The battle of the Neva was preserved in a dramatic legend.
Continuing The Tatars Conquer Russia,
our selection from History of Russia by Alfred Rambaud published in 1886. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Tatars Conquer Russia.
To sum up, all the fury of the Mongol tempest spent itself on the Slavonic race. It was the Russians who fought at the Kalka, at Kolomna, at the Sit; the Poles and Silesians at Liegnitz; the Bohemians and Moravians at Olmutz. The Germans suffered nothing from the invasion of the Mongols but the fear of it. It exhausted itself principally on those plains of Russia which seem a continuation of the steppes of Asia. Only in Russian history did the invasion produce great results.
Batu built on one of the arms of the Lower Volga a city called Sarai (the Castle), which became the capital of a powerful Tartar empire, the “Golden Horde,” extending from the Ural and Caspian to the mouth of the Danube. The Golden Horde was formed not only of Tartar-Mongols or Nogais, who even now survive in the Northern Crimea, but particularly of the remains of ancient nomads, such as the Patzinaks and Polovtsi, whose descendants seem to be the present Kalmucks and Bashkirs; of Turkish tribes tending to become sedentary, like the Tartars of Astrakhan in the present day; and of the Finnish populations already established in the country, and which mixed with the invaders.
Oktai, Kuluk, and Mangu, the first three successors of Genghis Khan, elected by all the Mongol princes, took the title of “great khans,” and the Golden Horde recognized their authority; but under his fourth successor, Kublai, who usurped the throne and established himself in China, this bond of vassalage was broken. The Golden Horde became an independent state, 1260. United and powerful under the terrible Batu, who died in 1255, it fell to pieces under his successors; but in the fourteenth century the khan Uzbeck reunited it anew, and gave the Horde a second period of prosperity. The Tartars, who were pagans when they entered Russia, embraced, about 1272, the faith of Islam, and became its most formidable apostles.
Meanwhile Yaroslaff, brother of the grand prince George II, was his successor in Suzdal. Yaroslaff, 1238-1246, found his inheritance in the most deplorable condition. The towns and villages were burned, the country and roads covered with unburied corpses; the survivors hid themselves in the woods. He recalled the fugitives and began to rebuild. Batu, who had completed the devastation of South Russia, summoned Yaroslaff to do him homage at Sarai, on the Volga. Yaroslaff was received there with distinction. Batu confirmed his title of grand prince, but invited him to go in person to the Great Khan, supreme chief of the Mongol nation, who lived on the banks of the river Sakhalian or Amur. To do this was to cross the whole of Russia and Asia. Yaroslaff bent his knees to the new master of the world, Oktai, succeeded in refuting the accusations brought against him by a Russian boyar, and obtained a new confirmation of his title. On his return he died in the desert of exhaustion, and his faithful servants brought his body back to Vladimir. His son Andrew succeeded him in Suzdal, 1246-1252. His other son, Alexander, reigned at Novgorod the Great.
Alexander was as brave as he was intelligent. He was the hero of the North, and yet he forced himself to accept the necessary humiliations of his terrible situation. In his youth we see him fighting with all the enemies of Novgorod, Livonian knights and Tchuds, Swedes and Finns. The Novgorodians found themselves at issue with the Scandinavians on the subject of their possessions on the Neva and the Gulf of Finland. As they had helped the natives to resist the Latin faith, King John obtained the promise of Gregory IX that a crusade, with plenary indulgences, should be preached against the Great Republic and her protégés, the pagans of the Baltic. His son-in-law, Birger, with an army of Scandinavians, Finns, and western crusaders, took the command of the forces, and sent word to the Prince of Novgorod: “Defend yourself if you can; know that I am already in your provinces.” The Russians on their side, feeling they were fighting for orthodoxy, opposed the Latin crusade with a Greek one.
Alexander humbled himself in St. Sophia, received the benediction of the archbishop Spiridion, and addressed an energetic harangue to his warriors. He had no time to await reinforcements from Suzdal. He attacked the Swedish camp, which was situated on the Ijora, one of the southern affluents of the Neva, which has given its name to Ingria. Alexander won a brilliant victory, which gained him his surname of Nevski, and the honor of becoming, under Peter the Great, the second conqueror of the Swedes, one of the patrons of St. Petersburg. By the orders of his great successor his bones repose in the monastery of Alexander Nevski.
The battle of the Neva was preserved in a dramatic legend. An Ingrian chief told Alexander how, in the eve of the combat, he had seen a mysterious bark, manned by two warriors with shining brows, glide through the night. They were Boris and Gleb, who came to the rescue of their young kinsman. Other accounts have preserved to us the individual exploits of the Russian heroes — Gabriel, Skylaf of Novgorod, James of Polotsk, Sabas, who threw down the tent of Birger, and Alexander Nevski himself, who with a stroke of the lance “imprinted his seal on his face,” 1240. Notwithstanding the triumph of such a service, Alexander and the Novgorodians could not agree; a short time after, he retired to Pereiaslavl-Zaliesski. The proud republicans soon had reason to regret the exile of this second Camillus. The Order of the Swordbearers, the indefatigable enemy of orthodoxy, took Pskof, their ally; the Germans imposed tribute on the Vojans, vassals of Novgorod, constructed the fortress of Koporie on her territory of the Neva, took the Russian town of Tessof in Esthonia, and pillaged the merchants of Novgorod within seventeen miles of their ramparts. During this time the Tchuds and the Lithuanians captured the peasants, and the cattle of the citizens. At last Alexander allowed himself to be touched by the prayers of the archbishop and the people, assembled an army, expelled the Germans from Koporie, and next from Pskof, hanged as traitors the captive Vojans and Tchuds, and put to death six knights who fell into his hands.
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