Tag Archives: Vikings

The Legend of Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky

In this blog we mainly are concerning history of Latvian nation, but no history of any nation cannot be complete without mentioning its neighboring nations. Russia is our biggest neighbor, and has always interfered in our national and cultural territory so it is unwise not to mention the largest country in the world, when it’s just across our border.

800px-Nicholas_Roerich,_Guests_from_Overseas

Varyags are arriving at Russian Land

I mentioned Russia in previous posts. While early Baltic tribes had trouble building their nation states, the first form of a united Russian nation formed in the 10th century. Its beginnings are not too clear making controversy among Russian historians and their colleagues from other countries. The main question is- how important was the role of Scandinavian Vikings in the birth of the Russian nation and the state. The Swedish Vikings used large Russian rivers to take the road from Scandinavia to Constantinople the capital of the Byzantine Empire and trade with Arabian Caliphate. They used river Volkhov, Dnepr, and Volga. They also used Daugava which called Dvinsk in Russian. The Russians called Vikings Varyags – (Варяги). The sailors started to settle in local settlements and begin to enforce their rule on local Slavic tribes. They eventually assimilated with local Slavs but kept their contacts with Scandinavia for many years to come. The Varyags established such important and historic centers like Novgorod and Kiev. Eventually all tribal centers became one large country with Kiev as capital getting name Kievan Rus (Ки́евская Русь).

The country got highest point when in 988. Vladimir the Great (987.-1015) married the Byzantine princess Anna and converted to Orthodox Christianity for it was the main Byzantine main confession. Russia was placed on the world map and forever engaged with Orthodox culture. Today its argued how much was the importance of Scandinavian Varyags. There are interpretations that Varyags was not just Swedes but almost every form  of sailors and raiders not regarding their nationality. Indeed the Primary Chronicle (По́весть временны́х лет) tells Varyags were Norsemen known as the Rus (русь), Swedes, Normans and Angles.  There is another word meaning foreigner of every nationality as nemets (немец) in that time now meaning German. Primary Chronicle also tells that first mighty Russian rulers were Rurik and his brothers from the Norsman (Rus) who started the first Russian dynasty which ruled until the 16th century.

Even if this could mean that Russia could be founded by non-Slavic sailors, they were just elite and elite always are shorter than the lower classes. As said earlier the Varyagian elite became more Slavic and assimilated itself but the name of Russia and Russian people could originate from Rurik and Rus from Norselands.

The Russian writing the Cyrillic alphabet were taken from Bulgaria. The years of Yaroslavl the Wise were Golden years of Kievan Rus. Many marvelous buildings were built  as the Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Kiev. After the death of Yaroslavl the Rus begun to decay in inner struggle between the heirs of Varyags who battled for the  tittle of Duke and Grand Duke of Rus. The contacts with the western world were weakling and finally in 1097 all Dukes made an agreement which split Rus in many small Russian Duchies.

The Baltic tribes were endangered by Duchies of Polotsk and Novgord Republic. The divided Russian states were in danger from nomadic tribal raiders like Kipchacks who settled across the Black Sea. But in the 13th century the more mortal danger came from the steppes of Mongolia. The mighty Mongolian tribes introduced a medieval Blitzkrieg to Chinese, Persians, Arabs and Indians. And the Russians were their next target. In 1237 the Khan Batu first arrived at Ryazan, Vladimir and Suzdal pillaging and raiding their lands. In 1239-1240 the Mongols returned this time taking Kiev and making its way to Poland and Hungary. It was only the death of the Grand Khan of Mongols the Genghis Khan’ that saved Western Europe from Mongolian Doom. Khan Batu returned to mainland to fight for the throne.  The Great Mongol Empire divided in various Khanates. Khan Batu became the ruler of the Golden Horde which stretched from the river Irtysh to Danube and to Uralian mountains and North Caucasus.

At this time one of the sons of Mongol imposed Grand Duke Yaroslavl was making his career. He was no other than Alexander Nevsky. He lived in Novgorod. Novgorod for unclear reasons were not sacked by the Mongols. There are versions that Mongols who had cavalry based army distracted from fighting in wooden areas of Novgorod. There are even extreme theories that Mongols were scared off by the large lake monster, who still lives in one of the lakes near Novgorod. Whatever was the cause the Novgorod did not face the doom from the Mongolians. But Novgorod was endangered by Swedes who now was more Crusaders than the Vikings. In 1240 the Swedes started a Crusade to Novgordod. Swedes crossed the river Nev. Alexander aged only 19 managed to assemble a strong army and head to meet the Swedes. Swedes spent too much time on their campsite by river Nev. At July 15 Nevsky attacked the Swedes at their campsite.  Surprised by the attack the Swedes were defeated and destroyed. Alexander got the name Nevsky after this battle.

Nevsky prepares for battle. From movie Alexander Nevsky 1938

But it was not the only wonder done by Alexander. In 1242 new threats from German Crusaders came. In 1240 the Livonian Order lead by Bishop-Prince Hermann of Dorpat attacked the lands of Novgord and captured Pskov. The people of Novgorod requested Alexanders help, he was in Pereslavl at this time. Next year he took back Pskov and on April 5 1242  he met the Crusaders on the narrow strait connecting the parts of lake Piepus. He fooled the over confident Crusaders making them stepping on the frozen lake. The slippery frozen ice gave disadvantages to Crusaders whose armor was too heavy. At last they tried to retreat but got themselves even deeper on the frozen ice fields, finally the ice started to collapse dooming the too heavy knights.

The Russians and Crusaders met face to face

Knights sinking in icy waters

Alexander Nevsky stopped the Western Crusader advance. It was the Poles who again tried to intervene Russia in the 16th century during the Times of troubles. But in the field with Mongolian invaders Nevsky showed a different face. He collaborated with Mongols helping to quell any uprisings against invaders. But he did that because he could not resist the Horde as he could do with the Crusaders. He tried to keep the most modest relations with Mongols to keep his own power and save Russia from Western Crusaders which he viewed as more dangerous than the Mongols.  As so he kept Russia as Orthodox land and helped to strengthen up the Muscovite State which was the root of the Russian Empire. He saved the Russians from more serious Mongol attacks and when after long years since his death, the Russian Tsar Ivan III the Terrible finally pushed away the Mongolian invaders.

Alexander Nevsky has considered as a holy figure since his death in Russian culture. He is canonized as a saint. The Russian Emperor Peter I The Great issued a beautiful military decoration the Order of Saint Alexander Nevsky. Stalin also ordered to make a Soviet Order of Alexander Nevsky for his war generals. Also a movie by Sergei Eisenstein the Alexander Nevsky was done in 1938. It’s a classic piece of cinematic art. The still excerpts of film are shown above, the movie came as a propagandist warning that Russia is capable of defeating any Western enemy. Since the main enemy was German Teutonic Knights they were symbolized as German Nazis in the minds of viewers of that time.

In 2008 Russian TV show Name of the Russia Alexander Nevsky was voted as the greatest Russian in all times. He was capable of defeating Stalin, Peter I and Lenin showing that the legend of 19 year old man capable of defeating the western enemy is very favorable for present day Russians. Since the present day Russian government is confronting the Western countries, the Alexander Nevsky is considered as hero in Russia.

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Curonians against Vikings. The tales of battles and raids.

Curonian Vikings- modern day fiction book

The four Latvian tribes differed from each other in many ways. The Semigallians are said to be mightiest Latvian warriors. That could be true because Semigallians resisted to crusader invasion longer than others did. The Latgalian kings were the richest rulers of Latvian tribes. The wooden fortress and city of Jersika was a large and proud center in Latgale. The last ruler of Jersika Visvaldis is one of the legendary ancient kings of Latvia.  But the Curonians are seen as the great sailors and raiders.  Curonians lived all around the shores of the Baltic Sea.  That’s why they are known as sailors and even as raiders. Today many adventure stories like Curonian Vikings have been made, making the legend of the Curonians as Vikings very popular among national-oriented Latvians.  Let’s just look at some of these tails recorded by Scandinavians.

The archbishop of Habburg and Bremen Rimbert (801-888) tells the story of invasions made by Swedes and Danes in Courland.  First Danish raiders assembled large army of ships and landed on the shores of Courland. The Curonians gathered a large resistance force and defeated the Danish invaders.  They took half of the Danish fleet, gold, silver and other bounties. The Swedish king Ulaf decided to take advantage of Danish failure and sent an army of his own to outmatch Danes. They managed to land unnoticed and attacked the fortress of Zeburg (Ezerpils), they razed it down and pillaged. Overjoyed by their victory they left their ships and gone deeper into Curonian territory. They besieged the fortress of Apulia (Apole) but  met  heavy resistance.  After eight days of bitter fighting the Vikings were desperate and scared by the inability to take the fortress.  They looked for god’s that may help them by making a sacred lottery. When it turned out that none of their gods wants to help them, they wanted to flee.  But their ships were too far away and they risked to be completely annihilated in the bitter chase by the Curonians. In this moment of despair some merchants who were Christians told the Christ may be the only hope. Again they took the lottery and find out that indeed Christ is willing to help them.  The Vikings again attacked the fortress and the defenders were looking for peace talks. While the most eager fighters wanted to destroy the fortress completely, their king decided to negotiate. The Vikings took 30 hostages and gold and silver.

Another popular tale about Vikings and Curonians are a saga of Egil Skalagrimson.  The story tells the tale about Torolf and his brother Egil. Together they managed raids in the Baltic Sea and landed on the shores of Courland. First they assigned temporally peace deal, when it ended they started to raid various parts of Courland. One day they entered the wide river creek and landed on the shore of thick forest. They spread out in groups and found a small settlement. They raided the settlement and the settlers fled with no resistance.  When it’s begun to get dark raiders started to gather up and head for the ships. Torlof returned at the starting point, but there was no sign of Egil. It was too dark to look for him so  they decided to wait for tomorrow.

Egil Skalagrimson

Egil and his man gone thought the forest and found a large plain with houses. They entered the houses, but no one was there, they took all the goods and wanted to leave unnoticed. But then they in grave surprise met the village men in front of them, blocking the way to the forest.  Egil ordered to flee but the wooden fences prevented their escape.  They were captured by the locals and were tied. While locals went on celebrating, Egil managed to untie himself up and rescue his comrades. Egil and his men started to look for a way to get out from the village. In the process they found a large pit where other captured men were held. They turned out to be Danes and they showed the shortcut out of the village. However when Egil and his man left the village, he asked to Danes where he could find a good bounty. He did not want to leave without good pillage. The Danes showed the house of the richest village man. They burned down the rich man’s house and killed all the residents inside. In the early morning they came back to their ships and continued to raid and pillage where ever they could.

There are also records of Curonian attacks against the Vikings. Chronicler Sax the Grammarian tells the story about the Curonian attack on island of Öland. Danes rushed to confront the Curonians. They met them at the port of Jarnlock.  Curonians prevented the Danes from successful landing; they killed many Danish royals and left them in complete panic.  After the sunset Curonian warriors retreated inland and remaining Danes finally established beach positions. At the dawn of the new day battle restarted at new highs. However the Danes managed to form an organized formation when Curonians were just attacking randomly. Danish warriors achieved victory and destroyed the Curonian invaders.

Curonians were vicious fighters, but when they met German Crusaders they fought bravely but were outmatched and were forced to surrender.

Selected Sources:

Radiņš, Arnis. (1996) Ceļvedis Latvijas senvēsturē. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

Asars, Janis and others. (2008) Kurši senatnē = Couronians in antiquity. Riga: Latvijas Nacionālais vēstures muzejs.


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