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The Great Game: On Secret Service in High…
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The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia

by Peter Hopkirk

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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 |
Although the expression was popularized by Kipling in Kim, it was actually coined by Captain Arthur Conolly – who ended up losing his own version, beheaded in 1842, with Colonel Charles Stoddart, in front of the palace of the Emir of Bokhara. A Russian official called it “the tournament of shadows”; later Soviet historians translated the English phrase as большая игра – “Great Game”. Peter Hopkirk’s book is a fascinating read, about a part of the world that has had little interest for Americans – until 2001/09/11. The book was written in the Soviet era (1990) but got a new forward in 2006; Hopkirk comments that his research was actually easier in the Soviet era because you only needed one visa while now you need one for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.


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. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 23, 2017 |
"Now I shall go far and far into the North, playing 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 ( )
  neurodrew | Nov 14, 2017 |
Ci sono un bel po' di cose innervosenti. Intanto il sottotitolo perchè strizza l'occhio ai lettori amanti dell'instant book e della stretta attualità. Nulla di tutto ciò. Cronologicamente l'autore si arresta alla fine dell'Ottocento. Poi la sistematica parzialità pro-inglese e anti-russa, poi il fatto che l'autore usa, quasi esclusivamente, fonti inglesi (è un suo diritto, ma il libro risulta un po' troppo sbilanciato). Infine perchè in almeno dieci capitoli l'attacco narrativo è ripetitivamente lo stesso. Per qualcuno anche il numero delle pagine potrebbe essere un difetto.
Se nonostante tutti questi difetti l'ho trovato un bel libro (...di storia, ...quasi) è perchè si fa leggere come un reportage da un passato lontano nel tempo ed esotico quanto basta. I giorni dei "perfidi" e inaffidabili emiri dell'Asia centrale non sembrano così lontani e ci sono ancora in giro coraggiosi europei che, come allora, portano il fardello dell'uomo bianco sulle proprie spalle: vale la pena di leggerlo per fare un confronto con l'oggi ( )
  icaro. | Aug 31, 2017 |
Where to start with reading about Central Asia’s history? For me, I started with Peter Hopkirk, an accomplished historian who combines an extraordinary amount of knowledge with a writing style that makes you think that history is no more than a thrilling boy’s book, with good guys and bad guys and a seemingly endless stream of adventures. “The Great Game” (1990) is such a book, and its describes, mostly from a British point of view, the buildup of tension in the hitherto unmapped Himalayas, between the British, firmly established in India, and the Tsarist Russian expansion into Central Asia. Part of the adventure component of the book is the reconnaissance of British explorers into ever more remote parts of the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, and to the Silk Road oasis towns of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. If you ever needed proof that non-fiction is more exciting than fiction. Highly recommended. ( )
  theonearmedcrab | Jan 13, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (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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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0719564476, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:23 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The Great Game, a deadly struggle in the last century between secret agents of the two superpowers--Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia--has once again become ominously topical, as a new power struggle begins in Central Asia.

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