Russian prince and hero
N umbered among the greatest of Russia's heroes, Alexander Nevsky saved his country many times, both in battle with invaders from the west, and later by negotiating with the Mongols. The defeat of the Teutonic Knights of Germany was a particularly dramatic event, a battle on ice that would form a memorable scene in a 1938 film about Alexander's defense of Russia. By contrast, the role Alexander took with regard to the Mongols seemed like a case of giving in to a foreign invader. Yet he had little choice, and in retrospect it seems certain that he acted wisely.
The many Russias
Russia first emerged as a political entity in about 900 under the leadership of Kiev (kee-YEV), a city-state that is now the capital of Ukraine. Thus historians refer to the country during this period as "Kievan Russia," though in fact Russia was far from a single, unified nation. It was instead a collection of city-states—actually duchies, or regions controlled by dukes—that were sometimes at war with one another and sometimes at peace.
Most of these political units were strictly controlled by princes, but the northern city-states of Novgorod (NAWV-guhrud) and Pskov (SKAWV) had more relaxed governments, at least by Russian standards. There, in a region close to other lands in Northern Europe, business interests had an influential role in easing the traditionally harsh control of Russian leaders.
After 1054, Kievan Russia began to disintegrate, and more than a century of turmoil followed. By the late 1100s, however, at least a measure of stability returned as the Grand Duchy of Vladimir-Suzdal (VLAH-duh-meer SÜZ-duhl) assumed leadership.
Surrounded by enemies
To the east of Vladimir were the Volga Bulgars, a group of Turks who had settled in the region, and with whom the Russians maintained an uneasy peace. To the northwest were the Germans, Danes, and Swedes on the Baltic Sea, along with Letts or Latvians and Estonians; and to the west was Lithuania, then a significant power. At a time when religion dictated political allegiance, the Russians, who had embraced the Greek Orthodox Church, found themselves faced with enemies on many sides: the Muslims in the east, and the Catholics in the west and northwest.
Early in the 1200s came a new wave of potential enemies, a group who embraced no religion the Russians even recognized: the Mongols, whose leader was Genghis Khan (see entry). When the Mongols attacked the Volga Bulgars, the Russians were divided as to which side they should take, with some states coming to the aid of their neighbors. The princes of Vladimir stayed out of the fight.
Then, in 1237, Genghis Khan's nephew Batu Khan swept over the Bulgars and conquered several Russian cities— including Vladimir. The Russian prince Yuri led the defense of Russia, but was killed in the fight, and the Mongols kept moving toward Novgorod, one of the most valued of the Russian states.
Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, the Mongols turned away. The cause was probably the spring thaw, which turned the hard ground into mud that made it hard to cross. The Mongols made a vast camp on the Volga River, which would serve as their base for many years to come. By 1240, they were on the move again, razing Kiev and marching deep into Europe, where they overcame Polish and German forces to conquer Hungary.
They had nearly reached Vienna, Austria, in 1241 when suddenly they turned back again. This time the reason was that the ruling khan, or chieftain (Genghis's successor) had died, and Batu rushed back to Mongolia to ensure that he got a piece of the inheritance. Thus Europe was saved from Mongol conquest, but the Mongols put down roots in Russia, where their empire became known as the "Golden Horde." "Horde" is the English version of the Mongols' word for their huge encampments, orda; and "golden" signified the great wealth the Mongols had gained through conquest.
Mongol rule in Russia was an established fact. Thus in 1238, when Yuri's brother Yaroslav II (yuh-ruh-SLAHF) assumed leadership of the Russians, he had to gain the Mongols' approval before he could declare himself leader. The Mongols did not want the trouble of controlling Russia politically: they simply wanted to collect tribute, or taxes, and they needed Russian princes to ensure that the collection of these taxes—which included not only money but a tenth of each year's harvest—went smoothly.
Alexander becomes Nevsky
Taking advantage of the Mongols' weakening of Russia, the Swedes had invaded Russian lands in 1236 on the pretext that they were there to convert people from Eastern Orthodoxy to Catholicism. It was then that Alexander, son of Yaroslav, made his first mark on history. Born in Vladimir, he had been raised among the tumultuous events of the Mongol invasion, and was prepared for war. Thus at the age of sixteen, he led a force that met the Swedes in battle on the River Neva (NAY-vah) on July 15, 1236. It was a small victory, but it made Alexander's name: from then on he would be known as Alexander of the Neva, or Alexander Nevsky.
Having proven himself, the teenaged Alexander was given control over Novgorod, which was soon threatened by German invaders. These were the Teutonic (too-TAHN-ik) or German Knights, a group that had been formed as a semi-religious order, but whose real business was war and conquest. In the winter of 1242, Alexander and his brother Andrew raised a force from Novgorod to meet the invaders.
Heroes of Catholic Europe
Americans sometimes mistakenly lump all of Eastern Europe together, primarily because after World War II (1939–45), most of its nations fell under communist dictatorships allied with the Soviet Union. In fact, there is a sharp distinction between Eastern European nations that accepted Greek Orthodoxy during the Middle Ages, and those that became Roman Catholic. Orthodox lands, such as Russia, Bulgaria, and Serbia, adopted the alphabet of St. Cyril (see dual entry with St. Methodius), and tended to have more rigid governments. Catholic lands, among them Hungary, Poland, and the modern Czech Republic, were more closely tied with Western traditions.
One of the first important leaders of Catholic Eastern Europe was St. Wenceslas (WIN-suh-slaws; c. 907–929), prince of Bohemia—roughly equivalent to the Czech Republic. His grandmother raised him as a Christian, but his mother maintained old pagan traditions, and later had the grandmother killed. Wenceslas remained faithful to Catholicism, however, and encouraged the sending of missionaries to convert the Germans, many of whom still maintained pagan religions. Known for his kindness and his devotion to God, Wenceslas (the subject of the Christmas song "Good King Wenceslas") was killed by his brother Boreslav, who wanted to take the throne. Soon after his death, he was declared a martyr, or someone who has died for the faith, and was made a saint. It is interesting to note that the name Wenceslas in the Czech language is Václav (VAHK-luv), and that after the Czech Republic threw off communism in the 1990s, its first president was the poet Václav Havel (HAHV-ul).
King Stephen I of Hungary (977–1038) also grew up in a world heavily influenced by paganism, but accepted Catholicism in 997. This meant that his people also accepted Catholicism, a fact that excited Pope Sylvester II. In his haste to crown a new Christian king in 1000, Sylvester sent Stephen a crown bearing a cross that was slightly bent. This remained the crown of Hungary—even appearing on the flag of the later Austro-Hungarian Empire—until 1918. In 1083, Stephen was declared a saint.
Another important Hungarian ruler was László I (LAHZ-loh; c. 1040–1095). In 1091, László conquered Croatia and Bosnia, and extended his rule into Transylvania. Facing a resurgence of paganism, he took measures to ensure that Catholicism regained strength in the country, and supported Pope Gregory VII in his conflicts with Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (see dual entry). He also instituted a new legal code that helped restore order in Hungary, which had been troubled by years of internal conflict, and was later declared a saint.
Among the greatest of Poland's rulers was Casimir III (KAZ-uh-meer; 1310–1370), also known as Casimir the Great. Under his reign, Poland's territory and influence increased greatly, and he dealt successfully with both Bohemia and the same Teutonic Knights that had threatened Alexander Nevsky's Russia. Polish armies under Casimir even occupied Russia in the 1340s. Casimir instituted a series of laws, founded the University of Cracow, and ushered in a golden age of Polish history that lasted for some three hundred years.
The "Battle on the Ice"
Winters in northern Russia are long, and the surface of Lake Chudskoe was still frozen when the Russian force marched out to meet the Germans, along with their Finnish allies, on April 5, 1242. In a scene made famous for modern filmgoers by the director Sergei Eisenstein, the invaders rushed at the defending Russians, who suddenly surprised them by closing ranks around the enemy and attacking them from the rear. The Russians scored a huge victory in the "Battle on the Ice," which became a legendary event in Russian history.
Two years later, Alexander drove off a Lithuanian invading force, and though he soon left Novgorod, the people there had become so dependent on his defense that they asked him to come back as their prince. With Novgorod now in the lead among Russian states, Alexander was the effective ruler of Russia.
Coexisting with the Mongols
As leader, Alexander faced a less dramatic, but much more important, challenge than he had when doing battle with the invaders of Novgorod: the question of whether, or how, to coexist with the Mongols. He could have chosen to resist, as other Russian princes did—and could have lost everything trying, as was the case with most of the others. Faced with this reality, as well as the fact that the Mongols were willing to leave the Greek Orthodox religion alone, whereas the Germans and others wanted to convert the Russians, Alexander chose coexistence.
Proclaimed Grand Prince of Vladimir in 1252, Alexander continued to deal with invasions from the west, but most of his energy was spent on the Mongols. He assisted them in carrying out a census, or a count of the people, as part of their aim to raise taxes on the Russians. He even executed other Russian leaders who resisted the Mongols' efforts at census-taking.
The foundations of modern Russia
Alexander died in 1263 and was succeeded by Andrew, who died a year later. Alexander's son Yaroslav then took control until 1272, and when he died he left the town of Moscow to his son Daniel. The latter, only two years old at the time, would grow up to build Moscow as a mighty force, and in time it would become the leading city of Russia.
Despite his cooperation with the Mongols, Alexander is remembered as a hero. In the 1700s, when the Mongols were long gone and Russia was emerging as a great power, Peter the Great, czar (ZAR) or emperor of Russia, built the city of St. Petersburg on the Neva. There he dedicated a shrine to Alexander, who had been named a saint in the Orthodox Church. In 1836, on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of the Neva, the principal street of St. Petersburg was named Nevsky Prospect in his honor.
Over one hundred years later, by which time Russia had become the Soviet Union under the dictatorship of Josef Stalin, the country faced the threat of another German invasion—this time by the Nazis under Adolf Hitler. It was then that Eisenstein made his famous film, with a memorable musical score by the great composer Sergei Prokofiev. The scene of the "Battle on the Ice" was a compelling one, and it sent a warning that Hitler chose not to heed.
For More Information
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Alexander Nevsky. BMG Video, 1938.
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Temple of Alexander Nevsky. [Online] Available http://sangha.net/messengers/nevsky.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Production: Mosfilm; black and white, 35mm; length: 3044 meters. Released 23 November 1938. Filmed June through November 1938 in Moscow.
Scenario: Sergei Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko; collaborating director: D. J. Vasiliev; photography: Edward Tisse; editor: Sergei Eisenstein; sound: B. Volsky and V. Popov; production design: Isaac Shpinel, Nikolai Soloviov, and K. Yeliseyev from Eisenstein's sketches; music: Sergei Prokofiev; costume designers: Isaac Shpinel, Nikolai Soloviov, and K. Yeliseyev from Eisenstein's sketches; consultant on work with actors: Elena Telesheva.
Cast: Nikolai Cherkasov (Prince Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky); Nikolai Okhlopkov (Vasili Busali); Alexander Abrikosov (Gavrilo Oleksich); Dmitri Orlov (Ignat, Master Armorer); Vasili Novikov (Pavsha, Governor of Pskov); Nikolai Arsky (Domash Tverdislavich); Vera Ivasheva (Olga, a Novogorod girl); Varvarra Massalitinova (Amelfa Timofeyevna); Anna Danilova (Vasilisa, a girl of Pskov); Vladimir Yershov (Von Blak, Grand Master of the Livonian Order); Sergei Blinnikov (Tverdilo, traitorous Mayor of Pskov); Ivan Lagutin (Ananias); Lev Fenin (Bishop); Naum Rogozhin (Black-robed Monk).
Awards: Order of Lenin award, Soviet Union, 1939.
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The cinematic works of Sergei Eisenstein demonstrate a continuous effort to explore and develop the elements of his theory of montage. Two marked phases of style and technique are evident in this development. The first phase consists of Eisenstein's silent films of the 1920s, the second is associated with his 1930s and 1940s sound films. In the first phase of his cinematic career Eisenstein introduces the formal concepts of intellectual montage, mise-en-scène, and a revolutionary new narrative concept: the portrayal of the mass as hero. With Alexander Nevsky Eisenstein enters a second phase in which the individual within the collective dominates the narrative, while vertical montage and pictorial composition replace intellectual montage as the primary formal devices in his films. These new techniques are not totally divorced from Eisenstein's early film methods, but have evolved from them.
The emphasis upon the individual within the collective in Alexander Nevsky can be seen as the maturing of the earlier concept in which the mass is portrayed as hero. Reflecting upon Soviet silent cinema, Eisenstein writes that the films are flawed in that they fail to fully represent the concept of collectivity: "collectivism means the maximum development of the individual within the collective . . . Our first mass films missed this deeper meaning." In the depiction of "the general-revolutionary slogan" of the 1920s, the mass as hero functioned well, but to convey the more specific Communist message of the 1930s, images of leading individuals were needed.
In Alexander Nevsky the theme of the Russian people's patriotism is emphasized through such exemplary characters as Prince Alexander, Busali, and Gavrilo Oleksich. Even though this narrative approach resembles that of more traditional cinema, Eisenstein's characters embody patriotic ideals in such an extreme way that they become symbols rather than simple heroic personalities. The story of Alexander Nevsky lends itself to this larger-than-life treatment of its characters. It presents historical figures and events of such mythic proportions that, while the viewer may sympathize with the characters, he does not easily identify with them, and so the viewer is not distracted from the general theme of the film. It is intended that the ideas the characters represent will be remembered rather than their individual personalities. The characters must support, even succumb to, the dominant theme of the strength and patriotism of the Russian people.
Structuring a film so that all its individual elements are controlled by the theme is a formal concern common to both silent and sound film in Eisenstein's work. In the early silent films this formal method was referred to as overtonal montage, and dictated that all the visual images of a film, which have been developed through the use of intellectual, metric, rhythmic, and tonal montage, serve to reveal and illustrate the dominant theme. The controlling formal method in Alexander Nevsky, vertical montage, is much the same as overtonal, but with the additional element of sound. Vertical montage, according to Eisenstein, links different spheres of feeling—particularly the visual image with the sound image—to create a single, unified effect. The audio and visual elements are not only governed by the dominant theme of the film, but work together to convey that theme in a strongly emotional manner.
The attack of the German wedge on the Russian army in "The Battle on the Ice" sequence in Alexander Nevsky demonstrates this appeal to the emotions. The musical score contributes greatly to the pacing and emotional tone of the sequence. Changes in the pace of pictorial movement are accompanied by a corresponding rhythmic or melodic change. In addition, Eisenstein uses the combination of sound and image to suggest to the viewer things that cannot actually be seen on screen. Although this approach resembles that of intellectual montage, it functions on a more poetic or metaphorical level. For example, Eisenstein causes us to experience the leaping and pounding of horses' hooves as equivalent to the beating of an agitated heart, a heart experiencing the increasing terror of the battle on the ice.
The most obvious use of vertical montage in Alexander Nevsky is in the relationship throughout the film between the musical score and the pictorial composition. This relationship was developed through several different methods. For some sequences the music was written with a general theme or idea in mind. In other sequences the music was written for an already assembled visual episode. In yet other sequences, the visual images were edited to music already on the sound track. The final result of these editing methods is a connection between the visuals and the musical score that goes beyond the enhancement of the mood of a sequence. Throughout Alexander Nevsky Eisenstein strives for a complete correspondence between the movement of the music and the movement of the eye over the lines of the plastic composition. The same motion found within the image composition of a shot sequence can be found in the complementary musical score for that sequence. That is, the ascending or descending shape of the notes of the written musical score correspond directly to the movement of the eye over the planes of the composition within each shot of a film sequence. Although the details of this complex sound-image relationship may not be apparent while viewing Alexander Nevsky, what is apparent is the solidity this relationship lends to the film. The sound and visual elements combine to create a unified whole. Eisenstein states that, in comparison to the films of the 1920s, the new Soviet sound cinema appeared more traditional "and much closer to the foreign cinema than those films that once declared war to the death against its (the foreign cinema's) very principles and methods." Two elements that contribute to the traditional appearance of Alexander Nevsky are its story and pictorial composition which are based in conventional techniques drawn from literature and painting. In the 1930s Eisenstein had become interested in the application of other art forms to film. Literature, he felt, offered "the dramatics of subject." Cinema should again be concerned with story and plot— concepts Eisenstein had condemned in the 1920s—but this was not a call for a return to conventional content. Eisenstein felt that conventional forms could be utilized to present fresh content. The new story would not be centered around a traditional bourgeois hero, but would instead feature modern protagonists who represent the individual within the collective. These individuals, as we see in Alexander Nevsky, would embody the ideology of the proletariat.
In contrast to the photographic quality of Eisenstein's earlier films, the individual frames of Alexander Nevsky are reminiscent of painted battle scenes and landscapes. This is why the battle scenes may appear unrealistic: they are highly stylized, like paintings. An example of this approach is the creation of "The Battle on the Ice." Not only was the composition of individual shots stylized, but the landscape itself was totally simulated. The winter battle scene was actually shot in the heat of July; the ice and snow were created with melted glass, alabaster, chalk, and salt. The appearance of the summer sky was altered with the use of a filter on the camera lens. The scene was almost literally painted on a blank canvas.
Although some critics were disappointed with Eisenstein's variations on, or departure from, his earlier methods, Alexander Nevsky was a success upon its release in 1938. Probably Eisenstein's most commercially popular film in his own country, it also survived the scrutiny of Joseph Stalin, earning the symbol of official government approval, the Order of Lenin, in February of 1939. Soviet and foreign critics alike applauded the film as the work which, after more than six years of unproductivity, not all of it voluntary, returned Eisenstein to his former status as one of the foremost creative talents of the Soviet cinema.
Alexander Nevsky is viewed in much the same manner today as it was upon its original release. It is not considered Eisenstein's best film but its epic qualities and cinematic achievement, and particularly the "Battle on the Ice" sequence, are appreciated. The concept of vertical montage, however, has come under closer scrutiny than in past years. Although critics may disagree on the extent to which the sound-image unity of vertical montage is at work in this particular film, they do seem to agree on the importance of Eisenstein's theoretical effort: he was one of the first to attempt an articulation of the relationship between sound and image in cinema.
The Russian leader Alexander Nevsky (1219-1263) was prince of Novgorod and then grand prince of Vladimir. An outstanding military leader and statesman, he earned his surname from a victory over the Swedes at the Neva River.
Alexander Nevsky was the son of laroslav Vsevolodovich, Prince of Pereiaslavl and Novgorod. When his father moved to Kiev in 1236, Alexander succeeded him as prince of Novgorod. In 1237 Mongols began to invade Russia from the east, while in the west the Swedes and the Germanic Sword Knights of Livonia pressed against Novgorod under the pretense of a crusade.
His father, who had become grand prince of Vladimir, entrusted Alexander with the defense of the western frontiers. Although greatly outnumbered, Alexander decisively defeated the Swedes on July 15, 1240, at the mouth of the Neva River. Because of a conflict with Novgorod nobility, he had to leave the city shortly afterward but was recalled when the Sword Knights attacked the land. He trapped them on the ice of Lake Peipus on April 5, 1242, and destroyed most of their force.
Seeing the impossibility of waging a successful war with the Mongols, in 1242 laroslav recognized their sovereignty over Russia and pledged his allegiance to the Mongol Khan. When laroslav died in 1246, Alexander succeeded him in Kiev, and Alexander's brother Adrei ascended the throne of Vladimir. In 1252, when Adrei refused to pledge allegiance to the new great Khan, he was driven out of Russia, and the title of grand prince of Vladimir was passed to Alexander.
In spite of strong opposition among the Russian people, Alexander remained faithful to his father's policy of cooperation with the Mongols. He had the full support of the Russian Orthodox Church, which enjoyed considerable freedom and influence under the Mongols. Slowly, he won the people too, for in return for his cooperation Alexander received major concessions from the Mongol khans. Most importantly, they agreed to reduce, and later abandon, their demands for Russian troops and to withdraw their tax collectors from Russian lands.
Alexander died in 1263. His people greatly admired him for his incessant efforts to alleviate the Mongol yoke, his heroic defense of Russia and Orthodoxy in the west, and his deeply felt Christianity. After his death, Alexander came to be venerated as one of the most popular rulers in Russian history, a savior of Russia, and a saint. Bowing to popular pressure, the Russian Church canonized him locally in Vladimir in 1380 and generally in 1547.
A popular sketch of Alexander's life is in Constantin de Grunwald, Saints of Russia (trans. 1960). He has also received considerable attention in two works on Russia: Vasilii O. Kliuchevskii, A History of Russia, vol. 1 (trans. 1911), and George Vernadsky, A History of Russia, vol. 3 (1953). □
Alexander Nevsky ★★★½ 1938
A story of the invasion of Russia in 1241 by the Teutonic Knights of Germany and the defense of the region by good old Prince Nevsky. Eisenstein's first completed project in nearly ten years, it was widely regarded as an artistic disappointment upon release and as prowar propaganda for the looming conflict with the Nazis. Fabulous Prokofiev score illuminates the classic battle scenes, which used thousands of Russian army regulars. Russian with subtitles. 110m/B VHS, DVD . RU Nikolai Cherkassov, Nikolai P. Okhlopkov, Andrei Abrikosov, Alexandra Danilova, Dmitri Orlov, Vera Ivasheva, Sergei Blinnikov, Lev Fenin, Vladimir Yershov, Nikolai Arsky, Naum Rogozhin, Varvara O. Massalitinova, Vasili Novikov, Ivan Lagutin; D: Sergei Eisenstein; W: Sergei Eisenstein, Pyotr Pavlenko; C: Eduard Tisse; M: Sergei Prokofiev.