18:13 GMT +316 December 2017
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    ALEXANDER NEVSKY: ANTI-WESTERNER OR PRAGMATIC?

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    MOSCOW. (Alexei Makarkin, for RIA Novosti) -- Alexander Nevsky, who remains a controversial figure for historians, was born 785 years ago.

    One of Russia's best-known princes even today, Peter the Great honored him as his predecessor in the struggle against the Swedes for access to the Baltic Sea. Both tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union named military orders after him.

    There is an opinion that by refusing a union with the West and choosing cooperation with the Golden Horde instead, Alexander preserved Russia's national and religious identity. Others, on the contrary, say that his choice isolated Russia from Western culture, which had a grave effect on its history. In truth, Alexander hardly thought about the problem of a global geopolitical choice. His aim was to save the Russian state, and all his political moves, which were purely pragmatic, served this goal. In fact, the idea that he was anti-Western merely stems from a Stalin-era film.

    When speaking about Alexander as an opponent of the West, people usually offer two arguments. The first one is the victories of the then young prince over the Swedes (the Battle of the Neva, 1240) and over the German crusaders (the Battle of Lake Chudskoye, 1242). Yet almost all Lithuanian princes, from Mindovg to Vitovt, fought the German knights, and no one has accused them of being ant-Western. Moreover, in the Battle of Grunwald, which dealt a fatal blow to the Teutonic order, the Slavic troops were led by Polish King Wladyslaw Jagiello, on whose initiative Lithuania had become a subject of the Holy See. And that means he was a patent "Westerner".

    The other argument seems more substantial: after becoming grand prince, Alexander rejected a military and political union proposed by Pope Innocent IV aimed against the Golden Horde. Yet none of Alexander's great contemporaries, leaders of neighboring countries, obediently followed the pope; all of them protected their national interests as they saw fit. Mindovg, for example, converted to Catholicism and received a king's crown from the pope, but then returned to paganism. Another ruler who became king with the pope's sanction, Daniil Galitsky, who reigned in southwest Russia, maneuvered between the West and the Horde until the end of his reign. First he sided with Lithuania against the Horde, but then sent his troops to help the latter wage war against Poland and Lithuania. In fact, it was easier for Daniil to do so: his land bordered on Western countries, where he could get support. If Alexander had tried to do the same, he would have provoked an immediate clash with the Horde in a situation when the West would not have had time to come to his help even if it had wanted to. The collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 is a telling example.

    So, the grand prince faced a choice: to allow Russia's destruction after a heroic, but doomed fight, or to become the Horde's vassal and abide by the agreements with the Mongol khan. He chose the unpopular, pragmatic, but historically justified option of submission and survival, which his direct descendents, the princes of Moscow, also chose.

    But what about his anti-Western vision? Like many of his contemporaries, Alexander had broad views. On the pope's request he allowed a Catholic church to be constructed for German merchants in Pskov. Trade contracts between Russia and the Hanseatic cities grew significantly under him: shortly before his death, the grand prince signed an agreement that tripled the number of trade routes for German merchants protected by the authorities. Germans were also given three additional residences in Novgorod, while Western traders were provided with guarantees of their personal security and property. This certainly does not resemble the construction of an iron curtain or an attempt to isolate the country from foreign influence.

    At the same time, Alexander was able to establish a dialogue with very different rulers of the Golden Horde: pagan Batu Khan, Christian-Nestorian Sartak (the Russian prince is said to be his friend and sworn brother), and Muslim Berke. Rumors that the latter poisoned Alexander have never been substantiated and are most likely apocryphal. Later Alexander's descendants - grandson Ivan Kalita and great-grandson Simeon Gordy - continued his policy of developing relations with the Horde's Muslim rulers, khans Uzbek and Dzhanibek.

    In addition, Alexander was a dedicated Orthodox Christian. He encouraged the construction of churches, founded the St. Boris and Gleb Monastery, expanded the rights of the church court and supported bishops and clergymen. His Orthodoxy was not simply confined to his personal affair: during his reign, the church was the only commonly recognized Russian institution that remained united despite feudal divisions and it managed to become a consolidating center to revive the country devastated by the Mongols.

    It was no coincidence that the church canonized Alexander not so much because of his feats of arms but rather as a blessed creator.

    Alexei Makarkin is the deputy director general of the Center of Political Technologies

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