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Ust-Izhora: Historical, political, and ecological connectivity at a river junction (draft)

Rachel May, Julie Klein. Sergei Kashchenko


(See statue of Alexander Nevsky)

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The Izhora River flows northward into the Neva, about 3/5 of the way from Lake Ladoga to the Baltic Sea. The mouth (ust’) of the Izhora offers a case study of the interplay between cultural and hydrological forces.

Junction of Izhora R. (foreground) and Neva R. Photo by Rachel May


The place where a tributary joins a river is hydrologically complex and ecologically quite important. As the waters join – in this case, the waters of a small, meandering third-order stream flowing into the waters of a deep, wide, rapidly-moving river – the differences in temperature, dissolved oxygen, and other parameters can make mixing of the waters very difficult. Aquatic life coming from one stream will stop at the boundary of the unfamiliar conditions, reluctant to cross over into water that is even slightly warmer or colder, or that contains different concentrations of oxygen or chemical compounds. Predators, in turn, will be drawn to the spot where the fish hold back. Among these predators are, of course, humans, who have always favored tributary junctions as attractive sites for settlement. The Izhorans, a Finno-Ugric tribe that inhabited the area around the Izhora River a millennium ago, were doubtless drawn here for that reason. Fishermen still favor the shallow beach  between the Izhora and the Neva.

Fisherman at Ust-Izhora. Photo by Solmaz Guseinova.


The mouth of the Izhora River is also an important spot along the Neva in terms of the key factors of variability and connectivity. The Neva does not experience annual floods above its delta, but the Izhora’s level will vary with snowmelt and rainfall, so we can expect richer variability in the bank communities at this junction than elsewhere on the Neva. For the human inhabitants, it probably historically offered rich hunting possibilities as well as important transportation routes – variability and connectivity of another sort. In the twentieth century the Izhora basin became an important industrial area, with its easy water access to the Baltic port. This has led to a negative aspect of variability and connectivity at Ust-Izhora, where the  Izhora waters  contribute high concentrations of pollutants to the Neva. [Link to]

Izhora River bank. Photo by Rachel May.


From a  historical and political viewpoint, Ust-Izhora is important because of a different sort of variability and connectivity. The banks of the Neva were home to a number of different tribes who prized both the local fishing and hunting resources and the Neva’s strategic location along major north-south and east-west trade routes. The ancient city of Ladoga (now Staraia Ladoga or Old Ladoga) to the east of Ust-Izhora was a polyethnic mixture of Scandinavian, Finno-Ugric, and Slavic tribes starting in about 750 A.D. Slavs and Scandinavians alternated control of the city until the 12th century, with considerable cultural cross-influences. Archaeological evidence in the Ladoga area reveals that the city collected tribute from the whole regions along both banks of the Neva, including the Karelian peninsula and the Izhoran lands. It was also an important center for trade linking eastern Europe to the Arab Khalifate (Machinskii 11-12). Ladoga figures importantly in the establishment of the northern Slavic civilization of Rus’ and in its cross-fertilization with other tribes. According to the oldest chronicle of Rus’, the inhabitants of Ladoga invited the Scandinavian prince Riurik  to come and rule over them in 862, marking the beginning of a dynasty that would last for many centuries.


Staraia ladoga fortress and church, Solmaz Guseinova photos.

As the northern Slavic prinicipality of Novgorod grew and prospered, Ladoga became more firmly entrenched as a Slavic stronghold and the critical frontier with Scandinavian and Germanic peoples moved north and westward. Ust-Izhora was the site of a victory over Swedish forces by Prince Alexander Yaroslavich of Novgorod. The “battle on the Neva” earned him the nickname “Alexander Nevsky,” or Alexander of the Neva. Tipped off by the Izhoran leader as to the Swedes’ whereabouts and intentions, Alexander’s forces came overland through the dense forests as well as on boats down the Neva and surprised the Swedes at the mouth of the Izhora (Dvornichenko 83). The battle itself was not of epic proportions, but it carried enormous political significance, since it interrupted the Swedes’ grander project of establishing dominance over the Neva delta and it boosted the morale of the people of Rus’ at a time when they were facing defeat after defeat at the hands of the Mongol Horde from the south.


Alexander followed this victory with another, in 1242, on Lake Chudskoe to the southwest of the Neva delta. Here the opponents were Teutonic knights, and the Russian forces famously drove them out onto the spring ice, which cracked under the heavily-armed Teutonic cavalry and swept them under. As a result of these victories, the name of Alexander Nevsky came to symbolize the power of a unified Rus’ to resist invaders. The “Neva” in his name implied not only his connection to that particular place but his effective alliance with local natural forces – river and  forest in 1240, lake and ice in 1242.


Though the Slavic peoples were relative newcomers to the region (most local place names, like Ladoga and Neva, have Finnish origins [Machinskii 10]), they now claimed a natural, native affinity with the place. Cultural connectivity in the form of the north-south trade route was still important, though the Mongols had cut off Russian dominance to the south. Alexander engaged in several diplomatic missions to the Mongols and promoted alliances through intermarriage (he married the daughter of a rival tribe, the Polotsy, and he married his son into the Norwegian royal family). Another kind of connectivity loomed even larger in importance now: the integration of Slavic tribes and principalities into a unified whole. Cultural variability, on the other hand, had become less desirable as the northern Slavs sought to command unquestioned control of the Neva-Ladoga region and to develop the heroic narratives that would lay the groundwork for a unified Rus’.

Monument to Alexander Nevsky at Ust-Izhora. Photo by Rachel May.


Propaganda value of Alexander Nevsky and Ust-Izhora

Primary among these narratives was that of Alexander Nevsky, whose name gained resonance as an evocation (however mythologized) of a strong, unifying ruler who repelled invaders and established an unbreakable connection to the landscape of Rus’. His name would be invoked over an over for propaganda purposes:

  • In the early 14th century his biography was reinterpreted in hagiographical terms and he became a Russian Orthodox saint in 1547.
  • In the early 18th century Peter the Great used Alexander’s image and his relics to help sanctify his project of driving out the Swedes and building St. Petersburg. The Alexander Nevsky monastery was built just upstream from Petersburg, on the site where the Neva battle was then believed to have taken place. (Later Ust-Izhora was established as the true site of the battle and the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky was constructed at the mouth of the Izhora.)
  • In the 20th century, film director Sergei Eisenstein  masterfully reinterpreted Alexander’s victories over the Germanic knights as a cinematic call to arms against the Nazis (“Aleksander Nevskii,” 1938). Sergei Prokofiev’s choral music for the film  offered the Neva’s “great water” as a synecdoche for the Russian land:

“It took place on the River Neva/ On the River Neva, on the great water.
There we cut down the invading foe --/ The invading foe, the Swedish forces… 

“…For the home of our fathers, for the Russian land/ Arise, Russian people!
On native Rus’, on great Rus’/ No enemy shall hold sway:
Arise, stand up, native Mother Rus’!”

packaging cover of Eisenstein’s movie


Through Alexander Nevsky, the erstwhile Scandinavian-Slavic frontier at Ust-Izhora has acquired cultural ties to the very heart of Russia. The events that happened there in 1240 may have been fairly minor, much as the Izhora is a fairly minor tributary of the Neva. But they represent important links in the political and historical connectivity of Russia’s cultural system, as does this tributary junction in the system of the Neva watershed.

The Alexander Nevsky Temple, reflected in the Izhora River. Solmaz Gusainova photo.


Dvornichenko, A.Iu., Kashchenko, S.G., Florinskii M. F. 2002. Otechestvennaia istoriia (do 1917 goda). [Russian history, to 1917.] Moscow: Gardariki.

Machinskii, Dmitrii. 1998. Russko-shvedskii pra-Peterburg. [Russian-Swedish proto-Petersburg.] in A. Kobak., et al., eds. Shvedy na beregakh Nevy. [Swedes on the banks of the Neva.] Stockholm: Svenska Institutet.