Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Alexander Nevsky Again the Patron Saint of Russian Diplomacy

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 5 – Most people, Russians and non-Russians alike, associate Prince Aleksandr Nevskiy with the defeat of the Teutonic knights on the ice of Lake Peipus, largely as a result of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film. But Russian officials have frequently devoted more attention to his diplomatic interaction with the Mongols.
Indeed, so skilled was he at conducting relations with the Golden Horde from a position of weakness that for much of the tsarist period, Nevskiy was widely viewed as the patron saint of the Russian foreign ministry. Now there are indications that this 13th century prince is about to resume that special role.
Yesterday saw a conjunction of two events which point in that direction: a speech by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), and an article by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Vladimir of Tashkent and Central Asia in the Moscow newspaper Izvestiya.
In his speech to MGIMO’s faculty and students, Lavrov said that “the activity of
Aleksandr Nevskiy in the West and the East lay the groundwork for what we call multi-vector diplomacy,” the idea that in dealing with the external world, Moscow must work “in all directions” (
According to the current foreign minister, Nevskiy devoted much of his efforts to “the assembly of the Russian lands and the strengthening of Russian state,” precisely the problems and tasks which our country has been solving over the last eight years.” And consequently he deserves to be revered as a great “diplomat and statesman.”
The Orthodox hierarch’s article provides some key additional details. In dealing with the outside world, Vladimir says, Nevskiy carefully calibrated his tactics.Against the West, he succeeded through the force of arms, but in the East, he did so by playing “a most complicated diplomatic game” (
Thus, he continues, one can say that “the foundation of Aleksandr Nevskiy’s foreign policy “was not so much the sword as it was skillful diplomacy. And Russian diplomats now must remember that 760 years ago, Nevskiy “laid the foundations for Russian-Chinese diplomatic ties.”
Moreover, Nevskiy’s efforts to promote the expansion of Russian influence in the East meant not only that in 1261 he established the first Russian eparchate beyond the borders of historical Rus (in Mongolia) but also that he became widely known as “the first Eurasian” for his establishment of Rus’ as “a bridge’ between East and West.”
According to the Tashkent churchman, Nevskiy bequeathed three important principles for future generations of Russian diplomats, all of which although expressed in pithy Russian are deeply rooted in Biblical texts and have their analogues in the United Nations Charter.
The first of these is that “God is not in force but in truth,” which any diplomat can see means that it is wrong to use “force or the threat of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” History has “more than once” confirmed the truth of Nevskiy’s observation, Vladimir writes.
The second principle is that one must “live without violating the lands of others,” an observation that finds its current application in the principle of the inviolability of borders, the Orthodox churchman argues, something that even a non-specialist can instantly see.
And the third principle is Nevskiy’s remark that ‘whoever comes to us with a sword will die by the sword,” a Biblical injunction found in Matthew and the psalms that is restated in chapter 51 of the UN Charter on the right of any state to individual and collective self defense.
Because Nevskiy was interested in advancing not only the foreign policy interests of the Russian state but also the mission of the Orthodox Church, he has long been the patron saint of both. And that means, Vladimir insists, “the fatherland’s foreign policy mission and the Orthodox Spiritual Mission have gone hand in hand.”
Clearly, the 13th century prince has returned to the Russian Foreign Ministry, but it remains an open question whether either Moscow’s interlocutors in the West or those Russians who hope that their country might someday become part of Europe should be entirely pleased.
After all, in order to defeat the forces of the German emperor and the Catholic pope, Aleksandr Nevskiy, unlike his brother and many other Russians at the time, was prepared not only to form an alliance with the Mongol Horde but to adapt Russian institutions to the ways of the great khan that Moscow has not escaped to this day.

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