The Great Game


The Russians are on the move. They have their sights set on world conquest. It might take time, but the Russian Bear is patient. Very patient. Their agents are everywhere, even now mapping and spying and plotting. Something has to be done.

Sound familiar?

Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game recounts the epic (and arguably ongoing) competition between England and Russia over control and influence in Central Asia. Taking place roughly in the Victorian era, from Napoleon’s time to WWI, The Great Game was imperial jockeying at it’s most picturesque.

By the late 1700s, Indian was effectively ruled by Great Britain through the East India Company, the original multinational too-big-too-fail corporation. India was the great jewel in the imperial British crown; but it came with it’s own problems. India is remote from England and it’s population is many times larger. India, historically speaking, might be one of the most “conquered” places in the world. The result is that the British had to work overtime to protect their colony, either from internal rebellion or from outside invasion. The world’s great maritime empire collided head on with the world’s great land empire over the “roof of the world”.

Hopkirk tells a good story. He knows what readers want. You will enjoy reading this book. It’s one part history, one part exploration, and one part spy drama. Hopkirk gives just enough background to follow and make sense of the actions and actor he is depicting, but little more. This makes for quick and easy reading, but little depth. His depiction of British politics is pretty good, but by and by, most of the actions seem to take place in a vacuum. I can’t quite tell if he is assuming the reader already knows, or doesn’t care.

The biggest weakness of this book is this lack of detailed background information. How did these legendary Silk Road cities in Central asia come to be? What was the culture like? What are the cities like now? How did the Russian public see the Great Game? Further, Hopkirk comes to no conclusions; he simply ends his narrative at WWI. No lesson is learned, no insight gained.

What I found most interesting was the massive parallels with our own Cold War. Really: it’s uncanny.

It might be more accurate to say that the Great Game was the incubator for the perspective and rhetoric of the Cold War. Russia is autocratic and bent, somewhat mysteriously, on world domination. Their tactics are spies and “grandmother’s steps”; a euphemism for patient opportunism, but with little tolerance for risk. It’s also the birth of geostrategy, a macro way of seeing the world that simply quantifies square milage, populations, resources, etc, and makes no mention of culture, or any other perspective. The largest country, in this way of thinking, inevitably comes to rule the world.

Most informative is the role of British politics. Successive governments of the Tories (conservatives) and Liberal governments see-saw back and forth across the decades. The Tories supported “forward” policies; active agents, gunboat diplomacy, and invasion, most notably of Afghanistan (three times) and Tibet. The Liberals favoured “masterly inactivity” which, as you might already suspect, was label as appeasement of the enemy by conservatives.

The domestic political cycle of fear, invasion, disaster/overreach, withdraw, hibernation, then fear again is clearly at work. Successive waves of Russophobia mix with exhaustion of foreign intervention and its massive financial and human costs. It’s empire at work.

By advice is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the colourful characters and locals of Victorian India and Central Asia drift by.


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