The Feminization of Land in Alexander Nevsky

The quasi-personification of Russian land as a woman is an important symbol in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky. Gender relationships, and the conception of what would constitute the “ideal” gender relationship, vary greatly among cultures; and among the Russians at the time, an ideal gender relationship could be summarized as one in which an ideal woman – a strong and patriotic individual – married a correspondingly strong and patriotic man, and together the couple fought for self-preservation and defense. The ideal woman, according to the film, would choose a husband not on the basis of physical attractiveness, but rather in light of the man’s valor and prowess in combat. A man with considerable affinity for battle is considered the ideal mate because his abilities would better allow him to defend her:

Gavrilo: Make your choice [about which of us you are going to marry]! Tomorrow we go into battle!

Vasili: Taunt us not, speak!

Olga: Let fate decide. Whichever of you shows the greater valour, him will I wed.

And later:

Olga: I told them I would not choose a man for looks, but would wed him who was the braver in battle.

Olga explicitly renounces attractiveness as a factor in choosing between Vasili and Gavrilo, instead emphasizing the importance of valor and – by proxy – the ability to protect.

Thus, the Russian land itself, functioning symbolically as a woman, has “chosen” the entirety of the Russian people as her figurative husband, “attracted” to the virtues of Russian bravery and patriotism; the understanding, of course, being that whenever the Russian land – the “wife” – is threatened, the people of Russia – the “husband” – must justify the choice of the Russian land by proficiently defending her. In the dogma propagated by Alexander Nevsky, nationalism and patriotic defense are comparable to the sacred vows of marriage, an ostensibly eternal contract of understood obligation. This symbolic analogy comes to fruition at the resolution of the film, in which Olga’s marriage to the brave and wounded Gavrilo parallels the continually renewed marriage of the Russian people to the Russian land, as the people have successfully defended her from external encroachments once again – and will continue to do so.

The symbol of land as a woman – or, to qualify further, as a wife to the Russian people – is further explored by the actions of the Russian woman as the Russian forces prepare for battle. The woman can be seen donning armor and assisting the men in other significant ways, emphasizing gender equality when common defense is the issue:

Timestamp - 42:01.00

Additionally, Vasili identifies the bravest Russian soldier as Vasilisa, a woman refugee from the previously conquered city of Pskov:

Vasili: If the honest truth be said, neither Gavrilo nor I, but another was the bravest of all. Vasilisa it was. None fought more bravely.

Eisenstein makes it explicitly clear that the Russian woman fight alongside the men in mutual opposition to external threats. Defense is indisputably a shared endeavor.

Correspondingly, as the battle against the Germans concludes, it is the Russian land – not the Russian people – that seals the defeat of the invaders:

Timestamp – 1:21:52.00 – 1:23:53.00

The gender relationship between Russian men and women is analogized to the relationship between the Russian people and the Russian land; the land, like a Russian woman, is not a passive, cliché “damsel in distress”, but is rather a strong fellow combatant who contributes significantly to the victory. Rather than a backdrop for confrontations, the land in Alexander Nevsky is feminized and symbolically “married” to the Russian people in an active covenant of mutual cooperation against hostile foreigners.

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