5 April 1242

A film poster for the Soviet production of Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, first shown in 1938. The film was a thinly veiled warning about the threat from Hitler’s Germany and was based on a legendary victory of the medieval hero Prince Nevsky over the German Teutonic Order.

At the climax of the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film Alexander Nevsky, made in 1938, is a scene in which the Teutonic Knights, German thirteenth-century crusaders against the Russians of Novgorod, are lured into a battle on the ice of Lake Peipus (Chud) and plunge into the icy waters as the weakening spring ice gives way beneath the heavily armoured men and horses. Deceived by the presence of the enemy on the far bank of the lake, the Germans fail to realize that they have been tricked onto the ice. This was a prescient allegory. Only two years later, German armies roared across the Soviet frontier in Operation Barbarossa, a name also plucked from Germany’s medieval past, only to be frustrated and destroyed by a modern-day Russian army.

Almost everything about the battle on the ice was in reality the product of centuries of literary embellishment of an event about which almost nothing is known. The only certain facts available come from a handful of medieval texts, the earliest written fifty years after the battle. According to these accounts, the battle took place on 5 April 1242 near the lakes west of Novgorod. After a tough struggle, victory went to Alexander Nevsky and a number of German crusaders were killed or captured. The very first account has the battle taking place ‘on the grass’. Not until a century after the battle is there an account mentioning that the knights were fought ‘on the ice’, and not until 1500 is there a source that claims the Germans were chased ‘across the ice’. There is no agreement about who started the battle, although it suited Russian chroniclers to assume that the German knights were the aggressors. The very first account has Alexander as the aggressor, coming to the lands of the Teutonic Order to ‘rob and burn’. Later histories suggest that Alexander was summoned by the people of Novgorod to protect them against an approaching army of German knights and local, probably Estonian, foot soldiers.

Alexander Yaroslavich himself was not a fiction. He was commander of the army of the Republic of Novgorod in what is present-day northern Russia. In 1240, he defeated a Swedish invasion at the Battle of the Neva, from which he got his title ‘Nevskii’. That year the Livonian Order, a branch of the crusading Teutonic Knights, under their commander Dietrich von Grüningen, had invaded and captured a number of towns up to the edge of Novgorod itself. Alexander drove them back the following year, and in 1242 seems to have taken the offensive against Livonian territory in present-day Estonia. The early chronicles make it clear that Alexander arrived somewhere between Lake Peipus and Lake Pskov, linked by the narrow Teploe Ozero, or Warm Lake, and that he drew up his army near Raven’s Rock Island, a landmark close to a promontory jutting into Teploe. This is an area of water that modern research has shown to contain warm currents that make the ice shallower and more brittle. Most early accounts have the Livonian Order and their Estonian troops attacking Alexander’s army. The Teutonic Knights usually employed a wedge-shaped formation, attacking and breaking the enemy line by sheer physical power. This was probably how the battle began. The very first chronicle describes a fierce battle in which the Novgorod army used archers to attack the knights, while ‘swords were heard cutting helmets apart’. This account reports 20 dead Livonian knights and 6 captured; later medieval accounts talk of 400 or 500 dead from the Order and 50 captured.

That is the full extent of what is known. Modern-day estimates of the numbers involved are mere guesses, though a few thousand on each side seems a not unreasonable speculation. The idea that the knights drowned as they struggled on the breaking ice is a modern invention for which there is no historical evidence. Indeed, the first indication of such an outcome can be found in Eisenstein’s film. The film was shot in the summer so all the vegetation on the outdoor set had to be painted white, while the famous lumps of ice on the lake had to be held in place by gas-filled balloons. Eisenstein himself claimed to have been inspired not by the legend of Alexander’s victory but by the scene of the battle in heaven from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which the Host of Satan is driven back and plunges into ‘the wasteful Deep’ down to the ‘bottomless pit’ of Hell.

The story of the battle on the ice has existed as myth, used to symbolize the centuries-long struggle between the Russians and enemy invaders. The film proved awkward after the German–Soviet Pact of August 1939 had been signed, and it was not shown. When Operation Barbarossa began, Alexander Nevsky was brought out again and widely screened as the heroic defence of Russian heroes against the savage German foe became the main focus of Soviet propaganda. The battle is a curious phenomenon, projected backwards onto a past otherwise silent about its details. Between 1958 and 1961, the Soviet authorities, interested to find out more about a battle they had appropriated for their own purposes, despatched an archaeological expedition to the supposed site of the Battle at Teploe Ozero. Exploration underground and underwater could not find a single trace of any battle, though heavy silt deposits now covered the lake floor. This was perhaps the greatest deception; the battle on the ice remains permanently elusive.