It remains one of the most exciting scenes in cinematic history. As the music swells, a vast army of knights charges across a frozen lake, their banners streaming in the wind. On the opposite shore, the ranks of pikemen stand nervous but steadfast, bracing themselves for the inevitable. “The Germans!” one cries. Standing nearby, the Prince of Novgorod remains impassive, his eyes stern, his face grim. As the soundtrack builds, he lowers his visor, embraces his comrades and issues his final instructions. The horsemen approach; the defenders lower their pikes – and then, with a terrible crash, the two armies engage.
Best known for its unforgettable soundtrack by Sergei Prokofiev, the film Alexander Nevsky was released in 1938. Its director, Sergei Eisenstein, had not made a film for 10 years and was working under the shadow of Stalin’s purges. Not surprisingly, therefore, his film closely echoed contemporary European politics, with many critics seeing its hero, Prince Alexander Nevsky, as a thinly veiled portrait of the Soviet dictator.
The film’s setting, however, was medieval Novgorod, one of the ancestors of present-day Russia. And at its heart was perhaps the most celebrated battle in all Russian history: the clash between the Teutonic Knights and the men of Novgorod at Lake Peipus in April 1242, better known as the battle on the Ice.
In the mid-13th century, what we know today as European Russia was weak and divided, its energies sapped by the onslaught of the Mongols. To the west of the city-state of Novgorod, however, an even deadlier enemy was at hand. Twenty years earlier, in the latest episode in the long-running northern crusades, the knights of the Teutonic Order had begun carving a Christian military realm out of the lands of the pagan Baltic tribes. Up through Prussia and Courland they swept, before carrying the Catholic cause into Livonia and Estonia. And in the last months of 1240, hoping to benefit from the raids of the Mongols, the Knights struck further east, occupying Pskov and threatening Novgorod itself.
Desperate for leadership, Novgorod recalled Prince Alexander Nevsky, who had been exiled after falling out with the local nobility. His impact was immediate: by the end of 1241, Alexander had retaken all the captured land east of the Neva river, and a few months later he recaptured Pskov, too. Hoping to stem the tide, Prince-Bishop Hermann of Dorpat (now Tartu in Estonia) rallied the Knights and chased Alexander east. Retreating across the frozen Lake Peipus, Alexander spotted a strong defensive position at Raven’s Rock on the right shore. Here, with his infantry packed into the centre and his horsemen on the flanks, he would make his stand.
The charge of the knights on 5 April sounds like something from The Lord of the Rings. Most of the crusaders were probably Estonians rather than Germans, even though Eisenstein’s film portrays them all as cruel-faced, lantern-jawed Teutons.
They must have been an extraordinary sight, thundering west across the ice; even the Novgorod chronicler wrote that they drove “like a wedge through their enemy”. But Alexander had chosen his ground well, and as his flanks closed on the attackers, it was clear that the Knights’ charge was running out of steam. “The brothers’ banners were soon flying in the midst of the archers,” wrote a chronicler for the Order itself, “and swords were heard cutting helmets apart. Many from both sides fell dead on the grass. Then the brothers’ army was completely surrounded, for the Russians had so many troops that there were easily 60 men for every one German knight. The brothers fought well enough, but they were nonetheless cut down.”
The Battle on the Ice was a landmark in eastern European history. Never again did the Teutonic Knights penetrate so far east, and even today Lake Peipus, located on the frontier between Russia and Estonia, marks the rough border between western and eastern Christianity.
For Alexander himself it was a milestone, winning him a reputation as the supreme champion of Orthodoxy. Later he was enthroned as Grand Prince of Vladimir, and in 1547 he was canonised as a Russian Orthodox saint.
Even Stalin saw him as a hero, and when Eisenstein’s film was released in 1938 it struck a powerful chord. Another war against the Germans was looming, and within six months an estimated 23 million Russians had seen the film. And even today, the Battle on the Ice continues to resonate with the people of Russia. Indeed, just five years ago Alexander Nevsky was voted the greatest Russian of all time – two places ahead of Stalin.
Dominic Sandbrook is a presenter and historian