The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia
Peter Hopkirk (Kodansha International, 1992)
In recent years, there’s been talk of a new Great Game being played out over the oil-rich steppes of Central Asia. Where the oil and natural gas from countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will flow has been a matter of great debate between China and Russia as both try to spread and use their influence in these former Soviet Republics. This talk of a new Great Game piqued my interest not only in the current resource battles being waged, but more in the original Great Game – the century-long struggle between czarist Russia and Great Britain over Central Asian supremacy. To better familiarize myself with the subject, I read The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Middle East and Central Asia expert Peter Hopkirk.
The Great Game has many strengths, Hopkirk’s masterful writing being the highlight. All too often in histories, the author can get bogged down in minute details and the book, despite being well-researched, fails to interest the reader. This is hardly the case in The Great Game. In many places, the book reads like an adventure novel, keeping the reader fully engrossed in the story. Hopkirk’s writing makes the officers and officials on both sides of the struggle come alive not just as players of the Game, but as heroes that I found myself rooting for as they attempted to overcome natural and man-made challenges.
Much of Hopkirk’s great writing stems from his superb research. The author seamlessly incorporates dozens of primary sources, including the diaries and memoirs of many of the Great Game’s players. The reader is fortunate that Hopkirk has done his homework on the whole of the Game; the earliest years in the Karakoram are just as well-researched as the last stages of the struggle. The depth of knowledge that the author has on the subject is impressive and it shows in his writing. Combined with an almost literary style, The Great Game makes for an informative and enjoyable read.
That is not to say, however, that the book is without its faults. Most obvious is Hopkirk’s bias towards Great Britain in his depiction of the Game. Large swaths of the book are taken up by stories of British adventurers and officials that can often leave the reader wondering what the Russians were doing at the time. This is not to say that Russia is ignored in this history, far from it. However, accounts of British exploits are on the whole better researched and certainly more deep and colorful in their descriptions. This may not betray a bias in Hopkirk’s sentiments, but more a bias in the available documents. A quick glance at the bibliography shows a wealth of British sources compared to Russian ones. The gap is especially large when only looking at primary source material. That Hopkirk’s native language is English and that the book was written in 1990, at a time when Soviet archives might not have been accessible, makes the lack of Russian sources understandable, but no less regrettable.
Another area that sticks out to the reader is the very Eurocentricity of the account. While the Great Game was primarily a contest between Russia and Great Britain, with the Persians as nervous onlookers, the playing field was neither the British Isles nor the Russian steppe. Instead it was contested in the mountains of modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan and the deserts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The author does a superb job of portraying the heroes of the Great Game and in this perhaps he is unparalleled. But this period of imperialism involved more than just a few dozen Russian and British officers. There were countless emirs, officials and citizens in places like Khiva, Bokhara, and Kabul that felt the effects of the Game’s twists and turns much more intensely than those in Moscow and London. Indeed, it can be argued that the Great Game more significantly changed the fates of the nations that were invaded by the imperial powers than those of British and Russia themselves. As an example, the kingdoms of Khiva, Bokhara, Kokhand and Tashkent were subsumed into the Russian Empire as a result of the Game and were not independent again until the collapse of the Soviet Union, emerging as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan
Because much of what Hopkirk presents to the reader about these territories are only gleaned from Russian and British sources, one is left guessing as to what, for example, the Khivans thought as the Russians finally broke down the walls to their supposedly impenetrable city. What did the citizens of Hunza, high in the mountains of modern-day northeast Pakistan, think as the British fought their way into their kingdom? How did Russia building a railroad across their newly won colonies in Central Asia affect the lives of the herders there? These are questions that are left unanswered. There is undoubtedly a lack of primary source material that could answer these questions, but there is also a lack of curiosity in their answers. Hopkirk’s account focuses only on the great empires and the men who created them through force of arms, not on those whose lands were taken in name of spreading Christianity, opening new markets for European traders and creating buffer states to protect existing colonies. These passive players of the Great Game far outnumber the colonial heroes, but their story is not told, and rarely considered. From this view, The Great Game follows a long tradition of histories that, despite their meticulous research, lack a truly full perspective. Colonialism and imperialism are brutal, often one-sided affairs, but that does not mean their histories have to be as well.
Despite these shortcomings of perspective, The Great Game remains a book that is necessary for anyone looking to understand this period in the history of imperialism. Peter Hopkirk’s narrative is as engrossing as it is informative and gives the reader insights into the motives and outcomes on both the Russian and British sides. Most importantly by reading The Great Game, students of the past and and watchers of the present can better understand the ‘new Great Game,’ no matter which it is played.