“Second-Class People”: How the Teutonic Knights Really Treated Russians

NEW – September 3, 2022

Relations with Catholicism in Russia from the very beginning were ambiguous: from a sharp rejection, to an alliance with Rome or with individual orders of chivalry. There has never been much love for Catholicism in our country, but on the contrary. This was influenced by both political and historical events.

The first conflicts with Western Christianity before the split of Rome and Constantinople in 1054 began under Princess Olga. It is worth recalling that after a not entirely successful visit to Constantinople, having been baptised, but not related to the Byzantine emperors, Olga returned to Russia, and her entourage, without her knowledge, but on her behalf, began negotiations with Rome on rapprochement with the Western branch of Christianity.

In response, King Otto I the Great, Holy Roman Emperor, sent Bishop Adalbert to Russia. But the legate’s mission did not work out so well – he literally barely escaped from the territory where he was sent as a missionary and educator.

This is how the difference in relations in Russia to Rome and Byzantium took shape. And it was all about religion and politics.

Roman usurpers

The Slavic aristocracy, and Olga became one of them, wanted to increase their status through kinship with the “true monarchs of Europe”, which at that time remained only the Byzantine basileuses.

Roman emperors after all the invasions of barbarian tribes in the Western Roman Empire in Russia were considered some “usurpers” with a very dubious biography. Therefore, the Latin branch of Christianity was viewed from a political point of view as an “unnecessary compromise”.

Western expansion

On the other hand, it should be understood that Catholicism (and before the schism, Western Christianity) has always focused on missionary work and on the permanent expansion of influence and territories. What is important, not always by “evangelical methods”.

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If we turn to Kartashev’s “Essays on the History of the Russian Church” and look at the history of Prince Vladimir’s choice of faith and the notorious Baptism of Russia, then there was as much religion as politics in this act – all the same attempts to get a succession from the truly purple-born Byzantine emperors.

The great schism

And then came the tragedy of the schism of 1054. And further, in the eyes of Rome, Eastern Christianity itself turned into a kind of heresy almost akin to paganism, and as for our ancestors, they, even Christians, and the Greeks were treated as brothers, rather not even younger, but “smaller”. Not to mention the Latins.

And in general, the West already decided that its cultural and civilisational mission in relation to the Slavic peoples is to capture, subdue, and “Catholicise”.

Rome acted in this case with a whole range of very different methods. From history, we know both numerous Catholic envoys with the proposal of the union, and permanent military pressure. At the same time, Russia willy-nilly lived in close contact with Catholic Europe, because there was both geographical proximity and a constant desire to expand to the west from our side.

The Teutonic Order

One of the peaks of Catholic claims to the eastern territories was the expansion of the Teutonic Order and its landmeistership with broad autonomy – the Livonian Order. And about this story, and about the Order itself and its activities, it is worth talking in more detail, they are so revealing.

The “German Brotherhood of St. Mary in Jerusalem”, as the Teutonic Order is fully called, appeared as part of the Order of the Hospitallers in 1190, following the results of the 3rd Crusade. In 1191, the order became autonomous by papal bull.

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Over the years, it has already become active in eastern and central Europe. In fact, due to campaigns against the Prussian tribes, of course, initially for “missionary purposes”, the Order became the owner of an entire state.

And by 1240, the leadership of the Order had long matured the understanding that expansion was needed not so much for religious as for political purposes. Expansion to the West was impossible because everyone there was already Catholic, but to the East in the direction of “barbaric Slavic tribes ‘professing’ heretical Orthodoxy” – why not?

In addition, both Lithuanian and especially Russian princes were weakened by the Tatar-Mongol invasion. And then there were two options. The first, which was proposed to Aleksandr Nevsky, is the transition to Catholicism, and a joint fight against the Tatar-Mongols. The second, which eventually promoted the Teutonic Order, was military expansion and the seizure of Russian lands.

But Catholicism, in addition to its active expansion, also set a strict framework for ritual, everyday life, culture and mentality. And in relation to these “universal norms” of its own, it was much less liberal than Orthodoxy. The Mongol state did not encroach on the religious component of the life of the conquered peoples at all. And so Nevsky made a non-trivial political move, becoming the sworn brother of Batu’s son, Sartaq. That is, he enlisted the military and political support of the Mongols.

And it is clear that after such a “somersault”, the Europeans finally strengthened in the opinion that some absolutely Asians and barbarians live in Russia. This meant that the Teutonic “civilisers” could do whatever they wanted with these “barbarians”.

Second-class people

By the way, it is worth noting that even without such conventions, the knights of the order behaved very cruelly towards the conquered. For example, much later, in 1380, at the beginning of the decline of the Order, the Teutons captured Gdansk and destroyed about 10,000 Christian Poles there.

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At the time of the reign of Aleksandr Nevsky, Russians were well aware of how the knights were conquering peoples, and that these peoples were turning into “second-class people” on the territories controlled by the Order. In general, if to speak roughly and in an oversimplified way, then there were seven centuries left before Hitler, but everything was already clear.

As part of that eastern campaign, the Teutons managed to take Izborsk, and then Pskov, then the order invaded the Novgorod lands and built its fortress in Koporye there. And this was already a serious claim for the conquest of Russian lands.

Ice Battle

The final in the form of the Ice Battle is generally known to everyone. As a result, the Dorpat peace agreement was concluded, but the confrontation continued until the defeat of the order’s troops at the Battle of Rakovor in 1268 by Russian troops. This is because the Teutons did not abandon their attempts to expand to the east, and in the east they perfectly understood what the subjugation of the Order threatened: if not genocide, then something very similar with the compulsion to abandon Orthodoxy and the transition of all life to the Latin way, and even in the status of “second-class people”.

Subsequently, the history of Russia knew many episodes of very different relations with Catholicism, but the general distrust of Latins among the people remained and passed from the religious plane to distrust of Europeans in principle. And the echoes of this attitude are quite obvious even today in the framework of Russian relations with various Western partners.


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