The Great Stand on the Ugra River

Standing on the Ugra river, 1480. Miniature in Russian chronicle. XVI century.
Standing on the Ugra river, 1480. Miniature in Russian chronicle. XVI century.

by Wendy Graham

October 8, 1480 — In 1480 two armies met at the Ugra River. One was the last great part of the Mongol Golden Horde led by Ahmed bin Küchük, the other the forces of Ivan III, Grand Prince of the rising Muscovy Principality (Moscow).

Moscovy had long paid tribute to the Horde but Ivan had refused to comply since the 1470s. Ahmed and the Horde had duly set off to attack Moscow and reestablish control over the Rus.

The two forces met at the Ugra River, a tributary of the Volga River, within reach of Moscow. Ahmed, who had made an alliance with King Casimir of Poland waited for his ally before making an attack. However he waited for weeks in vain, King Casimir, beset by his own internal troubles never came.

Finally on the 8th October clashes broke out as forces of the Great Horde tried to cross the river and were repulsed by the Russian army led by Ivan’s son and brother Peter. It is likely the firearms of the Russians were a major favour in their success in repulsing these advances. Mongol forces relied on archery, not firearms, which they were at ease with on or off horseback. Infamous for their skill, a Mongolian archer was reputedly able to hit a target 200m away.

The first reference to Russian use of firearms appears to be in the Sofiiskii vremennik chronicle during the 1382 defense of Moscow from Tokhtamysh's Golden Horde, one hundred years earlier. Although it does not appear that the Horde used firearms, they did employ gunpowder weapons, flaming arrows, and explosive bombs. However these were usually tools for besieging a town, not a river.

With no sign of his ally, and winter approaching, Ahmed and the Great Horde finally withdrew on the 11th November ending his stand and his hold over the Russian princes forever.

Russians continue to this day to celebrate the 8th October as the end of 200 years of the Mongol yoke. In truth the Mongol empire had been weakening and splintering for some time. Ahmed himself was killed not long after by the Siberian Khan, Ibak Khan of Tyumen and Nogay in 1481.

Ivan III, lauded after his death as Ivan the Great, went on extend control over many of his Russian neighbours including the Novgorod empire to the north and laid the basis for the conquest of the Ukraine from the Poland-Lithuania Empire. Not until Peter the Great two centuries later did the Russian Empire expand in the same way again. The Great Horde themselves were finally annihilated by the Crimean Horde in 1502.

Published: October 7, 2017

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