For nearly a century the two most powerful nations on earth, Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia, fought a secret war in the lonely passes and deserts of Central Asia. Those engaged in this shadowy struggle called it 'The Great Game', a phrase immortalized by Kipling. When play first began the two rival empires lay nearly 2,000 miles apart. By the end, some Russian outposts were within 20 miles of India. This classic book tells the story of the Great Game through the exploits of the young officers, both British and Russian, who risked their lives playing it. Disguised as holy men or native horse-traders, they mapped secret passes, gathered intelligence and sought the allegiance of powerful khans. Some never returned. The violent repercussions of the Great Game are still convulsing Central Asia today.
It is an extraordinary tale of adventure, great daring, intrigue, and warfare. Needing to secure India from the Russian threat by surrounding itself with friendly neighbors, with Afghan kingdoms and tribes on the west, and on the north across the mountain passes, Sikh as well as other local chiefdoms, Britain decided to adopt a low-key forward policy. Written from the point of view of the British, Hopkirk introduces us to some very interesting individuals, exemplary in their bravery (and sometimes necessarily, bravado) who took up the challenge of the unexplored territory and of the unknown. We travel with these men, and with countless of their Indian subjects, across some of the most hostile environments in the world even in the coldest of winter – the vast expanse of the steppes, the deserts, the highest and practically impassable mountain peaks, home to warring and some of the most fearsome tribes of Central Asia. They map out regions and impenetrable mountain passes, identifying pockets of areas the enemy could use in a possible invasion. They strike up relations with local chiefs, buying their loyalties with expensive gifts, gold, and money, and promises of military support against their enemies, and against Russia. With these men, we are awed by the splendor of the ancient cities of what we know today as Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iran, cities along the ancient Silk Road such as Bokhara, Samarkand, glimpses of which we still see today (unfortunately not anymore of Kabul). Many of these men would lose their lives in heroic ways, and many bloody battles fought because of treachery mostly on the part of the local tribes (we have to keep in mind though that this is a one-sided assessment, as the records are mainly from the British side) who, aware of their strategic value to either parties, were not above playing off Russia and Britain against each other with their loyalties. We are also given a picture of the directions and the lapses in the imperialist policies advocated by Britain in this region.
Hopkirk writes in a very engaging way, and much happens that are stuff of imagination so that we almost forget that this is not a work of fiction. The Great Game “officially” ended a century ago, the main players never reached an actual war although they came dangerously close a few times. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan, however, many decades later in 1979, simply went to show that those in the British imperial government at the time of the Great Game were correct in their belief that one day the Russians would come (for another reason this time, of course, but the evidence is there that they still had an interest).
An interesting, highly readable book that helps us understand a bit of the history of the region which today holds the most intractable of military and political challenges.
By John Thomson (Indianapolis, IN USA) - See all my reviews
The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk, is an amazing history of British and Russian imperialism clashing in the Middle East and Asia. Encompassing the time period from the late eighteenth century to the very beginning of the twentieth, the Great Game was much like an enormous game of chess, with Russia seeking to expand its borders and Britain to safeguard its interests in India. Hopkirk reveals both the national policy thoughts of the two nations and the daring moves of each's officers and agents in the regions in question, which include most of Central Asia, Afghanistan, India and the Caucasus. In many cases, the men Hopkirk describes were the first Westerners to set foot in such regions (for example, Bokhara, Khotan and Khokand).
Hopkirk has done incredible research: his bibliography is an impressive 15 pages. And even though he has a wealth of material to cover, he makes sure that the whole presentation is interesting to the reader. He tells a complete story, but expands on issues and events that are both important and interesting. As a result, the exploits of men like Conolly, Stoddart and Burnes come into clear focus against a backdrop of intrigue and, often, duplicitous ness, across a little over 500 pages.
Not unexpectedly, Hopkirk's account tends to be favor the British point of view slightly. Even so, he's quick to point out mistakes and torpedo unjustified accusations on both sides.
I found this book an easy and quick read, completing it in across about four days. While it progresses in roughly chronological sequence, it could easily be read piecemeal if the reader desired. The book kept my interest well, and didn't ever seem to wander aimlessly. I must believe that this is the authoritative account of the subject, and I can recommend it unconditionally, whether this is a subject area of interest for you, or you just want an interesting book to occupy your time.
Interestingly, the end of the Soviet Union has refocused the spotlight on many regions discussed in this book. If you find that you remain interested in the topic after reading it, I recommend following up with Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean or Journey to Khiva by Phillip Glazebrook.
The context is one in which nationalist imperialism is popular, driven by a jingoistic press and military adventurism (particularly among the asian Russian commanders). They would duplicitously seize central asian khanates such as Khiva or Bokhara while the British would have military misadventures in Afghanistan and send "geographers" to map out mountain passes that the Russians could use to invade India.
In the event, The Russians didn't invade British India although their military wanted to and planned it. When war looked like a real possibility, they backed down. They had internal problems and the British government was never ready to bear the cost of a war that British India couldn't meet.
Reading this fascinating book showed me how different the 19th century European mindset was from the current one, something that Hopkirk brings out extremely well.
The British wouldn’t have cared what the Tsars did if they hadn’t found themselves ruling India. Both England and its enemies considered India the keystone of the whole British Empire – remove it and the edifice would topple. (Interestingly enough, I’ve never read a dispassionate analysis of that – however, the important thing is that everybody believed it). Hopkirk doesn’t concern himself much with struggles among the French, British, Danes, Dutch and Portuguese within India before it settled as a English possession; instead focus on efforts to conquer or defend it afterward. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt was intended to ultimately threaten India, and he gave some thought to other attempts after the Indian adventure failed – in alliance with Tsar Paul (1801) and Alexander I (1807). Paul actually sent a force toward India; it was recalled on his death, to the considerable relief of the participants. The later plan, with 50000 French troops marching through Persia to link up with a similar number of Alexander I’s Cossacks riding through Afghanistan never got beyond the armwaving stage.
Still, the British couldn’t help but notice that Russia kept getting closer and closer to India – despite repeated denials that they were doing so. The initial moves came in the Caucasus, where Circassia, Daghestan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Erivan and Karabagh all rapidly or painfully fell to the Tsar. The British go involved on a “unofficial” level, with various adventurers showing up in the mountains to give advice to the tribes (at this time Constantinople was considered to be the Russian target, and the threat was not Cossacks riding into India but the Russian Black Sea fleet breaking out into the Mediterranean). Once the Caucasian tribes were “pacified” (which turned out to be less lasting than the Russians thought) the Tsar turned his attention to Central Asia, picking off the emirates of Khiva and Bokhara and the Turkmen fortress of Geok Tepe. In the meantime, British efforts alternated between a “forward” policy, which involved a military presence in Afghanistan, and “masterly inactivity”, which tried to keep Afghanistan neutral through bribes and manipulating whoever the ruler happened to be. In the meantime the Persians also got into the act, claiming and besieging (with Russian advisors and artillery) the Afghan city of Herat.
When the “Forward” school was in the ascendancy, British activity in Afghanistan resulted in the disastrous First Afghan War (1839-1842), and the nearly disastrous Second Afghan War (1878-1881). In the interim, the “masterly inactivity” proponents sent various British explorers/agents into Persia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, sometimes to persuade various rulers to remain neutral and sometimes just to see what was going on. Sometimes these ended with a hero’s welcome in England and a book explaining how the protagonist had wandered around disguised as a Muslim holy man or an Armenian horse trader; sometimes they ended less felicitously (as it happened with Captain Conolly and Colonel Stoddart). The Russians, of course, had their own heroes doing their own heroic things; although Hopkirk tells their stories as far as possible, they get less page space than the British, due to the language difference and the reluctance of Soviet historians to make heroes out of people who worked for the Tsars.
As far as actual military conquest went, the Russians in Central Asia had an easier time of it than the British in Afghanistan; the terrain they had to deal with was barren and almost waterless but at least it was flat. The Russians also timed their moves to coincide with British setbacks and diversions elsewhere: the Afghan Wars, the Sepoy Mutiny, and the Mahdist Wars in Sudan all brought Russian pushes. The First Afghan War and the Sepoy Mutiny were especially beneficial to the Russians, as they could point to the defeat of British arms by natives (news of the First Afghan War reaching the Emir of Bokhara is what brought one the demise of the unfortunate Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly).
Although the Russians got as far as Merv, a town claimed by Afghanistan, they never pushed any farther in that direction, shifting their emphasis further east into Xinjiang, the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush, and stirring up trouble among tribal rulers on the border in Chitral and Hunza. The Wakhan Corridor, the “panhandle” of Afghanistan, was deliberately negotiated between Britain and Afghanistan to be a buffer between Indian and the Russian Empire; this was one of the few places where Russians and British actually confronted each other during the Great Game. In 1891 British explorer Frances Younghusband encountered a Russian Colonel Yanov inside what Younghusband thought was clearly Afghanistan. After some convivial discussion over diner, Yanov regretfully informed Younghusband that he was in Russian territory and would have to leave; in fact, he’d have to leave by the Chinese border, not the Indian one. Younghusband was more interested in information than confrontation and acquiesced; Yanov gave him a bear hug and thanked him for being so gentlemanly about it. The Russian Foreign Office later apologized for the incident, agreeing that Yanov had strayed into Afghan territory.
The end of the Great Game – at least for the 20th century – came with the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese war. Now it was the Russians that were made to look bad by losing to an Asian power. Plus, of course, now they were allied with the English. There were some desultory attempts by the Kaiser to interest the Russians into an alliance but they came to nothing.
The stories are fascinating; Hopkirk has some other works on Central Asia I’ll have to look into. As I side note I learned that “pundit” comes from the Sanskrit and originally meant “wise man”; during the Great Game it referred to Indians recruited by the British to go on surveying expeditions, often in hostile territory. They were outfitted with various “secret agent” gadgets – compasses hidden in walking sticks and chests with false bottoms to hide sextants. Hopkirk regrets that these men – some of whom lost their lives – have never had their stories told.
One thing Hopkirk doesn’t speculate about is if the fears of the British were justified. There was all sorts of talk among the Russophobes about “Cossacks watering their horses in the Indus” but it seems extremely unlikely that a Russian army would have any success in trying to cross Afghanistan – especially in the light of subsequent developments.
Good maps; photographs or other illustrations of the principal participants and locales. Extensively referenced although understandably somewhat short of things from the Russian side.
I knew a little about the Great Game before – that 19th-century wrangling over Central Asia between Britain and Russia – but I hadn't appreciated before how motivated both sides were, in Britain's case because they feared encroachment on their ‘jewel of the Empire’, British India, and in Russia's case because they were hell-bent on expanding their influence as far as possible. But the real joy here is in the Boy's-Own adventuring of some of the principal players – ambitious explorer-spies who headed off the map and into a world of mountain fortresses, Himalayan snowstorms, Russian ambushes, gruelling sieges, and daring gunfights. At stake was a barely-known network of independent city-states whose rulers were befriended, betrayed, and played off one another by the two major powers in an attempt to win influence and ascendancy in the area.
It would take a hard-hearted reader not to feel some pangs of awe and excitement at some of the derring-do here, however much you are made aware of the cynical political game-playing behind it all. Hopkirk tells his story engagingly, if occasionally dropping into some speculative scene-setting (‘As he donned a long quilted coat and black lambskin hat, the two men with him watched in silence’ – how do you know?). There are narrative problems – it covers a long period, and the book is necessarily somewhat episodic, with rather little of the political background filled in – but on the whole, the episodes are so extraordinary that it's hard to mind too much.
I'd be interested to see a update of some of this – when it came out the Soviet Union was still in place, and it would be good to know which previously-hidden records on the Russian side have now become available. Until then, it's a great primer on a fascinating period of imperial history.
Internet research seems clear that this is THE book to go with. Fun and influential, if slightly pro-British (a problem no other book I found seemed able to solve).
With such a huge area and time to cover, the story needed an expert historian with a writing style that kept you turning the pages. Fortunately Peter Hopkirk filled both roles admirably and the 500-odd pages fairly raced by to its conclusion. Although I consider myself a geographical expert, it was lucky the book includes numerous maps as I regularly leafed back to them to workout where on earth was the desolate spot previously unknown to me that may well have sparked a nineteenth century war between Britain and Russia.
Highly recommended and I'm working my way through Hopkirk's other books related to the Great Game.
Rudyard Kipling, Kim
A sweeping historical account of the struggle between the English and Russians to map and control central Asia. I read this originally about 1992, and revisited it more recently after buying a new Folio Society edition. Very well written, as entertaining as a novel, telling stories of the Northwest Frontier, Tibet, and the Himalayas
Throughout the late eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries, Russia expanded its already considerable sphere of influence at a vast rate, gradually annexing and then consolidating the largely barren tracts constituting Siberia to the east. It also turns its attention towards British-occupied India to the south, seeking to expand through Afghanistan and surrounding lands. Britain was acutely aware of these expansionist ambitions, which were exacerbated by alliances between Russia and Napoleon Bonaparte’s France, which had the express aim of conquering and then sharing India. British diplomats were, consequently, relentless in their bids to make a succession of treaties with the rulers of neighbouring territories in a bid to establish a buffer zone between Russian-held areas and the borders of its own Empire.
The lands in question were certainly worthy of colonial consideration. Names such as Bokhara, Samarkand, Trebizond and Khiva had already been romanticised as sources of exotic eastern splendour and came to feature regularly in military intelligence despatches. The terrain was inhospitable in the extreme, but the lure of the hypothesised riches was stronger still.
This, then, is the rich vein of history upon which Peter Hopkirk draws for his comprehensive history of British engagement in intelligence missions throughout Central Asia. I had previously read, and enjoyed, his books on the derring-do of the members of the Secret Operations Executive during the Second World War. With those books, however, the ambit was narrower, and his accounts focused on the detail of the missions. I found this book less engrossing, and wonder whether Hopkirk had misplaced his efforts. He had clearly conducted exhaustive research, but seemed unsure whether he was writing a formal history of the period or, instead, a fast-paced thriller. I suspect that as a boy Hopkirk probably devoured the works of G. A. Henty (and why not? so did I!), and this book adopts a similar tone. Henty’s books have long been out of fashion, both because of their dated content but and also their stilted style. Having read a host of modern history works that combine rigorous research with clarity of address, I found this book sadly dated. Overall, I found its rather outmoded attempts to inject immediacy failed, and the tone of the book reminded me of the rather patronising history text books that I had to wade through as a thirteen year old.
> Every Buddhist carried a rosary of 108 beads on which to count his prayers, and also a small wood and metal prayer-wheel which he spun as he walked. Both of these Montgomerie turned to his advantage. From the former he removed eight beads, not enough to be noticed, but leaving a mathematically convenient 100. At every hundredth pace the Pundit would automatically slip one bead. Each complete circuit of the rosary thus represented 10,000 paces.