The Volga River along its upper reaches winds through many beautiful and impressive towns situated on its great bends. Perhaps one of its most famous bends on this most famous Russian river is the ancient Ugliche Pole (“Field at the Riverbend”), better known today as Uglich.
First emerging, according to local tradition, in 937, during the last decade of the reign of Varangian Prince Igor, the ruler that united Kiev Rus, this Golden Ring town became a principality unto itself in 1218, and survived even the Mongol invasion that followed. By 1328, the local prince sold his right to rule to Moscow, joining the town early to future Russia. Despite this, the ancient settlement was a favorite target of marauders, being burned in turn by Lithuanians, Tatars, and just about any faction that sought to attack the Muscovite principality.
By the 16th century, the city reached its Golden Age under Ivan IV the Terrible. In 1584, though, Ivan died, setting the stage for Uglich’s most dramatic and defining event. Dmitry, the late tsar’s son by his fifth wife, Maria Nagaya, was exiled from Moscow to Uglich by Boris Godunov, brother-in-law of the succeeding Feodor (a mentally disabled ruler with no desire for politics). Godunov was a simple but ambitious boyar who was given charge of the government after Feodor’s father’s death. Held captive in Uglich’s red brick palace, Dmitry and his mother were effectively sidelined while Godunov prepared often not-so-quietly for his own succession.
It was even said that this ruling boyar’s plans even included permanently removing his potential competition, including the young Prince Dmitry. Therefore, on May 15, 1591, it came as a surprise to no one that Dmitry, the last Rurik prince who could produce offspring, died of a knife wound outside of the palace. Officially, his death was said to be the result of an epileptic seizure that took place while playing a knife game, but rumors of an assassination quickly spread (particularly as a result of his mother’s wailing accusations that Godunov did it), and as a result, mobs rampaged the streets, lynching some 15 suspected assassins on the spot. Even the cathedral bell used to announce the Tsar’s death became a victim of events when its tongue was cut and sent to “exile” in Siberia. Whether Dmitry was murdered or killed by accident remains today unproven, but the death of this 10-year-old boy in Uglich had a profound impact on Russia. First, the Rurik dynasty, the one that created the first unified Russian state, came to an end. Second, Russia fell into a period after Feodor’s death called the Time of Troubles, the interregnum that swept anarchy into the country the Romanovs rose to power.
False Dmitry after false Dmitry attempted to take over Russia during the chaos, some with Polish-Lithuanian help, but eventually the Romanovs did succeeded. This new ruling family, in an apparent effort to put an end to the never-ending chain of new false claimants to the Rurik line, made it a priority to canonize Dmitry as a martyr, and Uglich quickly became a place of pilgrimage. The Church of St. Demetrios on the Blood, with red walls and blue domes, was built in 1690 to promote this tradition, and the red brick princely palace became a museum to the dead descendant of Rurik. The Romanovs even had the town adopt a coat of arms that included an image of Prince Dmitry holding a knife in his hand. No effort was spared in ensuring that the public, and travelers to the town most especially, understood that the Rurik dynasty was no more.
Among the many things worth seeing today in Uglich are the “marvelous” three-tented Assumption Church of the Alexeyevsky Monastery, the Resurrection Monastery, and a number of great churches that led to the towns eventual inclusion in the Golden Ring. The city was renowned in Soviet times for its Chaika watch factory (now closed) and its hydroelectric station (which flooded the town’s outskirts); these still remain as some of the most modern monuments to Uglich’s varied history. Outside of town, the 17th-century Uleima Monastery beckons visitors as well, a beautiful reserve that also beheld a harsh past shortly after the death of Dmitry.
Naturally, the city of Uglich makes a great day trip for anyone driving along the Golden Ring, but it also serves as a regular stop for cruise ships traveling the Volga as well. For more details on the many ways to go and see this amazing bend of the river, contact your travel specialist at Travel All Russia.