St. Alexander the Peacemaker

St. Alexander Nevsky, (or perhaps more accurately St. Alexey if we use his tonsured name) is a commonly cited warrior saint. St. Alexander rose to prominence, and earned his sobriquet, for his victory at the Battle of Neva against Swedish and other forces. Notably, some historians question whether this battle occurred given that there are no Swedish or non-Russian sources about this battle, though the truth is likely that rather than a "battle" there was probably a minor border skirmish that was exaggerated. St. Alexander is even more famous for his military victory over the invading Livonian Order from the west at the Battle of the Ice (which may not have taken place on ice).

St. Alexander Nevsky

While these events did occur, and therefore there is certainly basis for St. Alexander's reputation as a war hero, these events are not what made St. Alexander a saint. As Jim Forest writes, St. Alexander was originally remembered for being a warrior who became a peacemaker,

Exchanging his armor for the gown of a diplomat, Prince Alexander succeeded in normalizing relations with Khan Batu, saving Russia from a war it could not win and winning concessions protecting Church life. Finally he retired from both military and diplomatic roles to put on monastic robes and lead a penitential life. After he died, the people of Russia remembered him as the prince-warrior who became a peacemaker and in the end embraced the ascetic life of a monk. It was as a monk that he was shown in icons. It was only centuries later, at the time of Czar Peter the Great, that icons of the prince-turned-monk were revised so that he was shown dressed as a warrior rather than as a monk. "In this way," notes the Russian scholar Fr. Georgi Chistyakov, "a monastic saint was made into a Russian version of Mars, the god of war, whose worship is connected with the cult of arms. The modification of the icon was pure paganism, Orthodox only in its form, a slander against the saint himself."

Given the long and bloody history of conflict between the Princes of Rus' and the Khans, it is remarkable that Russians would single out as a national hero someone who willingly submitted to Mongol rule. While most other principalities were razed, St. Alexander saved Novgorod by proactively sending emissaries to the Khan, offering preemptive surrender and tribute. In this way, Novgorod was spared, unlike its neighbors. As Jim Forest states, it is this peacemaking mission, as well as St. Alexander's end of life tonsure as a monastic which secured his sainthood, not his early military victories.

Even after the time of Tsar Peter the Great when St. Alexander's monastic robes were exchanged in iconography for soldier's garb, St. Alexander still was given the title of peacemaker. One 1898 hagiography was titled Holy Great Prince Alexander Nevsky: In commemoration of the Tsar-Peacemaker. This title is still given to the saint even to this day. The website of the Boris Yelstin Presidential Library in the title of its article on St. Alexander refers to him as Prince Alexander Nevsky: Peacemaker, Liberator, Saint. This article summarizes his accomplishments thusly: "The young prince refused military resistance [to the Khan] and entered into a diplomatic battle. As a result, he agreed with the Tatars about peace."