Alexander "Nevsky" was the son of Grand Prince Yaroslav II
of Russia. He was born in 1219
at Pereyslavl, but was brought up in Novgorod
and became its prince when his father became Grand Prince.
While the Mongols were invading Russia from the east, other neighbors took the chance to come in from the west, and Novgorod, farther northwest than most Russian cities, took the brunt. The Finns, Livonians, and especially the Swedish were continually trying to attack Russian territory and cut off Russia's outlets to the Baltic Sea, and Alexander's first major triumph was in 1240 against the Swedish, who he defeated on the banks of the Neva River, earning the nickname of "Nevsky." A local chief had had a vision with two Russian martyrs (Boris and Gleb, murdered by Sviatopolk I "the Damned") coming to help Alexander's forces, and Alexander himself had announced to his troops before the battle that "God is not on the side of
force, but of the just case, the pravda." The Russians caught the Swedes by surprise in the morning and forced them to flee in disorder.
Due to other duties Alexander had to leave Novgorod and in his absence the German inhabitants of Livonia (modern Estonia/Latvia), the Teutonic Knights, attacked the city. Alexander's older brother Andrei II was first sent to lead resistance, but he was not successful. Alexander returned to Novgorod and took up his place at the head of the Novgorod forces. At first the Knights were able to drive a wedge through the middle of Alexander's lines, but the Russians retreated onto the frozen ice of Lake Peipus and move to attack the Knights on two sides. The Russian victory over the Knights in 1242 has been said to have saved the existence of the Russian state by keeping it from assimilation into a German state.
Within the next few years, Alexander also repulsed a Lithuanian invasion. Then politics drew him away from Novgorod when his father died in 1246. He and his brother Andrei went to see the Great Khan, having decided that although they had fought their western enemies they had no hope of fighting the Mongols. Andrei became Grand Prince first, but in 1251 he was turned in to the Khan (possibly by Alexander) for not passing on to the Mongols all the tribute they demanded be collected for them. The Mongols were already impressed by Alexander's military prowess and made him Grand Prince, even when Andrei got back in the Khan's good graces.
As Grand Prince, Alexander firmly but tactfully kept the Russians, even those in Novgorod who had not been physically conquered the way the eastern portion of Russia had, contributing the required tribute to the Mongols. As long as they received their tribute, the overlords were not inclined to interfere in local government. With the help of Cyril the Metropolitan, a church leader, they kept the Mongols from causing further destruction by keeping the Russian people and nobles relatively quiet, which did not always make him popular at the time. Alexander also had to revisit the Khan several times for reconfirmation in his position.
Alexander died in 1263 and was succeeded by his brother Yaroslav III. Miracles reportedly occurred at his tomb and he was canonized by the local Orthodox Church in 1380 and by the entire Russian Orthodox Church in 1547.
Alexander Nevsky remained a Russian national hero. During the reign of Peter the Great, Peter had his bones moved to the new capital of St. Petersburg, near where Alexander's battles had been, where they lie today. Peter the Great also instituted the Order of Alexander Nevsky in 1725, and although the Soviet government at first abolished it, they revived the award in 1942. Sergei M. Eisenstein made a movie about him in 1938, for which Sergei Prokofiev wrote the music.