The Ugra River

Great Stand on the Ugra River

Considered the cause of Mongol retreat from Russia and the end of foreign rule in Moscow, the Great Stand on the Ugra River has been romanticized in Russian literature. Though historians downplay the battle’s importance, it remains ingrained in Western minds as the end of Tatar reign in Europe.

Following two centuries of Mongol control over northwestern Russia, in 1476 Ivan III brazenly stopped paying the annual tribute to the Golden Horde. Since the Khanate was preoccupied with fighting the Crimeans, the Golden Horde did nothing but send an emissary to Moscow to demand that the tax be paid. In response, Ivan forged an alliance with Crimea against the Mongols. In fall of 1480, when Mongol leader Akhmat Khan tried to cross the Ugra River to subdue Moscow, Russian and Mongol troops engaged in a four-day battle. The battle was a decisive Russian victory, made possible by their use of firearms.

Rather than retreat, Akhmat Khan kept his troops in the region, waiting for his allied Lithuanian reinforcements – which never arrived. Both armies remained in nearby towns, waiting for the river to freeze. A month later, after suffering from epidemics, harsh weather, and lack of supplies, the Mongols retreated. The anticlimactic lack of an outright battle after a month of preparation prompted the name “The Great Stand on the Ugra River.” As Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin wrote, “It should have been an odd image: two armies ran away from each other, not pursued by anyone.” Akhmat Khan died shortly thereafter, and the Golden Horde was soon destroyed by the Crimean Empire.

Great_standing_on_the_Ugra_river_1480

A European painting from 1480 depicting the Great Stand on the Ugra River.

During World War II, the Ugra River again served as an important battle site. In 1941 Nazi troops established a front along the Ugra to occupy Moscow. After six failed attempts to break the German line, the USSR Red Army finally succeeded in 1942, liberating the capital city. Nazi troops remained on the Ugra for another year until German defeat at Stalingrad resulted in a recall of Russia based troops.

Today the battle site is located in the National Park Ugra, founded in 1997 by the Russian Federation and protected as a biosphere reservation under UNESCO. It remains an important historical and cultural part of Russian heritage.