Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

The Story of Alexander, Hero of the Neva

On the tragic death of George II., his brother, the active and prudent Fiery Fame, went from Novgorod to the throne of Suzdal. He waited till the Tartars returned to the East and then he came to his inheritance, which he found in a sad plight: "cut up by the feet of horses, fertilized with human blood, white with bones, where sorrow grew abundantly." He called his frightened subjects from the forests where they were hiding, caused the roads and fields to be cleared of the unburied bodies, and began to rebuild the ruined villages and towns. Finally Baty sent him a haughty summons to come to his court at Sarai. The grand prince dared not disobey, and accompanied by a few nobles he presented himself before the Tartar Kan.

Baty received him with honor and confirmed his title of grand prince, but obliged him to pay homage in person to the new Master of the World, whose splendid palace was on the banks of the Amur. Fiery Fame made the terrible journey across Europe and Asia, through deserts and once prosperous countries ravaged by the barbarian armies. He humbled himself before the Grand Kan of the Mongol Empire, succeeded in disproving the charges brought against him by one of his subjects, and after a delay of several months was again assured of his title and allowed to return.

He had made only a few hundred leagues into the sandy deserts when thirst and exhaustion overcame him; his faithful followers bore his remains to the city of Vladimir and placed them in the cathedral. The envoy of Pope Innocent IV. saw the whitened bones of the men who perished with him lying unburied in the sands of the steppe.

His son, Andrew, became Grand Prince of Suzdal, and his son, Alexander, remained Prince of Novgorod. Alexander, even before the arrival of the Tartars, had won fame by his battles with the Swedes and Finns, led by the German order of Sword-brothers.

The provinces along the Baltic had long been considered by the Russians of Novgorod to be their property, but at the time when the German merchants of the Hanse towns came to swallow up all the commerce of Northern Russia, the Archbishop of Bremen sent missionaries to convert the natives to Roman Catholicism. "The banners of the strangers waved," says a native poem, "the intruders made us slaves, enchained us as the serfs of tyrants, forced us to be their servants; the priests strangled us with their rosaries, greedy knights plundered us, troops of brigands ravaged our land, armed murderers cut us to pieces, the father of the cross stole our riches, stole our treasures from the hiding-places, attacked the tree, the sacred tree, polluted the waters and the fountain of life; the axe smote on the oak of Tara, the woeful hatchet on the tree of Kero."

The natives soon rose against their oppressors, washed oft their baptism by plunging into the sacred waters of the Dvina, and returned to their old gods. But the Pope preached a crusade against them, and Bishop Albert, "the true founder of the German rule in Livonia," came against them with a fleet of three and twenty ships, built Riga and many fortresses of cemented stone, and established the order of the Brothers of the Army of Christ, or the Sword-bearers, who, dressed in their white mantles, with red crosses on their shoulders, and uniting with the Black Cross Knights of the Teutonic order, in their zeal for their religion and commerce, soon found themselves at issue with the men of Novgorod concerning the lands along the Neva and the Gulf of Finland.

The men of Novgorod helped the natives resist the Latin faith, and King John of Sweden, having obtained from Pope Gregory IX. full indulgence, sent his son-in-law, Burger, against Novgorod and the pagans of Livonia.

"Defend thyself if thou canst. Know that I am already in thy provinces," was the challenge which he sent to Alexander, the son of Fiery Fame.

The prince went to the cathedral of St. Sophia, received the blessing of the archbishop, and then called upon his brave soldiers to follow him to victory. Without having time to ask aid from Suzdal, he went out against the Swedes.

Burger's tent


The story goes that on the night before the battle one of the elders of a pagan tribe who had been converted was standing on guard, and about the murky dawn he saw a wondrous vision: a boat, rapidly rowed by ghostly oarsmen, came gliding down the Neva, and in the midst of it stood the martyred saints, Boris and Glieb, in shining raiment, and Boris said,—

"Brother Glieb, we must row faster, so as to help our kinsman, Alexander."

The guard hastened to the prince with the tale of his vision, and Alexander, encouraged, gave instant battle, and won a splendid victory on the banks of the Neva. He did great deeds of valor and" imprinted the seal" of his lance on Burger's face. His warriors were no whit behind him in prowess. One of them, on horseback, pursued the Swedish commander even into a ship, and when the Swedes rallied and hurled him into the water, he escape to the shore and again mingled in the ranks of his foes, sowing destruction on every side.

Another on foot captured three Swedish galleys and brought them in. A third dashed up to Burger's tent of cloth of gold and hewed down the ashen post amid the joyful shouts of his friends. Three ship-loads of dead the Swedes carried away, and a numberless host were buried in a ditch dug along the shore.

When, nearly five centuries later, Peter the Great founded his capital on the Neva the conqueror of the Swedes became one of the patron saints of the city, and his bones repose in the monastery of Alexander Nevski.

The men of Novgorod, forgetting his services, quarrelled with the prince and allowed him to go into exile, and then the Sword-brothers took Pskof, imposed tribute on the vassal tribes, and plundered their merchants almost under their very walls. Alexander was persuaded by the archbishop and the people to return. He collected an army, expelled the Germans from Pskof, hanged the prisoners who fell into his hands, and gave battle to the Livonian order on the ice of the Finnish Lake, where he killed four hundred Sword-brothers and triumphantly brought back to Novgorod fifty in chains. A few years later, when Alexander Nevski had concluded peace with the Germans, the Pope of Rome, deceived by a lying tale, sent two cardinals with a letter, calling him a devoted son of the Church, and begging him to fulfil the desires of his sire, Fiery Fame, who died a convert at the Horde, and thus secure the protection and blessing of the father of the faithful, who sat on the throne of St. Peter. Alexander replied,—

"We wish to follow the doctrines of the true church. As for your doctrines, we have no wish to adopt them or to know them."

Although Novgorod was the only Russian city which the Tartars had not sacked and burned, it was not to escape the exactions of the Kan. Baty heard of Alexander's bravery, and one day a messenger appeared before the prince with a letter which read:—

"Prince of Novgorod, God has put many nations under me; wilt thou alone resist? If thou wishest to keep thy land, come to me, and thou shalt behold the grandeur and glory of my sway."

Alexander, knowing that to gainsay this summons was madness, went with his brother, Andrew, to Sarai, whence they were both sent, like their father before them, across the measureless deserts to the Grand the Horde. The Grand Kan received them kindly, confirmed them in their titles, and let them go, giving them costly gifts.

Three years later Baty's brother and successor at Sara! ordered a census to be taken and an immense tribute to be levied over all Russia. The men of Novgorod took to this by no means kindly; when the posadni, or burgomaster, declared in the popular assembly that they must needs bow before the strongest, a terrible cry arose and a tumult; the posadnik was torn to pieces.

The prince's son, Basil, declared against a father "who brought slavery upon free men;" the council voted to withhold the tribute, and sent back the envoys with gifts. Alexander was wiser; he arrested his son and threw him into prison; he punished the nobles who joined in the hubbub; some he hanged; he plucked out the eyes and cut off the noses of others; and then sent word to the Kan that Novgorod would humble itself to the census.

The Tartars entered the city and haughtily began their work. The inhabitants assembled around the cathedral of St. Sophia and said they would die for liberty and honor, and it was with difficulty that the prince kept them from falling on the baskaks and putting them to death. Only his threat to leave the city to the Kan's wrath brought them to terms. The insolent registers were then allowed to proceed in peace through the silent and deserted streets of the humiliated town.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


The inhabitants of the other cities which belonged to Alexander's princedom revolted and murdered the tax collectors. Alexander, knowing his risk of the Kan's vengeance, again set out for the Horde to tender his excuses. He was forgiven, in spite of the many charges against him, but was kept for a year at the court of Saral, and his health broke down.

On his way back he died and a herald brought the tidings to the Metropolitan bishop as he was performing the service in the cathedral of Vladimir. The bishop turned to the people and said, —

"Know, dear children, that the sun of Russia is set."

And the people burst into sobs, and cried,—

"We are lost! we are lost!"