If you haven’t already watched Sergei Eisenstein’s movie, Alexander Nevsky, I recommend that you look for it and watch it, regardless of whether it’s a 1938 black and white film or not. Not only because this director’s titles are still visually fascinating three quarters of a century later, but also because, after reading this article, you will surely want to contemplate his masterful staging of the Battle of Lake Peipus, the famous Battle on the Ice.
Eisenstein had already shot The Battleship Potemkin and October, two films that transcended their propagandism to become masterpieces, so that their revolutionary tone in politics paled alongside the revolutionary in film. That and the fact that he went to Hollywood for a while made him a suspect for the Soviet authorities – curiously enough, he was also a suspect for the Americans – which did not prevent Stalin from convincing him to return to the USSR and take over Alexander Nevsky‘s project.
Eisenstein was forced to work with a number of collaborators on the direction and script so that he would not deviate ideologically and meet the shooting deadlines. Since it was going to be a sound film – the first one he would make – he took special care of that facet, with music by Prokofiev and a prestigious actor as protagonist. And given the international political context, in the midst of an escalation of tension with Nazi Germany, the final result was a clear allusion to that situation, as a kind of dissuasive warning against an invasion -the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had not yet been signed- embodied in the scene of that battle, in which it is inevitable to identify the Teutonic knights with the Wehrmacht.
At this point more than one will be wondering who exactly Alexander Nevsky was, what happened in that conflict and who the contenders were. We have to go back to the 13th century, when the Republic of Novgorod, which emerged after breaking away from Kievan Rus’, had become an important state that in a rapid process of expansion had been putting many territories in its vicinity under its control, forming the basis of what would later become Russia. Novgorod was governed by a peculiar political system, in which the government was exercised by a prince but elected and assisted by a council that in the local administrations was completed by the veches or popular assemblies.
The republic was not without its enemies. On the one hand, the Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, successor to Kievan Rus’, did not give up on reconquering its former territory. On the other hand, the Swedes, in a combination of defence of Catholicism and geostrategic interest (control of the Baltic trade routes), had been taking over various Finnish regions that Novgorod considered its own, which led them to a state of almost continuous war. Likewise, the Mongols began an invasion of Central Asia, first under the command of Subotai and then led by Batu Khan, assistant and grandson of Genghis Khan respectively, bringing to its maximum extent what became known as the Golden Horde.
The Swedes and the Mongols were putting the republic in trouble when a new danger arose: taking advantage of these circumstances, the Teutonic Order decided that the time had come to take up again the papal bull of crusade dictated by Pope Celestine III in 1193, confirmed by two others from Gregory IX in 1233 and 1237. The original objective of that call was to combat the paganism that was still quite established among the Baltic and Slavic peoples, such as the Sorbs, Rugii, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Livonians, Curonians, Prussians and Obotrites, which had led to a massacre of Christians in Estonia. The spearhead against them was the military orders, just as in the Holy Land, and in fact the structure of these was based on that of the Temple.
In fact, the Novgorod area was Christianized between the 9th and 11th centuries, but had remained under Orthodox doctrine, hence the Teutonic Catholics developed an unstoppable campaign conquering Pskov, Izborsk and Koporye in the autumn of 1240. They had an alliance with the Kingdom of Denmark, the Bishopric of Dorbat (a medieval principality that occupied part of present-day Estonia) and the Livonian Order (a branch of the Teutonic Order made up of the Knights of the Order of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword who had managed to survive their catastrophic defeat by the Lithuanians at the Battle of Saule four years earlier).
This is where Alexander Nevsky intervened. Born in Pereslavl-Zaleski in 1220, son of Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich, he had grown up in Novgorod, the capital of the republic of the same name, and did not seem destined to reign as he was the second in the line of succession. But the first-born, Fyodor Yaroslavich, died in 1233, leaving the way open for him. Three years later he had to take over the government and did so under difficult circumstances, with the shadow of the Swedes falling over the country. Alexander defeated them in 1240 at the Battle of the Neva, thus preventing the invasion and earning himself the nickname Nevsky.
At least that’s what the legend says, since historians have serious doubts because there is no record of a Swedish campaign at that time and furthermore no source other than Russian sources mention the fight. But it doesn’t matter. Nevsky was only nineteen years old and had already become the national hero needed by the Russians to face the Teutonic onslaught, so the people of Novgorod demanded his return from exile in Pereslavi, where he had had to move after clashing with the power of some boyars who had not been impressed by the victory of the young knyaz (prince).
Nevsky returned, led the army and throughout 1241 reconquered the cities lost to the Crusaders. Thus came the spring of 1242, when the troops of Prince-Bishop Hermann of Dorpat defeated a Russian detachment advancing towards the positions occupied by Nevsky. It was clear that a big clash was coming and that it could be decisive, so the Knyaz made sure to choose the terrain that best suited him: instead of going out at them, he retreated to Lake Peipus, a large body of water of 3,555 square kilometres (the fifth largest lake in Europe), which is located on the current border between Estonia and Russia. It has an average depth of seven meters and at that time of the year it was frozen.
There he placed his people, superior in number but not in quality; according to estimates, he doubled the number of his enemies, counting some five thousand warriors. However, half of them were part of the militias of Novgorod, while another thousand and a half were auxiliaries of Finno-Ugric tribes and about six hundred Mongol archers on horseback (given by the Khan after Alexander agreed to submit to his vassalage), the best of that army being the druzhinas (personal armies) that he and his brother Prince Andrei brought with about a thousand men of arms.
In front of them, the Crusaders had approximately two thousand six hundred fighters, a considerably smaller number. However, about half of them were heavy cavalry riders (Danes and Germans plus a hundred Teutonic knights), that is, professional milites, in addition to a thousand Estonian infantry.
The Russians took up positions at a point called Raven’s Rock, while the Teutons galloped across the frozen lake, charging at them in a wedge. The Novgorod militia, who formed a wall of shields on the front line with rear support from the Druzhinas, managed to resist the onslaught and both sides melted into a chaos of blood, sweat, snow and iron.
For a couple of hours a close battle followed in which the Russians had achieved their goal of nullifying the opponent’s enormous shock force, now taking advantage of their numerical superiority to tire him out and wrap him around the flanks. In addition, they had the advantage that to fight on the slippery ice, their lightweight equipment was more comfortable.
Little by little, the Crusaders gave in to their fatigue and, seeing themselves bagged, tried to withdraw in order. It was then that Nevsky ordered his cavalry into action, which, firing an unexpected deluge of arrows, spread panic in their ranks and broke their formation. The dramatic save-it-yourself-or-other event culminated in the breakage of the ice plate that also covered the surrounding swamps. The Crusaders, with their heavy armor, sank irrevocably into the water and mud, paying dearly for the mistake of not taking into account that they were already in spring and the frozen surface was more fragile. However, historians believe that this ending is not recorded in any source and it seems that it was Eisenstein who introduced it in his movie, perhaps based on some legend.
Because, obviously, and despite the fact that today it is also believed that the number of casualties was actually very low, the Battle on the Ice went down in history as an epic episode in the formation of Russia, hence the timeliness of the film’s release in 1938 (although as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact it was withdrawn from circulation). In fact, miracles were attributed to Nevsky and he would be declared a saint in 1547.
It is curious to note that after the battle, he was lucid enough to understand that he could not repeat a great victory like that against the Mongols, so he renewed his vassalage to avoid an invasion. He was just in Gorodets returning from a trip to Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde, when he became ill; aware of the seriousness, he took the monastic habit and changed his name to Alexis and expired. It was in 1263.
Sources: Lake Peipus 1242 (David Nicolle) / Livonia, Rus’ and the Baltic Crusades in the Thirteenth Century (Anti Selart) / The Northern Crusades (Eric Christiansen) / The Chronicle of Novgorod 1016-1471 /Wikipedia