12 September 2014

Holy and Right-Believing Grand Prince S. Aleksandr Nevsky of Vladimir, Kiev and Novgorod

Today is the feast day of another Rurikovich saint, S. Aleksandr Yaroslavich ‘of Neva’, Grand Prince of Vladimir, Kiev and Novgorod. A mighty warrior, he also possessed a kindly heart and an able tongue, which he used when negotiating with the Golden Horde to leave Russia intact and undisturbed. His most famous military feat was his daring attack on a massive Swedish army in 1240 at the confluence of the Neva and Izhora rivers, which prevented a potentially-devastating invasion of Russia from the northwest and earned him his byname of Nevsky. He also defeated an invasion of German and Estonian heavy knights on the frozen Lake Peipus two years later; one of the first times an army of foot-soldiers was able to defeat one of heavily-armoured Teutonic knights. These battles secured his reputation as a hero of Novgorod, which had faced numerous invasions on three fronts: west, north and east. But his most important (and most controversial, from a Western perspective) decision was that to give tribute to the Golden Horde in exchange for their leaving his lands alone.

It must be remembered that the Golden Horde had already reduced a number of Russian cities - Yaroslavl, Chernigov, Pereyaslavl, Vladimir, even Kiev - to rubble, and he was keenly aware at the time that the papal envoys were attempting to use Novgorod as a shield against the Horde whilst at the same time sending other powers to attack him from the rear. Thus, his determination to keep Russia safe, free and neutral led him to a harsh policy against Sweden and the Teutonic Knights, but to an accommodationist one against the Tatars. This can be demonstrated from his personal intervention in 1263, when he went himself to beg the Tatar khan not to attack the towns of Novgorod on account of a few of them that had failed to pay the demanded tribute. As a Prince, S. Aleksandr Nevsky placed the well-being of the people of his kingdom first and his own prestige second.

As a personal aside: it was in the Church of S. Aleksandr Nevsky that I first heard a Slavonic Liturgy, and that I first truly encountered the generosity and hospitality of the Orthodox faith. At that church, Fr. Valery first explained to me that the Orthodox faith directs itself toward Christ, that it is the journey and the road (the right road, for all that!), rather than the end, and that it acknowledges that even those outside the Church are making journeys of their own. The Church of S. Aleksandr Nevsky in Saimasai, Kazakhstan, was for the brief time I was there my true refuge from the spiritual darkness that I was in. For that, I feel that to Fr. Valery and to S. Aleksandr particularly, I owe a great debt of gratitude. Holy and right-believing Prince of the Rus’, please pray for us to Our Lord.

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