Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Aleksandr Nevskiy’s Lesson for Russia – Turn East to Defeat the West

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 17 – Both the impulse behind the Northern Crusade which Prince Aleksandr Nevskiy defeated in the ice battle 765 years ago this month and the alliances that Russian hero formed to do so provide analogies to both the challenges Russia may soon face and the best ways it should respond, according to a Muslim commentator.
On the Islamnews.ru website last week, commentator Akhmad Makarov suggests that the West may face defeat in the Middle East and decide to turn against Russia, and that Russia in turn can survive such an onslaught only by forming an alliance with Islam (http://www.islamnews.ru/index.php?name:Articles&file=article&sid=827 and 837).
And because of what he suggests are the obvious parallels with Nevskiy’s activities nearly eight centuries ago, Makarov continues, Russians today need to examine why the Northern Crusade occurred in the first place and why Nevskiy was able to defeat it only by allying himself with the “superpower” of that time, the hordes from the East.
The Northern Crusade was the direct result of the failure of crusaders in the Holy Land, Makarov argues. The knights coming back from that struggle, he suggested, had been brutalized by the experience and quickly proved incapable of fitting into the feudal order in Western Europe.
To get them out of the way and also to expand Rome’s influence eastward, Markarov continues, a series of popes called for a northern crusade against the Slavs, one intended to end the schism in the church by the conversion of the Slavs from Eastern Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism.
Beginning in 1198, various knightly orders advanced inward from the shores of the Baltic Sea, and by 1240, the Teutonic knights had occupied a broad swath of territory including Pskov, Izborsk, and Luga, thereby threatening the economic and political power of the city of Novgorod the Great.
To deal with this threat, the Novgorod veche (council) invited Prince Aleksandr of Pereyaslavl to lead the fight against the papal and Germanic forces. He almost immediately concluded that Novgorod could win only by forming an alliance with the “superpower of that time – the Mongol empire,” even though it was hardly Slavic.
The prince effectively put the lands of Novgorod under the khans by allowing the tax agents of the latter to conduct a survey of property ownership there. According to Makarov, “no government would conduct such a census on the territory of another.” But that was only part of the story, he insists.
In Makarov’s words, Aleksandr “conducted a policy of maximum rapprochement with the horde, and the results were quickly apparent.” In 1241, he ousted the knights from various cities in the Novgorod lands. And in April 1242, he defeated the Teutonic knights on the ice in a battle immortalized by Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film.
But Aleksandr Nevskiy’s ties to the Mongols were even closer than that: Not only did he regularly make use of the envelopment strategy that the hordes had done but he even employed “a limited contingent of Mongol cavalry, the most powerful type of forces at that time.”
These events of almost eight centuries ago are echoed by current developments, Makarov insists. Once again, he argues, a Western “crusade” against Islam in the Middle East is collapsing. Once again, those who launched it are looking for new targets where they can get a victory. And once again, Russian leaders need to look eastward for allies.
On the one hand, Makarov’s arguments are nothing new: For much of the last 15 years, Eurasianists of one stripe or another have argued that Russia is or should be a reflection of its combined Orthodox and Islamic roots rather than part of Western Judeo-Christian civilization.
But on the other, Makarov’s articles do reflect a growing self-confidence among Russia’s Muslims, at least some of whom are now quite prepared to argue that one of that country’s greatest heroes achieved what he did not by relying on his fellow Russians alone but by turning to the Mongols, who shortly thereafter converted to Islam.
Because such discussions of historical figures remain so sensitive in Russia, Makarov is perhaps taking a big risk. But because debates about these figures from the past are often a way to talk about the future, his articles may point to a new trend in the thinking of some Russians about the utlity of close ties with Islam.

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