It was late autumn, 1480 AD. Russian warriors, under the command of Grand Prince Ivan III, stood on the banks of the River Ugra. Shrouded in fog, freezing from the early winter cold, they waited. The other bank was teeming with the forces of their centuries-old enemies, the Tatars. Soon everyone would know that today was the end of three hundred years of humiliation. Today, Rus threw off the Tatar yoke.
The conflict between Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow and Ahmad, Khan of the Great Horde, began with the usual problem—taxes. Apparently, Ivan III had had enough of paying tribute to the declining Khaganate. However, it’s possible that the Khan did receive his tribute, but attacked Ivan III anyway, since the Grand Prince didn’t bring the tribute in person. It was a terrible insult. But it was also a political gamble. Technically, Ivan III had not yet received the grant of rule (yarlyk) that every Khan “gifted” to the Grand Prince of Moscow.
By doing this, Ivan III tacitly challenged the authority and power of the Khan.
To add insult to injury, Ahmad sent an embassy to Moscow to insist on back payments of the previous princes’ tributes. Again, Ivan III failed to show due deference to the representatives of the Khan. According to the “History of Kazan,” he did more than that:
The Grand Prince was not afraid. He took the basma (a seal with the image of the Khan), spit on it, broke it, threw it on the ground, and stomped it with his feet.”
After challenging the Khan, Ivan III refused to take decisive military action. Although history would validate his choice, his contemporaries were less lenient. According to the chronicles, Ivan III simply panicked. The people of Moscow took to the streets, loudly proclaiming that he was putting everyone in mortal danger through his indecision. Ivan III, fearing assassination, even left the city! His heir, Ivan the Younger, who was with the army, refused his father’s repeated messages to leave the army and join him in hiding.
The situation was further complicated by the usual Russian problem. Ivan’s brothers decided that it was time to challenge their brother’s pretentions to power. It seemed that the internecine conflicts that had kept the Russians under the thumb of the Tatars for centuries would once again flare up, and at the most inappropriate time.
Finally, the Livonian Order picked this moment to attack Pskov with an army…
…so powerful against the Russians, that no master of the order had ever gathered such an army, either before or after…This grand master started a war with the Russians, having gathered over 100,000 warriors and peasants from other lands. With this army, he attacked the Russians and burned the areas around Pskov, but was unable to accomplish anything else.” (Histories of the Riga Region, Volume 11)
The War Begins
Taking advantage of Moscow’s tenuous position, Khan Ahmad scouted the right bank of the River Oka, and by autumn, he attacked with his main force:
That year, the nefarious king Ahmad attacked Orthodox Christianity in Rus, attacked the holy churches and the Grand Prince, boasting that he would destroy all the holy churches and enslave all the Orthodox, even the Grand Prince, so that he would be no better off than the princes under Batu-Khan.”
Finally overcoming his indecision, Ivan III gathered his forces and awaited news about the Khan’s movements in Kolomna, near Moscow. That same day, the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God arrived to boost the morale of the warriors. This famous icon was believed to have saved Rus from Tamerlane’s invasion in 1395.
When Ivan III heard that the Khan was planning to enter Russian lands by crossing the river Ugra, he sent part of his forces to hold the Tatars off until the main force of the Russians could arrive. Surprisingly, the Khan didn’t attack. Instead, he hoped to use a tactic that had worked before—to scare off the Russians merely by the size of his army.
The Hold-off on the Ugra
On September 30, 1480, Ivan returned to Moscow for a final council with the Duma and the metropolitan of Moscow. He received a unanimous response:
To stand firmly for Orthodox Christianity against the infidels.”
That same day, his brothers came to him and declared that they would no longer stand against him. Ivan forgave them and commanded them to join the forces at the Ugra. Ivan himself entrenched in Kremenets nearby. The Russian line extended along the bank of the Ugra for 60 versts (almost forty miles!).
The first Tatar attempt to cross the Ugra occurred in early October, but they were quickly fought off. On October 8, the Khan himself tried to storm the Ugra, but Ivan the Younger’s forces beat him back:
And the Tatars came and began to shoot at the Muscovites, but the Muscovites began to shoot back at them. They killed many with both arrows and cannons, and drove them back from the shores.”
Over the next few days, the Tatars continued their attacks, but the Russian artillery barrages turned out to be too strong. Eventually, the Tatars retreated to the other shore, and the “Great Hold-off on the Ugra” began, with each side manning the opposite banks, waiting for an attack.
What about the Polish king?
The chief ally of Ahmad was the Grand Prince of Poland-Lithuania, Kasimir IV. Although at previous moments in history, and in future centuries, Polish rulers never passed up the opportunity to attack their Russian “brothers,” Kasimir didn’t come to the Ugra to help the Tatars.
Why not? Some historians believe that Kasimir had his own problems with the Tatars, and was fighting off the invasion of the Khan of Crimea. Others indicate that he was dealing with internal political problems. Furthermore, many Russians still living in Lithuania wanted to unite with the Grand Princedom of Muscovy. They may have influenced the king to avoid the conflict altogether.
In any case, Khan Ahmad waited for help from both Crimea and Poland, but all he got was the Russian winter.
Around October 20, Ivan III received a fiery letter from Vassian, archbishop of Rostov, who urged Ivan to emulate his brave ancestors:
They not only protected the Russian lands from the infidels, but they even conquered other lands! Be brave and do not waver, my spiritual son, as a brave warrior of Christ. Follow the great words of our Lord in the Gospel. You are the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep.”
The End of the Conflict
By the end of the month, Khan Ahmad had gathered all his forces, leaving no one to protect the Horde. Ivan III, surprised by this chance, gathered a small, elite force of warriors headed by Prince Vasilii the “Big-Nostriled.” They slipped behind Tatar lines and harassed their holdings near the Horde.
Ivan himself was forced to change tactics. Stores were low, winter was coming fast. He concentrated his entire army at Borovsk, preparing for a decisive battle.
By that time, the Khan heard about the elite Russian forces harassing the Horde. He sent some of his warriors back. By November 11, he made the final decision to abandon the field of battle and retreated completely.
To a contemporary eyewitness, it must have been a strange, even mystical scene. Two massive forces, primed for a battle the likes of which Rus hadn’t seen in a hundred years. Suddenly, both retreat from the field of battle. The Russians ascribed this to the help of the Mother of God. Once again she had saved the Russian land from destruction. After that, the River Ugra began to be called “the girdle of the Mother of God.”
Soon afterward, Ahmad was killed in an attack by a rival faction (probably with the secret support of Ivan III). This moment is generally considered the birth of the independent Russian-Muscovite state.
The long conflict between the Tatars and the Russians, and this battle in particular, are huge inspirations for my own novels. My novel A Lamentation of Sirin will be published later this year, and I’ll soon be looking for advance readers. If you’re interested in receiving a copy of the book for free, sign up to my Reader’s Group today: