St. Alexander Nevsky, Russia’s Knight in Shining Armor

Commemorated November 23/December 6 and August 30/September 12

St. Alexander Nevsky was Russia’s “knight in shining armor.” His reputation as a man of exceptional valor and surpassing virtue inspired a visit by a German commander who told his people when he returned: “I went through many countries and saw many people, but I have never met such a king among kings, nor such a prince among princes.” The Russians called him their “prince without sin.”

He was born just four years before the fierce Tatars, under the leadership of Ghengis Khan, came galloping across the steppes of Kievan Rus. The once flourishing city state—whose social, cultural and spiritual achievements boasted few rivals in Western Europe—had been weakened by quarrelling princes and attacks of warring tribes, and it was an easy prey for the massacring and pillaging Asiatic aggressors. Fortunately, the Mongol Horde’s primary interest in conquest was financial gain, and although it imposed a heavy tax on its subjects, they were left to govern themselves and retained their traditions and religion intact, Nevertheless, the yoke of foreign sovereignty was burdensome; individual princes were reduced to acting as feudal landlords for their Mongol lords, and inclinations toward s national unity—the dream of Grand Prince Vladimir—were stifled. A strong leader was needed if the land of Rus’ was to have any hope of healing internal strife, of throwing off the Tatar yoke, and establishing its identity as a nation state.

The baneful effect of internal dissension was a lesson which came early to Prince Alexander, as he witnessed his father, Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich, struggle with the proudly independent spirited boyars of Novgorod, It was there that the boy grew up. Like most noble youth s of his time, he had barely learned to walk before he was lifted into the saddle. Training in the martial arts was combined with an education based upon the Scriptures. Under the influence of his mother, who was popularly called “the holy queen” on account of her piety and charitable deeds, the young prince developed a profound spiritual life. He engrossed himself for hours in reading the Old and New Testaments.

He was still an adolescent when in 1236 his father became Grand Prince of Kiev (a position of primacy among the princes), leaving Alexander in charge of Novgorod. Its characteristically unruly citizenry was gradually won over by the uncommon wisdom and youthful charm of its new ruler. Meanwhile, the Tatars were moving north; they overran Ryazan, Moscow and the Russian capital of that time, Vladimir. They were prevented from reaching Novgorod only by the surrounding marshes. But the city was spared this disaster only to face a greater threat, this time from the west.

Encouraged by the Roman Pope who desired the conversion of Russia to Catholicism, the Swedes and Germans took advantage of Russia’s weakened state and prepared to attack. As a staunch Orthodox Christian, Alexander recognized that conquest from the west would deal a mortal blow at the very heart of Russia—the Orthodox Church, a fate incomparably worse than political subjugation by the Tatars. In 1210, well armed Swedish troops moved onto Novgorod territory. Preparing his men to repel the invaders, St. Alexander encouraged them with his now famous affirmation: “God is not in might but in Truth. ‘Some trust in princes and some in horses, but we will call upon the Lord our God.’ “The Russian forces, their Prince in the lead, were crowned with success after a fierce battle on the shores of the Neva.

Victories followed against the Livonian Germans and the Lithuanians. The Russian northeast, devastated by the Tatars, looked with hope upon the young warrior prince. His fame reached the ears of the Mongol lord, Khan Batu, who desired to see this Russian hero. It was a perilous honor. Before being presented to the Khan, the Russian princes—whose authority depended on his approval—were required to fulfill certain pagan traditions: walk through fire, bow down to a bush and to the shadows of deceased khans, etc. Alexander would in nowise consent to such idolatry and, strengthened by Holy Unction, prepared himself to accept the death penalty that Prince Michael of Chernigov had paid under similar circumstances.

Arriving in the Golden Horde’ s capital at the mouth of the Volga, Alexander at once confessed his Christian convictions: “O King,” he said, bowing before the Khan, “I bow before you because God has favored you with authority, but I shall not bow before any created thing. I serve the One God. Him alone do I honor and Him alone do I worship.” Khan Batu was so impressed by the courage and handsome demeanor of the young prince that to everyone’s amazement he accepted his refusal and received him with due honor.

Gaining the respect of the Khan was a triumph for Alexander, but it did not insure peace. The remaining course of his life as Grand Prince of Russia was spent in securing its western borders against persistent German campaigns, in subduing the Novgorodians’ defiant opposition to the Khan’s poll tax, and in diplomatically placating the Khan’s anger which flared intermittently in response to indiscretions committed by the lesser princes. Although it was 200 years before Russia was free of Tatar control, St. Alexander’s skill and self-sacrificing devotion which he brought to the Herculean task set before him as ruler, and his commitment to the preservation of Orthodoxy at the core of a growing national consciousness, made him a hero of both historic and spiritual dimensions. He died as he was returning from one of his exhausting journeys to the Khan, having taken the Great Schema on his death bed. His respected spiritual advisor, Metropolitan Cyril, was serving the Divine Liturgy in Vladimir when he saw the Prince’s soul being carried aloft by angels and announced to those present: “Brethren, know that the sun of the Russian Land has now set.” In 1547 St. Alexander was glorified by the Church which celebrates his memory on the day of his repose, November 23, and the day of the translation of his incorrupt relics, August 30, 1724, to the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg, where they rest to this day.

Orthodox America


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