Great Game

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Great Game


In intelligence history, the "Great Game" described a complex rivalrycharacterized by wars, assassinations, and espionage conspiraciesbetween Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia and the Near East.

In many critical facets, the mentality of the Great Game foreshadowed that of the Cold War and remains an important factor in world geopolitics at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The Soviet Union's incursion into Afghanistan in 1979 prompted the United States to support the Mujahedin throughout the 1980s. Ultimately, during the coursings of shifting political priorities, the United States formed and then broke ties with a number of factionsincluding Mujahedin elements that eventually found their way into the Taliban regime (deposed by the United States in 2002) and the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

The deep suspicion and resentment that many of the Islamic peoples of Iran, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and neighboring regions now harbor against Russia, Britain, and more recently the United States, may in part be explained by the region's experience withand resistance tothe imperialism of the Great Game.

The "Tournament of Shadows." The main friction points were the Black Sea, the Baltic regions, Persia, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the Punjab, and the steppes and deserts between the Caspian Sea and China. The Russians called this extended intrigue the "Tournament of Shadows," a term coined by Count Karl Robert Nesselrode (17801862), but in the West it was known as the "Great Game," apparently the coinage of Arthur Conolly (18071842), a British military diplomat and spy against Russia in Persia, the Caucasus, and the Himalayas from 1829 until Nasrullah Khan, emir of Bokhara (reigned 182611860), beheaded him in 1842.

In the mid-nineteenth century the two greatest world powers were Britain under Queen Victoria (18191901) and Russia under Czars Nicholas I (17961855), Alexander II (18181881), and Alexander III (18451894). This was true despite the acknowledged naval superiority of France over Russia. Russia was jealous of Britain's conquest of India and ascendancy over France since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Russia was especially worried that British expansion along the northwest frontier of India would eventually threaten its own borders and thwart its longstanding quest for the warm-water port it needed to enhance both its navy and its merchant fleet.

From 1804 to 1864 the czars gained territory between the Black and Caspian Seas and from 1824 to 1895 they vigorously expanded west of the Caspian Sea into Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, threatening China as well as the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Afghanistan, and India. This rapid and steady expansion of the Russian Empire into Central Asia alarmed the British, but there was little they could do about it. They soon began sending spies among native populations to learn of Russian intentions and to forge alliances against possible Russian incursions.

The earliest sortie of the Great Game was the expedition of Henry Eldred Pottinger (17891856) and Charles Christie (d. 1812) from Bombay through Baluchistan to Herat in 1810. Their mission was to spy out possible overland routes by which Russia might invade India. Meanwhile John Malcolm (17691833) was negotiating with Persia to prevent any such attack. John Macdonald Kinneir (17821830) analyzed these routes and published his results in A Geographical Memoir of the Persian Empire (1813). Similar probes by both the Russians and British, such as the journey of Nikolai Nikolaevich Muraviev (1794?1866) to Khiva in 1819 and that of William Moorcroft (17671825) to Bokhara in 1820, soon became common.

The exploits of General Alexis Yermolov (17721861), the Russo-Persian War (18271828), and the Russo-Turkish War (18281829) all further aroused British suspicion that Russia might have designs on India via Persia. Colonel George de Lacy Evans (17871870) galvanized these nascent fears with two pamphlets, On the Designs of Russia (1828) and On the Practicability of an Invasion of India (1829). British spies and military advisers actively helped Persian Prince Abbas Mirza (17831833) against Russia in the 1820s.

Evidence is strong, but proof remains absent, that Russian spies fomented unrest among the various native populations of the Indian subcontinent and surrounding lands so that they would arise against the British. Chief among these conflicts were the two Anglo-Afghan Wars (18391842 and 18781880), the two Anglo-Sikh Wars (18451846 and 18481849), and the Indian Mutiny (18571858).

The Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830 and the Imperial Russian Geographical Society in 1845. By mid-century both were fronts for spying expeditions in Asia. Among the earliest of these missions were the journeys of Alexander Burnes (18051841) to the Punjab in 1831 and to Bokhara in 1832. John McNeill (17951883), a British diplomat in Tehran, published anonymously in 1836 The Progress and Present Position of Russia in the East, which bolstered British rationale for keeping a sizeable network of spies in Central Asia.

In the 1830s Conolly was one of the busiest of these "explorers." He was a religious zealot who believed it was Britain's duty to civilize Islamic Central Asia by converting its natives to Christianity. As such, he was a typical hero of Victorian imperialism and "muscular Christianity." The emir of Bokhara would have none of that, and tortured him and Charles Stoddart (18061842) in a pit for several months before executing them. The more successful British operatives, such as Burnes, had greater respect for native culture.

On the northwest frontier of India, the British had a staunch ally in Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh (17801839), against whom Dost Mohammed (17911863), emir of Afghanistan, sought help from Russia. Afghanistan in the 1830s became a diplomatic nightmare for Britain, as the colonial government in Calcutta sought to widen the buffer between India and Russia in this crucial region. Soldiers of fortune complicated the mix, such as the Italian adventurer Paolo di Avitabile (17911850), who ruled Peshawar for the British from 1835 to 1843. In 1837 Henry Rawlinson (18101895), en route from Tehran to Herat, happened upon a Russian delegation led by Yan Vitkevitch (d. 1838), headed toward Kabul. The rivals uneasily backed off from each other. Subsequently Vitkevitch was partially successful in sowing anti-British feelings among Dost Mohammed and several other Afghan leaders.

Burnes became the British envoy to Afghanistan in 1836, headquartered in Kabul. Eldred Pottinger (18111843) helped the Afghans defend Herat against Russia and Persia in 1837. These two skilled operatives might have been more successful if Burnes had not been placed under the command of Conolly's cousin, William Macnaghten (17931841), whose critics described him as "ignorant and tactless." Increasingly distrustful of Dost Mohammed, the British plotted to install Shah Shujah (17801842) as puppet ruler of Afghanistan. Macnaghten's bungling prompted the Afghans to rise up and murder Burnes. Macnaghten himself, perhaps the victim of an elaborate plot of entrapment, was murdered by Mohammed Akbar Khan (18181847), son of Dost Mohammed, as summary justice for being caught in the act of double dealing with Afghan tribal leaders. The incompetent General William Elphinstone (17821842) allowed nearly his entire command to be massacred while retreating from Kabul to Jalalabad.

Besides Kabul, Bokhara, and Herat, several other cities attracted both Russian and British interest, notably Khiva, Khokand, Kashgar, Merv, and Kandahar. James Abbott (18071896) journeyed from Herat to Khiva in 1839 and 1840. In 1840 Richmond Campbell Shakespear (18121861) persuaded Allah Quli (d. 1842), Khan of Khiva, to free his Russian slaves, probably as much to incite insurrection and destablize the region as to make a diplomatic or humanitarian gesture.

Count Nikolai Pavlovich Ignatiev (18321908) was the leading Russian spymaster in the Great Game. After a series of successful diplomatic missions to China, he served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1864 to 1877. Utterly ruthless and with keen intuitions about military strategy, he sparked clandestine anti-British operations in India before the mutiny and throughout Central Asia for most of the rest of his career.

In the 1850s France and Britain were both anxious to bolster the sagging Ottoman Empire and thus prevent Russia from gaining unrestricted access to the Mediterranean Sea through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus. Britain knew that Russia's main objective was Constantinople, not Calcutta, but conducted its foreign policy as if Russia desired both. Thus the Crimean War could be seen as part of the Great Game, because it served to divert Russia's attention from India for a while.

Meanwhile the British worked hard, especially in the wake of the Indian Mutiny, to rebuild alliances with native Asian leaders. These efforts were mostly successful, even though the native rank and file scarcely trusted the British again. Because Persia was allied with Russia, Britain applauded when Dost Mohammed recaptured Herat from the Persians in 1863. Sher Ali (18251879), another son of Dost Mohammed, was emir of Afghanistan from 1863 until his death. At first he favored the British, but his gradual shift toward Russia prompted the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The British replaced him with his nephew, Abdur Rahman (18441901).

By 1865, Yakub Beg (18201877) in Kashgar was the main potentate between China and Russia. Robert Barkley Shaw (18391879) and George J. W. Hayward (1840?1870) made separate trips to Kashgar in 1868, ostensibly to "survey," but really to try to create a British alliance with Yakub Beg. The Russians made similar overtures, but also sent troops to the region under Konstantin Kaufman (18181882). Francis Younghusband (18631942) led several expeditions through western China, finally entering Lhasa, Tibet, in 1904, ahead of the Russians.

The British grew bolder. Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (18421885) dared to travel from St. Petersburg itself to Khiva in 1876. James Thomas Walker (18261896), surveyor general of India, ordered more spying expeditions, as did the Russians. By the late 1880s, Britain clearly had the diplomatic advantage in the regions of Central Asia that Russia had not already annexed.

Russian power declined under Czar Nicholas II (18681918) in the first decade of the twentieth century. In August, 1907, the Anglo-Russian Convention in St. Petersburg formally ended the Great Game, although the posturing and espionage continued.



Edwardes, Michael. Playing the Great Game: A Victorian Cold War. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1975.

Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. New York: Kodansha International, 1994.

Ingram, Edward. The Beginning of the Great Game in Asia: 18281834. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

James, Lawrence. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.

Khan, Munawwar. Anglo-Afghan Relations, 17981878: A Chapter in the Great Game in Central Asia. Khyber Bazar-Peshawar: University Book Agency, 1963.

Meyer, Karl Ernest, and Shareen Blair Brysac. Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999.


Geologic and Topographical Influences on Military and Intelligence Operations

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Great Game

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