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The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia

by Peter Hopkirk

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1,866379,111 (4.2)64
The Great Game between Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia was fought across desolate terrain from the Caucasus to China, over the lonely passes of the Parmirs and Karakorams, in the blazing Kerman and Helmund deserts, and through the caravan towns of the old Silk Road-both powers scrambling to control access to the riches of India and the East. When play first began, the frontiers of Russia and British India lay 2000 miles apart; by the end, this distance had shrunk to twenty miles at some points. Now, in the vacuum left by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there is once again talk of Russian soldiers "dipping their toes in the Indian Ocean." The Washington Post has said that "every story Peter Hopkirk touches is totally engrossing." In this gripping narrative he recounts a breathtaking tale of espionage and treachery through the actual experiences of its colorful characters. Based on meticulous scholarship and on-the-spot research, this is the history at the core of today's geopolitics.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
True stories spanning 100 years in central Asia with each chapter reading like a new Indiana Jones epic adventure; great insight into the 1800's and the lives of the people in this era. ( )
  dlinnen | Feb 3, 2024 |
This book focuses on a very specific portion of two countries' (Russia and Great Britain) empire building manuevers ("The Great Game"); and in what ways they tried to race to control the Central Asian areas and how they tried to outmaneuver each other. I had mistakenly thought this book was a broad history of the British in India. I did finish the book, but I certainly did not enjoy it. I would only recommend it to those specifically interested in that geographical area and specific period of time, and learning all they can about the Russian and British "Great Game" in particular. It is devoid of many historical backgrounds and biographical information and made for dry reading. It is more a very lengthy timeline of actions of Russian and British "players" against various Asian cities and rulers and a neverending list of the battles and skirmishes. At times some of the bloodbaths are depicted with some gruesome details.

The book was extremely biased in favor of the British, even though the Russians were supposed to be a co-player. They were definitely overshadowed with the author's glowing rendition of the British heroes and exploits. Worse yet was the consistent derogatory terms used to depict the local population whose land British and Russia were busily invading and claiming, as barbaric, uncivilized, savage, etc. The Western Civilization rhetoric and narrative was heavy and disturbing. The book certainly does lay a groundwork of how we have ended up where we are today and the catastrophic events going on in the world ( )
  shirfire218 | Nov 17, 2023 |
Beyond my own interest level, and not that well written.

> 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. ( )
  breic | Apr 29, 2020 |
Magisterial account of the 'Great Game' played by Great Britain and Russia throughout the 19th Century in Asia. Though familiar with many of the incidents covered here, better understanding the chronology brought a whole new dimension to the history - how Russia's steady advance through guile and conquest did result in a threat to India that GB countered at every stage. ( )
  DramMan | Apr 17, 2020 |
The phrase ‘The Great Game’ has been immortalised through Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. The eponymous young protagonist becomes a vital link in the intelligence network developed by the British administration in Northern India during the 1880s to monitor, and then thwart, threatened incursions into central Asia by the Russians. Kipling did not coin the phrase, which was first employed by Captain Arthur Connolly, who was executed in Bokhara in 1842 at the order of the Emir, after having been captured on a spying mission.

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. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Oct 9, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
Hopkirk tells his story "through the individuals, on either side, who took part in the great imperial struggle, rather than through historical forces or geopolitics." This approach has the advantage of bringing to light many remarkable individuals obscured by the passage of years; it also has the disadvantage of leaving the reader somewhat uncomprehending about the deeper causes or consequences of the action-packed pages he's read.
 
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On a June morning in 1842, in the Central Asia town of Bokhara, two ragged figures could be seen kneeling in the dust in the great square before the Emir's palace.
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The Great Game between Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia was fought across desolate terrain from the Caucasus to China, over the lonely passes of the Parmirs and Karakorams, in the blazing Kerman and Helmund deserts, and through the caravan towns of the old Silk Road-both powers scrambling to control access to the riches of India and the East. When play first began, the frontiers of Russia and British India lay 2000 miles apart; by the end, this distance had shrunk to twenty miles at some points. Now, in the vacuum left by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there is once again talk of Russian soldiers "dipping their toes in the Indian Ocean." The Washington Post has said that "every story Peter Hopkirk touches is totally engrossing." In this gripping narrative he recounts a breathtaking tale of espionage and treachery through the actual experiences of its colorful characters. Based on meticulous scholarship and on-the-spot research, this is the history at the core of today's geopolitics.

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