Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia is a fascinating and exhaustive account of the political rivalry between Russia and Britain in central Asia in the 19th century. The book was published in 1990 with a revised edition appearing in 2006.
This rivalry, a kind of cold war that often threatened to turn into a hot war, was a result of the northward expansion of Britain’s Indian empire coming into collision with the southward and eastward expansion of Imperial Russia’s Central Asian empire. It took the form of complex efforts to increase the influence of both powers in crucial buffer states like Afghanistan as well as attempts to annex various territories outright. It was conducted partly by professional intelligence officers, partly by army officers and partly by enthusiastic amateurs. The term The Great Game was coined by a British officer in the 1840s although it did not come into general usage until the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s superb 1901 novel Kim. Kipling’s novel is the most famous, and without question the best, fictional account of this epic struggle.
The real-life Great Game could be a very dangerous game indeed. Many participants, both Russian and British, lost their lives in this struggle, often in horrifying circumstances. For a European in the 19th century to meddle in the political affairs of places like Afghanistan was exceptionally perilous.
The crux of the matter was India. The British were convinced that Russian expansionism had as its ultimate aim the conquest of India, and Britain in the 19th century was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to safeguard India. In actual fact it is extremely unlikely that Russia ever had any serious intentions of trying to conquer India. On the other hand it certainly suited Tsarist Russia for the British to believe in the threat to India. Britain’s sensitivity in this regard could be potentially useful in gaining a free hand for the objective that really obsessed the Russians – Constantinople.
The most striking thing about the Great Game is the extraordinary parallel to the world of the early 21st century. The British in the 19th century were never able to put themselves in the Russians’ shoes and to see things from the Russian perspective. They imagined that if what mattered most to them was India then clearly that must also be what mattered most to the Russians. The possibility that Russia’s agenda might be quite different and that it might be largely defensive never occurred to them. The British were also quite unable to appreciate that Russia’s history, and particularly the subjugation of medieval Russia by the Mongols, might prompt the Russians to want to ensure that never again would they be threatened from this quarter. To the Russians it seemed eminently reasonable to secure their frontiers with friendly or at least subservient buffer states. This chronic misunderstanding of Russian policy finds its echo today in the complete inability of the west to look at eastern Europe from the Russian point of view and the complete inability to comprehend that Russia’s history makes her somewhat obsessive desire for security perfectly understandable.
Hostility to Russia on the part of Britain was driven to a large degree by the hysterical and unreasoning Russophobia of the British press, just as hostility to Russia today is driven to a huge extent by the equally hysterical Russophobia of the western mass media. The Russian Tsars were demonised in the British press in exactly the same manner in which Putin is today demonised by the western media.
Hopkirk’s book is admirably even-handed. He has no interest in demonising either side. Both sides were motivated by complex mixtures of fear, suspicion, opportunism and ambition. The men who risked their lives on both sides in this rivalry were often idealistic and were always courageous and resourceful. They were larger-than-life heroes, in an age that still appreciated heroes.
A stimulating and highly entertaining book. Highly recommended.