lives of the Fathers). From the blessing of the starets/elder hierarch Saint Alexander received his first blessing for military service in the Name of God, for defense of the Russian Church and the Russian Land.
In 1227 Prince Yaroslav, at the request of the people of Novgorod, was sent by his brother the GreatPrince of Vladimir Yuri, to rule as prince in Novgorod the Great. He took with him his sons, Saints Feodor and Alexander. Dissatisfied with the Vladimir princes, the people of Novgorod soon invited Saint Michael of Chernigov (+ 1246, Comm. 20 September), and in February 1229 Yaroslav with his sons departed to Pereslavl'. The matter ended peacefully: in 1230 Yaroslav with his sons returned to Novgorod, and the daughter of Saint Michael, Feodosia, was betrothed with Saint Feodor, the elder brother of Saint Alexander. After the death of the bridegroom in 1233 the young princess went to a monastery and became famous in monastic exploits as the Sainted Nun Evphrosinia of Suzdal' (+ 1250, Comm. 25 September).
From his early years Saint Alexander went along on the campaigns of his father. In 1235 he participated in a battle at the River Emajogi (in present-day Estonia), where the forces of Yaroslav totally routed the Germans. In the following year 1236 Yaroslav went to Kiev, "settling" his son, Saint Alexander, to rule independently as prince at Novgorod. In 1239 Saint Alexander entered into marriage, taking as wife the daughter of the Polotskian prince Briacheslav. Some histories relate, that in the Holy Baptism of the princess it was on the name-day of her saintly-spouse and that she was named Alexandra. His father, Yaroslav, blessed them at betrothal with the holy wonderworking icon of the Theodorovsk Mother of God (in Baptism they had named the father Theodore, or Feodor). This icon was thereafter constantly before Saint Alexander as his praying image; and afterwards in memory of him it was taken from the Gorodetsk Monastery, where he died, by his brother Vasilii Yaroslavich of Kostroma (+ 1276), and transferred to Kostroma.
A very troublesome time had begun in Russian history: from the East there came the Mongol Horde destroying everything in their path; from the West enroached the Teutonic Knights military-force, blasphemously having named itself, with the blessing of the Roman pope, "Cross-bearers", by wearing the Cross of the Lord. In this terrible hour the Providence of God raised up for the salvation of Rus' holy Prince Alexander – a great warrior man-of-prayer, ascetic and upholder of the Land of Russia. – "Without the command of God there would not have been his prince". Abetted by the invasion of Batu, by the ruin of Russian cities, by the dismay and grief of the nation, by the destruction of its finest sons and leaders, an horde of crusaders made incursions into the borders of the Fatherland. First were the Swedes. "A king of Roman faith from the Midnight land", of Sweden, in 1240 gathered up a great armed force and sent them to the Neva on many ships under the command of his son-in-law, Yarl (ie. Prince) Birger. The haughty Swede made a dispatch of his messengers to Novgorod to Saint Alexander: "If thou wishest, resist – for I am already here and I take captive thy land".
Saint Alexander, then not yet 20 years old, prayed a long while in the church of Saint Sophia, the Wisdom of God. And having recalled the Psalm of David, he said: "Judge, O Lord, those oppressing me and hinder those fighting with me, trample down the weapon and shield, rise up in help for me". ArchBishop Spiridon blessed the holy prince and his army for the battle. Leaving from the church, Saint Alexander exhorted his troops with effective words of faith: "Not in power is God, but in truth. Some – with a weapon, some – on horses, but we in the Name of the Lord Our God do summon you! They have hesitated and set fire, we however are bravely risen!" With a not-large force, trusting in the Holy Trinity, the prince hastened towards the enemy – to await help from his father, not knowing about whether would be an attack of the enemy, nor whether it was the time.
But there was a miraculous omen: standing on sea guard the warrior Pelgui, in Holy Baptism Philip, saw at dawn on 15 July a boat, and on it were the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb, in royal-purple attire. And said Boris: "brother Gleb, guide the oar, let us help our kinsman Alexander". When Pelgui reported about the vision to the approaching prince, Saint Alexander commanded that no one through piety should speak about the miracle, and he emboldened, valiantly urged on the army against the Swedes with a prayer. "And there was a great slaughter with the Latins, and it killed their innumerable multitude, and for their very leader it left a mark upon the face by a sharp spear". An Angel of God invisibly helped the Orthodox army: when morning came, on the opposite bank of the River Izhora, whither the army of Saint Alexander was not able to proceed, were a multitude of the killed enemy. For this victory at the River Neva, won on 15 July 1240, the nation named the saint, Alexander Nevsky.
The Teutonic Knights remained a dangerous enemy. In a lightning-quick campaign in 1241 Saint Alexander recaptured the ancient Russian fortress of Kopor'e, expelling the knights. But in 1242 the Germans succeeded capturing Pskov. The enemy boasted of "subjecting all the Slavic nation". Saint Alexander, having set forth in a winter campaign, liberated Pskov, that ancient Home of the Holy Trinity, and in spring of the year 1242 gave the Teutonic Order a decisive battle. On the ice of Lake Chud both armies clashed on 5 April 1242. Raising his hands towards the heavens, Saint Alexander prayed: "Judge me, O God, and judge my strife with a boastful nation and grant help to me, O God, as to Moses of old against Amalek, and to my great-grandfather Yaroslav the Wise against accursed Svyatopolk". By his prayer, by the help of God and by the military exploit the crusaders were completely destroyed. There was terrible slaughter, such a crashing resounded of striking spears and swords that it seemed, as though the frozen lake were in motion and not visibly ice, since it was covered by blood. Having turned to flee, the enemy was pursued and hewn at by the army of Alexander, – "as though they speeded through the air, and nowhere was there for the enemy to flee". Afterwards they led a multitude of captives behind the holy prince, marching in disgrace.
Contemporaries clearly understood the universal historical significance of the Great Battle of the Ice: they celebrated the name of Saint Alexander through all of Holy Rus', "through all the lands, from the AEgyptian Sea to Mount Ararat, from both sides of the Varangian Sea to Great Rome".
The western boundaries of the Russian Land were safely secured, and it became time to guard Rus' from the East. In 1242 Saint Alexander Nevsky together with his father, Yaroslav, journeyed to the Horde. Metropolitan Kirill blessed them for this new service of many hardships: it was necessary to change the Tatars from enemies and plunderers into honourable allies, and there was necessary "the meekness of an angel and the wisdom of a snake".
The Lord crowned with success the holy mission of the defenders of the Russian Land, but this required years of hardship and sacrifice. Prince Yaroslav passed from this life. Having made an alliance with Khan Batu, he was required, however, to travel to faraway Mongolia, to the capital of all the nomadic empire. The situation of Batu himself being precarious, he sought out the support of the Russian princes, wishing to separate with his own Golden Horde from faraway Mongolia. And there in turn, they trusted neither Batu nor the Russians. Prince Yaroslav was poisoned. He died in agony, having but by 10 days outlived the Holy Martyr Michael of Chernigov, with whom once he was nearly a relative. Bequeathed by his father an alliance with the Golden Horde – of necessity then for the averting of a new devastation of Rus' – Saint Alexander Nevsky continued to hold secure. The son of Batu, Sartak, having accepted Christianity, was in charge of Russian affairs with the Horde, and became his friend and like a brother. Vowing his support, Saint Alexander gave Batu the possibility to enter into a campaign against Mongolia, to become the chief power in all the Great Steppes, and on the throne in Mongolia to raise up the tatar-Christian leader, Khan Munke (the majority of his tatar-Christians confessed Nestorianism).
Not all the Russian princes possessed the perspicacity of Saint Alexander Nevsky. Many in the struggle against the Mongol Yoke hoped for European help. Saint Michael of Chernigov, Prince Daniel of Galich, and Andrei the brother of Saint Alexander, conducted negotiations with the Roman pope. But Saint Alexander well knew the fate of Constantinople, seized and devastated in the year 1204 by crusaders. And his own personal experience taught him not to trust the West. Daniel of Galich for his alliance with the pope, giving him nothing in return, patched together a betrayal to Orthodoxy – an unia with Rome. Saint Alexander did not wish this to be for his native Church. When ambassadors of the Roman pope appeared in 1248 to seduce him also, he wrote in answer about the faithfulness of Russians to the Church of Christ and to the belief of the Seven OEcumenical Councils: "These we know quite well, and from you we do not accept teaching". Catholicism was unsuitable for the Russian Church, and an unia signified a rejection of Orthodoxy, a rejection of the source of spiritual life, a rejection of the predestined-by-God historical future, and the dooming of itself to spiritual death. In the year 1252 many a Russian city rose up against the Tatar Yoke, supporting Andrei Yaroslavich. The situation was very risky. Again there arose a threat to the very existence of Russia. Saint Alexander had to again journey to the Horde, in order to avert from the Russian lands a punitive Tatar incursion. Defeated, Andrei fled to the Swedes to seek the help of those very robbers whom his great brother had crushed with the help of God at the Neva. Saint Alexander became the monarchic Great Prince of All Rus': Vladimir, Kiev and Novgorod. A great responsibility before God and history lay upon his shoulders. In 1253 he repelled a new German incursion against Pskov; in 1254 he made a treaty about peace borders with Norway; in 1256 he went on a campaign to the Finnish land. The chronicler called it "the dark campaign" – the Russian army went along through the polar night, "going non-passable places, like to see neither day nor night". Into the darkness of paganism Saint Alexander brought the light of Gospel preaching and Orthodox culture. All the coast region was enlightened and opened up by the Russians.
In 1256 Khan Batu died, and soon also was poisoned his son Sartak – the one like-a-brother to Alexander Nevsky. The holy prince journeyed a third time to Sarai, in order to confirm peaceful relations of Rus' and the Horde with the new Khan, Berke. Although the successor to Batu had accepted Islam, he was in need of the alliance with Orthodox Rus'. In 1261, by the diligent efforts of Saint Alexander and Metropolitan Kirill, there was established a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church at Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde.
There ensued an epoch of great Christianisation of the pagan East, and in this was prophetically the speculation by Saint Alexander Nevsky of the historical vocation of Rus'. The holy prince used any possibility for the uplifting of his native land and the easing of its allotted cross. In 1262 by his decree in many of the cities were stopped the tatar collectors of tribute and the conscription of soldiers – the "baskak"-officials. They waited for a Tatar reprisal. But the great intercessor of the nation again journeyed to the Horde and he wisely directed the event into quite another channel: having been dismissed for the uprising of the Russians, Khan Berke ceased to send tribute to Mongolia and proclaimed the Golden Horde an independent entity, making it a very shield for Russia from the East. In this great uniting of the Russian and Tatar lands and peoples was matured and strengthened the future multi-national Russian State, containing later on within the bounds of the Russian Church almost all the legacy of Ghenghis Khan to the coasts of the Pacific Ocean.
This diplomatic journey of Saint Alexander Nevsky to Sarai was his fourth and last. The future of Rus' was rescued, his duty before God was fulfilled. But his power was wholly devoted, and his life put to the service of the Russian Church. On the return journey from the Horde Saint Alexander fell deathly ill. Not having reached Vladimir, at Gorodets at a monastery the prince-ascetic gave up his spirit to the Lord on 14 November 1263, having finished his much-difficult earthly path with the accepting of the monastic-schema with the name of Alexei.
Metropoltian Kirill, the spiritual father and companion in the service of the holy prince, said in the funeral eulogy: "Know, my child, that already the sun has set for the Suzdal' land. There will not be a greater such prince in the Russian land". They took his holy body to Vladimir, the journey lasted nine days, and the body remained undecayed. On 23 November, before his burial at the Nativity Monastery in Vladimir, there was manifest by God "a wondrous miracle and worthy of memory". When the body of Saint Alexander was placed in the crypt, the steward Sebastian and Metropolitan Kirill wanted to get his hand, in order to put in it the final-journey spiritual gramota/document. The holy prince, as though alive, reached out his hand and took the gramota from the hand of the metropolitan. "And it accounted for their terror, and they barely stumbled from his tomb. Who would not be astonished at this, since he was dead and the body brought from far away in the winter time". Thus did God glorify the Saint – Soldier-Prince Alexander Nevsky. The universal Church glorification of Saint Alexander Nevsky was performed under Metropolitan Makarii at the Moscow Cathedral in 1547. The canon to the saint was compiled then by the Vladimir monk Michael.
© 1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.