The Holy Prince Alexander Nevsky was born on May 30, 1220 in the city of Pereslavl-Zalessk. His father Yaroslav II, Theodore in Baptism (+1246), “a gentle, kindly and genial prince”, was the younger son of Vsevolod III Large Nest (+ 1212), brother of the Holy Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich (February 4). St Alexander’s mother, Theodosia Igorevna, a Ryazan princess, was Yaroslav’s third wife. Their older son was the Holy Prince Theodore (June 5), who departed to the Lord at age fifteen. St 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 Savior Transfiguration Cathedral of Pereslavl by St Simon, Bishop of Suzdal (May 10), one of the compilers of the Kiev Caves Paterikon (Lives of the Fathers). From this Elder-hierarch, St Alexander received his first blessing for military service in the name of God, to defend the Russian Church and the Russian Land.
In 1227 Prince Yaroslav, at the request of the people of Novgorod, was sent by his brother Yuri, the Great Prince of Vladimir, to rule as prince in Novgorod the Great. He took with him his sons, Sts Theodore and Alexander. Dissatisfied with the Vladimir princes, the people of Novgorod soon invited St Michael of Chernigov (September 20), 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 St Michael’s daughter Theodosia was betrothed to St Theodore, the elder brother of St Alexander. After the death of the bridegroom in 1233 the young princess went to a monastery and became famous in monastic exploits as the nun St Euphrosyne of Suzdal (September 25).
From his early years St Alexander went along on his father’s campaigns. 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 Yaroslav went to Kiev, “settling” his son, St Alexander, to rule independently as prince at Novgorod. In 1239 St Alexander entered into marriage, taking as wife the daughter of the Polotsian prince Briacheslav. Some histories relate that the day the princess was baptized was the Name Day of her saintly spouse, and she was named Alexandra. His father, Yaroslav, blessed them at betrothal with the holy wonderworking icon of the Theodore Mother of God (the father was named Theodore in Baptism). Afterwards, St Alexander constantly prayed before this icon. Later, it was taken from the Gorodetsk Monastery, where he died, by his brother Basil of Kostroma (+1276), and transferred to Kostroma.
A very troublesome time had begun in Russian history: from the East came the Mongol Horde destroying everything in their path; from the West came the forces of the Teutonic Knights, which blasphemously and with the blessing of the Roman Pope, called itself “Cross-bearers” by wearing the Cross of the Lord. In this terrible hour the Providence of God raised up for the salvation of Russia 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, a horde of crusaders made incursions into the borders of Russia. First were the Swedes. “A king of Roman faith from the midnight land,” Sweden, in 1240 gathered a great armed force and sent them to the Neva on many ships under the command of his son-in-law, Yarl (Prince) Birger. The haughty Swede sent his messengers to Novgorod to say to St Alexander: “Fight me if you have the courage, for I am already here and I am taking your land captive.”
St Alexander, then not yet twenty years old, prayed a long time in the church of St Sophia, the Wisdom of God. He recited the Psalm of David, saying: “Judge, O Lord, those who injure me, fight against those who fight against me. Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me” (Ps. 34/35). Archbishop Spyridon blessed the holy prince and his army for the battle. Leaving the church, St Alexander exhorted his troops with words of faith: “The power of God is not in numbers, but in truth.” With a smaller force, trusting in the Holy Trinity, the prince hastened towards the enemy to await help from his father, not knowing whether the enemy would attack, nor when.
But there was a miraculous omen: at dawn on July 15 the warrior Pelgui, in Baptism Philip, saw a boat, and on it were the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb, in royal purple attire. Boris said: “Brother Gleb, let us help our kinsman Alexander.” When Pelgui reported the vision to the prince, St Alexander commanded that no one should speak about the miracle. Emboldened by this, he urged the army to fight valiantly against the Swedes.
“There was a great slaughter of the Latins, and a countless multitude was killed, and their leader was left with a mark upon his face from a sharp spear.” An angel of God invisibly helped the Orthodox army: when morning came, on the opposite bank of the River Izhora, where the army of St Alexander was unable to proceed, was a multitude of the slain enemy. Because of this victory at the River Neva on July 15, 1240, the nation called the saint Alexander Nevsky.
The Teutonic Knights remained a dangerous enemy. In a lightning-quick campaign in 1241 St Alexander recaptured the ancient Russian fortress of Kopore, expelling the knights. But in 1242, the Germans succeeded capturing Pskov. The enemy boasted of “subjecting all the Slavic nation.” St Alexander, setting forth in a winter campaign, liberated Pskov, that ancient home of the Holy Trinity, and in spring of the year 1242 fought a decisive battle against the Teutonic Order. On the ice of Lake Chud both armies clashed on April 5, 1242. Raising his hands towards the heavens, St 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 military might the Crusaders were completely destroyed. There was a terrible slaughter, and there was such a crashing of striking spears and swords that it seemed as though the frozen lake were in motion and not solid ice, since it was covered with blood. When they turned to flee, the enemy was pursued and slashed by Alexander’s army “as if they sped through the air, and there was nowhere for the enemy to flee.” Later, 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, and the name of St Alexander was celebrated throughout Holy Russia, “through all the lands, from the Egyptian 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 was time to guard Russia from the East. In 1242 St Alexander Nevsky and his father Yaroslav journeyed to the Horde. Metropolitan Cyril blessed them for this new service of many hardships: it was necessary to turn the Tatars from enemies and plunderers into honorable allies, and this required “the meekness of an angel and the wisdom of a snake.”
The Lord crowned the holy mission of the defenders of the Russian land with success, 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 the support of the Russian princes, wishing to break 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, surviving the Holy Martyr Michael of Chernigov, whose relative he nearly became, by only ten days. Since his father bequeathed him an alliance with the Golden Horde, it was necessary for St Alexander Nevsky to hold fast to it in order to avert a new devastation of Russia. Sartak, the son of Batu, had accepted Christianity, and was in charge of Russian affairs with the Horde. He became his friend, and like a brother to him. Vowing his support, St Alexander allowed Batu to launch a campaign against Mongolia, to become the chief power in all the Great Steppes, and to raise up the Tatar Christian leader, Khan Munke (most of his Tatar Christians were Nestorians) on the throne in Mongolia.
Not all the Russian princes possessed the wisdom of St Alexander Nevsky. Many hoped for European help in the struggle against the Mongol Yoke. St Michael of Chernigov, Prince Daniel of Galich, and Andrew, St Alexander’s brother, conducted negotiations with the Roman Pope. But St Alexander well knew the fate of Constantinople, seized and devastated by Crusaders in the year 1204. His own personal experience taught him not to trust the West. The alliance of Daniel of Galich with the Pope, giving him nothing in return, was a betrayal of Orthodoxy, a unia with Rome. St Alexander did not want this to happen to his Church.
When ambassadors of the Roman Pope appeared in 1248 to seduce him also, he wrote in answer that the Russians were faithful to the Church of Christ and to the belief of the Seven Ecumenical Councils: “These we know very well, but we do not accept your teaching.” Catholicism was unsuitable for the Russian Church, and a unia signified a rejection of Orthodoxy, a rejection of the source of spiritual life, a rejection of the historical future foreordained by God, and the dooming of itself to spiritual death.
In the year 1252 many Russian cities rose up against the Tatar Yoke, supporting Andrew Yaroslavich. The situation was very risky. Again there arose a threat to the very existence of Russia. St Alexander had to journey to the Horde once more, in order to prevent a punitive Tatar incursion on the Russian lands. Defeated, Andrew fled to the Swedes seeking the help of those very robbers whom his great brother had crushed with the help of God at the Neva.
St Alexander became the ruling 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 with Norway concerning peacetime borders; in 1256 he went on a campaign to the Finnish land. The chronicler called it “the dark campaign,” because the Russian army went along through the polar night, “going to impassable places, unable to see neither day nor night”. Into the darkness of paganism St Alexander brought the light of Gospel preaching and Orthodox culture. All the coastal region was enlightened and opened up by the Russians.
In 1256 Khan Batu died, and soon his son Sartak was poisoned, the one who was 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 needed the alliance with Orthodox Rus. In 1261, by the diligent efforts of St Alexander and Metropolitan Cyril, a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was established at Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde.
There followed an epoch of great Christianization of the pagan East, and St Alexander Nevsky prophetically speculated about the historical vocation of Rus. The holy prince used every possibility to uplift his native land and the ease its allotted cross. In 1262 by his decree in many of the cities the Tatar collectors of tribute and the conscription of soldiers were stopped. 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 veritable shield for Russia from the East. In this great uniting of the Russian and Tatar lands and peoples the future multi-national Russian State was matured and strengthened. Later, within the bounds of the Russian Church, was encompassed nearly the entire legacy of Ghenghis Khan to the coasts of the Pacific Ocean.
This diplomatic journey of St 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 St Alexander fell deathly ill. Unable to reach Vladimir, in a monastery at Gorodets the prince-ascetic gave up his spirit to the Lord on November 14, 1263, completing his difficult earthly path by receiving the monastic schema with the name of Alexis.
Metropoltan Cyril, the spiritual Father and companion of the holy prince, said in the funeral eulogy: “Know, my child, that already the sun has set for the land of Suzdal. There will be no greater prince in the Russian land.” They took his holy body to Vladimir, the journey lasted nine days, and the body remained undecayed.
On November 23, 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 St Alexander was placed in the crypt, the steward Sebastian and Metropolitan Cyril wanted to take his hand, in order to put in it the spiritual gramota (document of absolution). The holy prince, as though alive, reached out his hand and took the document from the hand of the Metropolitan. “Because of their terror, and they were barely able to stumble from his tomb. Who would not be astonished at this, since he was dead and the body was brought from far away in the winter time.”
Thus did God glorify the saintly Soldier-Prince Alexander Nevsky. The universal Church glorification of St Alexander Nevsky took place under Metropolitan Macarius at the Moscow Cathedral in 1547. The Canon to the saint was compiled at that time by the monk Michael of Vladimir.