Alexander Nevsky. On Prince's image in the Russian culture

Report read by head of the studio Dmitry Ostroumov at the exhibition "House of the Lord" (Suzdal, August 5, 2021).

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the birth of the Holy Blessed Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky. This anniversary is celebrated by the whole fullness of the Russian Orthodox Church. Belarus is no exception. For example, on July 30, a large religious procession with a particle of the relics of Alexander Nevsky took place in Minsk. It brought together clergy and laity from all parishes of the city.

Alexander Nevsky is not just another name from the church calendar. This is a truly popular saint, whose image occupies an important place in Russian culture. In general, the Prince's image significantly influenced the development of Russian civilization. It shaped Russian culture a lot and, in particular, art. I would like to share my experience of reflection on this topic.

Dmitry Ostroumov
Head of the studio
Holy Blessed Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky. Fresco in the Archangel Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin.
To begin with, I have to make a few remarks. First of all, this is not an academic report about a historical figure who was born in 1221 and died in 1263. It isn't about the leader who defeated the Swedes and Germans in war and skillfully maneuvered in relations with the Golden Horde. This is rather a poetic discussion about the image of Alexander Nevsky as a factor in Russian culture's development. Secondly, in this case by Rus' I mean the entire East Slavic civilization with Belarus and Ukraine as integral parts. I believe it is necessary to separate the concept of Rus' from Soviet Russia and from the current Russian Federation. It also doesn't equal the opinions of individual politicians and ideologists. The unity of historical Rus' does not cancel the state sovereignty of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. It does not cancel the ethno-cultural features of the East Slavic peoples. Still, they emerged from the same baptismal font and constitute a single civilization. Due to different circumstances they are now divided by borders.

Much has been said about Alexander Nevsky. His personality was a certain spiritual reference in imperial Russia. This can be seen in the naming of members of the crowned Romanov dynasty. Emperors Alexander I, Alexander II, Alexander III bore the name of the blessed Prince. The great commander Suvorov, the great poets Pushkin and Blok - all bore the name of Saint Alexander Nevsky. In the Sacrament of Baptism they received the calling to imitate the feat of their heavenly patron to the best of their own strengths and talents.

The image of Alexander Nevsky has features that reflect in the Russian soul like deep paradigms. They are pleasant, close and in tune with this soul. But they also determine the development of this soul, both of the entire people and of its individual representatives. They set the worldview and define the ideas in the sociocultural context of Russian civilization. One can say that the image of Alexander Nevsky carries a visible manifestation of the path of the Russian people and its culture. He is the word to the world from Rus'. The image of Alexander Nevsky is an image of the culture and politics of Rus'. This is not so, for example, with the Grand Duke Andrey Bogolyubsky or Tsar Nicholas II. In their lives one can trace rather some kind of hidden transcendental secret of Russian culture. If Alexander Nevsky is a visible manifestation, then Andrey Bogolyubsky or Tsar Nicholas II are something deeper. This is more mysterious and not fully disclosed, this concerns the metaphysics of Russian culture.
Here I have to make one remark. Before Peter the Great and the empire, under the first Romanovs and even earlier, Alexander Nevsky was venerated not as a Grand Duke, but as a holy monk. He was called Alexy - this is the name he took in monastic vows shortly before his death. After Peter the Great the veneration of this saint precisely as a Prince and military leader began. Since then he was venerated by his baptismal name Alexander. For the Empire this was the closest and the most ideologically justified.

In Alexander Nevsky we see a patriotic hero, a holy warrior who unites and defends the Fatherland. This is largely an image of romantic heroic freedom. It is in contrast to the static image of a world ruler - the one at rest and stretching his hand over the earth. We see such a ruler on the icon of Christ the Almighty (Pantocrator). We can interpret it as a projection onto the image of the ideal Byzantine emperor.
An example of a helmet-shaped dome in contemporary church architecture. Church of Saints Peter and Fevronia of Murom in the Moscow region. Project by the Prohram Studio.
Here, a direct poetic analogy with the image of a Russian temple is acceptable. The Russian church seems to grow out of the ground. Its forms reach to the sky in a beautiful, majestic, one might say, military prayer. It is not for nothing that the helmet-shaped form of the church dome appears in Rus'. This upward aspiration is noticeable precisely in Russian churches. It is absent in Byzantine churches, with their sloping domes. Byzantine churches "speak" about something else. They reflect the idea of the Kingdom of God descended to earth and already achieved. There is no need to strive and break through anywhere. There is contemplation, peace and bliss. Above this all there is the Almighty, Christ Pantocrator. Over time, this concept developed into the so-called Byzantine mystical idealism. By contrast, the Russian church represents the external aspiration towards the Transcendent. At the same time it gathers the universe within itself. This echoes the image of Prince Alexander Nevsky as a diplomat, defender and unifier of Russian lands. Such is the Russian temple. It gathers the environment, while defending it and raising it upwards in contemplation.

Aspiration towards Heaven. Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Kondopoga (Karelia). Built in 1774, burned down in 2018.
Typical Byzantine architecture. Church of the Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople. Built in 527-529, a mosque since 1506.
Many churches in our lands are like the cities. The first examples of this in Rus' were the Holy Sophia Cathedrals with their many side chapels.

The church-city is an integral image having a unified harmony, while also keeping separate "habitations", the altars. This is like the lost city of Kitezh: here is a dome, and here is a gallery, and here is another dome, here is a side chapel. They are united and balanced, but there is a difference in individual elements. Such is the Russian land. United, it includes Novgorod with its uniqueness, and Kyiv with its originality, and Moscow, and Saint Petersburg, and Minsk. Each region and each city are special in their own way. People differ from each other in character and temperament, art is different everywhere. But still one can cope with another in a single composition. And, of course, this idea resonates with such a feature of Alexander Nevsky as diplomacy. This means the ability to negotiate peacefully, to create a single home, while not losing the identity of individual lands.

Looking globally at the entire Church, we can state that it lives by the idea of a multi-hypostatic unity. The individual hypostases can differ from each other a lot. Let us recall how different the images of angels of the churches in the Apocalypse are. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea are not the same (Rev. 2, 3). One person may think and feel one way, another in a completely different way, and all this can coexist in one Church. Russian culture is united within the global context, while its internal parts are different. We know that according to apostle Paul there is neither Jew nor Gentile in Christ (Col. 3:11). But each nation has its own destiny and its own path, different from other nations.

Alexander Nevsky, among other things, is a bearer of a certain spirit. The culture recognizes it as the spirit of a Russian fairy tale, of the steppe, of the depth. This is the craving for the inaccessible, the Transcendent. This is the spirit of active contemplation. This is the state of both joyful and sad Russian broad longing, sung by the poets of the Silver Age. This is some kind of search for shelter in God.

Active contemplation is an ambivalent attitude. Greeks and other Southern peoples are more contemplative. Their rhythm of life is to sit, drink wine, eat olives and cheese, and then they can work for two hours a day. The Roman Catholic Church has taken the path of activity: one has to serve, to help the sick, to be a missionary. But the Russians have a synthesis: there is contemplation, but it is active. There is the cultivation of the earth, but at the same time there is a feeling of transcendence and of not possessing this transcendence. For Russians, as for all Northern people, the image of God is somewhat indistinct. For them it is something not completely formed. But this is what the person is drawn to, something that has a soul and nourishes it. The Byzantine mentality is an experience of the Kingdom of God here and now, "it is good for us to be here" (Matt. 17: 4). This excludes longing, zeal and search. As for the Slavs, they are always itching to do something, they always need something. Even when everything is good, they still lack something. They always search for some kind of life's truth. In the non-possession of this transcendence, the aesthetics of distance is realized. A person is attracted by the transcendental — and this causes yearning. But this is a yearning that anticipates the connection with the transcendent Beauty.

Christ Pantocrator. Mosaic in the Cathedral of Cefalu (Sicily)
Alexander Nevsky was aflame all his life. It was as if he was led by the Spirit to the Beauty. He sought, felt and protected that Beauty in the image of his land. We know that already at a young age he led troops to the defense, and his whole life was very active. But he was always drawn to the Other Kingdom. He knew what he was fighting for - not only for the Russian land, but for the higher Beauty. Rus' was the pedestal of this Beauty for the Prince. In this sense, Prince Alexander is the builder of the house of Russian culture. This is a house in which it is warm, safe and beautiful. But just as the temple, it strives upwards with its external forms, it is looking for something.

The Gothic style also carries the idea of striving for the highest. But in Gothic temples this beauty goes somewhere upwards. Both the spire outside and the lancet arches inside represent the inaccessible sky. In a Russian church, the beauty is revealed inside. The exterior of the Russian church strives towards heaven. But inside we see a different vector, that of Revelation. The Transcendence has already been revealed there. The best examples of Russian church architecture combine asceticism, sophistication, and a sense of distance. There is no excessive embellishment, interfering with the contemplative flight of a free spirit.

During the heyday of Russian religious philosophy, the thinkers and poets sought to comprehend what Rus' is. Maximilian Voloshin wrote thus about the Russian land:

You are strong with unearthly measure,
You are pure with unearthly passion,
Your lips are parched
With unsatisfied faith.

Give me words to pray for you,
To understand your being
To partake of your yearning,
To burn down in your name.

Poem «Russia» (1915, Biarritz).

Thus Alexander Nevsky burned down, falling like grain in the field of Russian culture. With his life and the image of his personality he set the vector of development of Rus'. The Prince lived only 42 years. At the end of his life, he became a monk and died almost immediately after that. He always aspired to an angelic monastic feat, but could not leave his state labors. He goes into eternity and fully joins the Transcendent that he was looking for. Thus he shows the path for the entire Russian civilization. He leaves this as his pledge and testament. It is there for the people in future centuries to remember where this vector is going, what is its innermost secret. But what is it?

In the last frames of the film Repentance by Tengiz Abuladze the woman asks: Where does this road lead? Upon receiving an answer, she asks again: What need is there for a road if it does not lead to the church? Reflecting upon the life of Alexander Nevsky, we can ask the same question. What need is there for all the activity, all the wars, defense, unification of lands, if this does not lead to the church?

Alexander Nevsky shows future generations that it is important not only to reach the church, but also to step inside. To bring everything external — diplomacy, heroism, patriotism, beauty — to unity with Christ. Only then can it all make sense. This is the Prince's testament to the culture with all its trends and to the politics.

This is also what the image of the Russian church serves for, with its forms, tectonics, grandeur and asceticism. Of course, I mean good examples of architecture, not tank temples, sapienti sat. It is all there to ensure that entering the temple a person enters into the inner mystical life of the Church. It has its own beauty and mystery. And here, in my opinion, the image of Prince Alexander gives way to other symbols of Russian culture. It has already been said that he is an image of the external word of Rus' to the world, an external manifestation. But if we talk about the inner secret, there are other symbols to witness this realm of the Transcendent in Russian metaphysics. Alexander Nevsky and his image, living as a cultural paradigm, show Rus' serving the world, the originality of Russian life, its visible form. The source of this service is Christ. Only in this Source can Rus', its culture and art find peace and satisfaction. And, perhaps, they find it sometimes. It is there in the faces of some personalities, in the individual works of art. But to find it, one has to follow the same paths, twists and turns, lands and worlds, to live the same ideas that Alexander Nevsky lived. And he lives to this day in our great culture.
Mikhail Nesterov. Death of Alexander Nevsky. Sketch for the mural painting for the church of Saint Alexander Nevsky in Abastumani (Georgia).
The wide bright-faced Land beckons
In the sound of silence of forgotten legends
That sleep in the shadow of deep winter
Of the mind of dreams and clamorous desires.

O quiet Light, O Wisdom of another glory,
You appeared in the endless space,
You paint the unearthly Council,
The Spirit of Eternal Kitezh, marveling at It.

Partaking the Mystery without bodily fetters
And rising by soul's aspiration,
In a clear vastness, in silence, without words,
The poor one sees the light in the Spirit and becomes wise.

In the clean air, in the forest and fields,
In a bright hut, in a white-stone church,
In a reckless heart, shining with simplicity,
The image of the Everlasting rises before us…*

Poem «Russia» (1915, Biarritz).
*Poem by Dmitry Ostroumov. Poems are presented in literal translation, without preserving the poetical meter. (Translator's note)
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