|“He who comes to us with a sword
shall die of the same sword” –
Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky poster
The Great Russian Prince Alexander Nevsky died on November 14, 1263. He is largely known for his victory over the Livonian Order on Chudskoe Lake (Lake Peipus) in April 1242. The so-called Battle on the Ice celebrated 770th anniversary this year.
Some claim that the Battle on Ice has only “appeared” thanks to the Soviet propaganda supported and popularised by Sergei Eisenstein’s fine masterpiece, Alexander Nevsky. Indeed, the 13th c. was marked by the so-called Northern Crusades organised by the Western (German and Scandinavian) armies and knight orders against the pagan peoples of the Baltic Region. The territories of the modern-day Estonia and Lithuania had been attacked, and Russia was a target too, along the northern and western borders. It was under these circumstances that attacks on Russian north-western cities were carried out repeatedly, and in this sense there were possibly several “battles on ice” fought, although only the battle on Chudskoe Lake (Lake Peipus) went down into history with so much fanfare.
The Battle on Ice claimed lives of some 400 Livonian Knights and 50 more were taken prisoners. The battle was significant in that the Livonian Order had to agree to make peace on Russian terms: the knights retreated, giving back all Russian territories they had captured. The Chudskoe Lake battle is also a splendid example of military manoeuvering: the Livonian Order sent their entire army against a small Russian troupe, only to be surrounded by the rest of the Russian forces.
The number of casualties is still under a dispute. What is obvious, however, is that the Battle on the Ice hammered the final nail in the coffin of the already unsuccessful 1240-1242 campaign of the Order against the Slavic lands.
It is easy to understand why on the eve of the Nazi invasion and during the war the version of the Battle on the Ice eloquently propagated by Eisenstein’s epic movie became so popular and continues to feed the imagination to this day. 1942 also happened to be the Battle’s 700th anniversary, which fact was commemorated in the war-time film posters.
Historians note that there were at least one other battle that was much more successful, and that is the Rakvere Battle (Battle of Wesenberg, or Rakovor) fought on February 18, 1268 by Alexander Nevsky’s son, Dmitry of Pereslavl, and Daumantas of Pskov. The Western forces were thoroughly defeated and had not approached Russia’s western border for the next thirty years.
The Battle on the Ice was widely commemorated not only in film, but music (the score by Sergei Prokofiev was used in Eisenstein’s film) and literature (an eponymous long poem by Konstantin Simonov was also published in 1938). It actually is interesting – if you believe in any such thing – to look at this avalanche of musings on the Russo-German relations a year before the World War 2 had started. The anticipation of yet another war had been palpable, and all the leading states – Britain, France, Germany, the U.S., and the USSR – each secretly plotted either against the Capitalist West or the Socialist East. Without any specific “promise” of an impending war how could the Russian film director and poet in the same year produce (or present) a work that mulled over the historical fact of military antagonism between Russia and Germany? Of course, Germans were there simply due to an historical coincidence. But what if contemplating the invasion and its victorious overcoming had actually led to a re-enactment of both in 1941-45?
Today the Battle on the Ice, as it was reconstructed in Eisenstein’s film, is a part of Russia’s contemporary popular culture. The final video of a Russian commercial for bread crumbs proves the point.
The Battle on the Ice – An extract from the film (medieval people all fought in the same manner, but it is quite obvious where Mel Gibson would draw his inspiration from for battle scenes in The Braveheart.
The Battle on the Ice
And if you have not seen it, here is a full film, courtesy of Mosfilm.