‘The Great Game’ by Peter Hopkirk

1990, 524 p

The Great Game commences with an execution- that of Capt Charles Stoddart and Capt Arthur Conolly by the Emir Nasrulla Khan in Bokhara in 1842.  Ironically enough, it was Capt Conolly who coined the term “The Great Game” , later adopted by Rudyard Kipling, to describe the political, military and strategic manoevres in Central Asia. There are many such vignettes in this book of crazy-brave  explorers and adventurers, both Russian and British, who surveyed and fought over the remote but strategically crucial area of the ‘stans’ that separated Russia from India.

Although the book covers the nineteenth century, the book has a cyclical feel as one set of adventurers takes up the baton from the previous ones, and borders move northward then southward only to move northward yet again.  Taken from the long view, it is clear that the political parties in Britain had consistently different foreign policy approaches: the Tories were always Russo-phobic and more inclined to opt for a military solution while the Liberals or Whigs feared overstretch and preferred to work through treaties.  Likewise, there was an ongoing tussle between the military and the politicians for control of the agenda, in both Britain and Russia. Neither approach yielded a permanent solution or outright victor.

Hopkirk’s use of vignettes helps to tether our attention and emotional response on particular men and events in what is a relentless succession of campaigns.  His book is engagingly written, although I found his cliff-hanger questions at the end of each chapter rather tedious after a while.  Although he commenced the book being fairly evenhanded, by the end of the book the Russians were more clearly identified as “the enemy”, and he increasingly resorted to that dead, pompous military citation language that is used to describe “our” heroes.

There were only three maps, but I found them indispensable and far more exhaustive than I would have imagined- almost without fail I could locate the positions he was describing.  I would have appreciated a 20th/21st century map superimposed over the 19th century one- although such a map would run the danger of being outdated, I suppose, as different countries assert their independence, as recent events in Georgia have shown.

I am left with the overwhelming impression that this is one wild place that is largely impervious to the designs that ‘great powers’ might have on it.  I think I’m with the UK envoy to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles (surely a name truly fitting for a Great Game player!) : this is a no-win situation.

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