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 Kyiv. Eventually all tribal centers became one large country with Kiev as capital getting name Kievan Rus (Ки́евская Русь).
The country reached 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 became 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 Kyiv. 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 Kyiv 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. Some historians however, dispute the authenticity of this event, as it was mentioned only by Orthodox sources and not mentioned in Western Catholic chronicles. It could be just be a skirmish, however it created a legend of Alexander Nevsky.
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. However, as modern research shows that ice collapse never took place as it was not mentioned in the sources, and this dramatic episode was created in the 1938 Soviet movie.
Alexander Nevsky stopped the Western Crusader advance. By this he also sealed the border of Livonia to the east that later became borders of Estonia and Latvia. 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 IV the Terrible finally pushed away the Mongolian invaders. Novgorod paid heavy price – in 1570 Ivan IV invaded Novgorod that had rule of republic and trade and political ties with the west and sacked the city killing at least 2 thousand people. The Republic of Novgorod was rival to the despotic Muscovy and Tsar Ivan IV wanted to monopolize his power over the Russian cities.
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 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. However, when in August 23 1939 the Soviet Union created alliance with Nazi Germany, the movie was removed from public viewing. After the war with Germany broke out in 1941, the movie again became popular as it’s message was clear – that who invades Russia with spear, dies from spear.
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. However, skeptics pointed that popular vote was manipulated to avoid rather controversial first place for Stalin. Since the present day Russian government is confronting the Western countries, the Alexander Nevsky is considered as hero in Russia.