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"The Great Game" by Peter Hopkirk

The Book: "The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia" (1990)

Peter Hopkirk in his book The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1990) describes the struggle between Great Britain and Russia for oil and natural gas in Central Asia, namely in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The author argues it to be a big international game, which is evident from various geopolitical issues, including their colonial policy in Asia and symbolical domination in the world. Hopkirk used the method of a living observer, so the reader fully immerses into the flow of history. The main topic of The great game is the domination in Central Asia in the 19th century, involving different countries in the colonial process of occupation of unknown and potentially wealthy territories, which often became a part of the global political conflict between Russia and Great Britain.

The principle of the Great Game is that Britain and Russia competed for dominance in the Asian region in the 19th century, the final goal of which was India. Captain Arthur Conolly coined the term, and it marked the process of confrontation between Imperial Britain and Tsarist Russia. In other words, it was a version of the Cold War. However, Hopkirk describes the Game as a historical period when different people, namely military leaders, politicians, merchants, adventurers and simply those who wanted to make big profits, tried to realize their ambitions. Thus, the author explained his strategy by the following words: “Whenever possible I have tried to tell the story through the individuals who took part in the great imperial struggle” (Hopkirk, 1992, p. 27). Nevertheless, for many people both in Britain and Russia, it was a great opportunity to prove their faithfulness to the authorities and thus to start a political career. In fact, these people did not understand that they were a part of the tsarist and imperial manipulation and played the role of chess pieces in the Game. The task of both countries was not only to accumulate wealth, but also to establish their symbolic power in the territories, especially in Kashgar, Khotan, Dehra Dun, and Bozai Gumbaz (Hopkirk, 1992, p. 48). Accordingly, the result was domination in India because it was the central transit zone for land and sea routes. Therefore, the author describes different strategies of influence, including the use of new weapons.

The author argues that the culmination of the Great Game was the Convention of 1907, which was the Russian answer to British political domination. In fact, it was another invisible confrontation and “the vast chessboard on which this shadowy struggle between Russia and Britain” took place (Hopkirk, 1992, p. 22). Hence, domination in Central Asian provoked unexpected solutions and strategies. At that time, the politicians defined contours of the unknown lands and developed plans on how to affect the Asian rulers. Despite this common goal, every regiment had its interests in Asia, some of which were absurd. For example, Hopkirk describes how many tribes should be under queen rule in Asia. Another question was how many camels must have the tsar in his Asian territories (Hopkirk, 1992, p. 102). These weird but real episodes suggest that Asia was terra incognita with general representations and stereotypes of both Britain and Russia. Therefore, as Hopkirk states, peaceful agreements between western and eastern countries were concluded and violated by both sides at the same time every day.

Hopkirk tells an interesting and real-life story about the travelers who went to Asian territories which no researcher had previously visited. The story about the officer Connolly is the most exciting episode in the book. The author tells how a young lieutenant Connolly arrived in a remote village in India, which was on the northwest border of British East India. The “daring, resourceful and ambitious” lieutenant had been traveling in the region for a year and went to the area between the Caucasus and the Khyber pass, which the Russian army had to pass. In fact, he was “the archetypal Great Game player” who had discovered new territories for the British Empire and its expeditions remained a sufficiently independent and original officer. Moreover, his figure reflects the ambitions of the British Empire, so his story is a perfect example of an individual’s involvement in the political vicissitudes.

The main contribution of the book is that it showed two ways in which Russia could go to India, the main interest of both countries and the buffer territory of modern Afghanistan. Therefore, it was important to develop a strategy of intervention into this territory for both Britain and Russia. Later, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and the Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin cautioned against the unwanted intrusion into Afghanistan: “We have examined this question from all sides (…) and I will tell you frankly: We must not do this” (Hopkirk, 1992, p. 142). As for Lt. Arthur Connlolly, he had a tragic fate since he was brutally murdered in 1842 in Bukhara. The author describes many similar stories, and each of them reveals both difficult and exciting times for many talented people in the 19th century.

The biggest drawback of the book is the author’s sympathy for British politics, which hampers the objectivity and impartiality of this book. This problem is especially noticeable when Hopkirk describes the Great Game, depicting the Russian players in a negative light or completely ignoring them. For example, he cites many facts about British scholars and officers, but he does not mention any about the Russian militaries as if they did not exist at that time. For the reader, it is important to have the same facts on both sides of the Game because otherwise the authenticity of the historical document is questioned. It seems that Hopkirk studied the British side more carefully; however, it does not mean that the author does not describe the Russian context at all. Judging from the bibliography, where the British sources dominate, it can be inferred that the author knows little about the course of events in Russia. Perhaps, it was because many Soviet archives were not open for the British researcher in 1990, and he physically had no access to them.

Another significant drawback is the lack of information about other Asian players in the Game, including Eastern emirs and politicians, which makes the book Eurocentric in its essence. Thus, Hopkirk portrays the progress of the Game mainly between Britain and Russia, ignoring the large Asian area, including the territory of modern Pakistan, the mountains in Afghanistan, and the deserts of Turkmenistan. Nonetheless, the official politics in such cities as Bukhara and Kabul felt the effects of the Game no less than the players in Moscow or London. In addition, the book does not describe how the Game has changed the history of the past colonialist nations and what happens to them now. For example, Asian kingdoms that were involved in the Russian Empire lost their independence as a result of the Game.

Finally, the problem is not only in the lack of data but the absence of the author’s position. The text simply avoids many important issues relating to passive players. For instance, the author did not even mention the buffer countries although they played a key role in the establishment of transportation of gas and oil. In this sense, the author avoids the following issues: how did Tsarist Russia build a railroad to transport oil? How did the citizens of Hunza, who live in the mountains of modern Pakistan, perceive the British colonialists? Hopkirk focuses exclusively on large empires and people, unfairly ignoring small and marginal nations. Perhaps, he ought to have taken a post-colonial position in order to get a complete picture of events, thus involving the “invisible” players in his description. However, the author did not note that one of the interests of Britain was opium, which also could create one more significant storyline in this book.

In conclusion, the book is a collection of stories from different players who participated in the colonization policy in Central Asia. For the author, it was important to create a compelling story based on different sources, showing how Imperial Britain and Tsarist Russia opened up new territories. The author did in-depth research, using many compelling arguments, facts, and documents, including archives, letters, and memories about that historical period. In fact, the colonialization of Asia was not only material expansion in search of oil and gas but also a symbolic confrontation of two world leaders. The most tragic fact about the event is that during the first “cold war” many brave officers, adventurers, travelers, and researchers were murdered or died during the Game in the unknown Asian areas. The author takes a Eurocentric position since there are not many stories from the Russian and Asian sides. Therefore, it would be better to provide a post-colonial discourse, revealing how the Asian countries perceived the British and Russian expansion. Nevertheless, the book is a compelling and serious study of the conflict between Imperial Britain and Tsarist Russia for dominance in Central Asia in the 19th century.