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Rivalry and the Art of Compromise: The Great Game Between Russia and Great Britain

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Rivalry and the Art of Compromise: The Great Game Between Russia and Great Britain


The “Great Game” and the War of Shadows were names given to the late nineteenth-century rivalry between Russia and Great Britain for influence in South and Central Asia. It was a geostrategic and political struggle. But it was also a duel between the intelligence agencies of two powerful empires and took very many interesting turns.

And here we are again, snarling at each other,

hating each other, but not wanting a war.

--Lord Palmerston

As early as the eighteenth century, the English had become concerned with Russian expansion to the south. They didn’t believe that Russias aim was to defend the Christians living beyond the Caucasus. At that time, the English were taking full advantage of India and pushing aside their direct competitors (France, Portugal, Holland) with all their might, but they also watched for even distant advances toward their main quarry and took precautionary measures just in case.

Map of British India (1909)

This is why the Russian army ended up battling against an adversary trained by English military instructors during the Russo-Persian War from 1804-1813. To Russias good fortune, these were unimpressive instructors—at least, judging by the victories of General Pyotr Kotlyarevsky and his small forces (in the battle of Aslanduz on 20 October 1812 and the Storming of Lankaran on 1 January 1813), which forced the Shah to acknowledge Georgia as part of the Russian Empire. The English even had to assist in concluding a peace treaty, since at the moment of its signing Russia and England had already been allies in the battle against Napoleon for several months.

But this still wasnt an episode in the Great Game, nor was the murder of the Russian ambassador Alexander Griboyedov in Tehran in 1829. (Popular literature claims that the English instigated this murder, but theres no proof.) One might also ask: What about when England tried to undermine Russia from entrenching itself in the Caucasus by aiding the locals with money and weaponswasnt this the start of the Great Game? It wasnt. Instead of England, it would be more appropriate to write: several impassioned English Russophobes. The part about the money and weapons is true, and thats not mentioning their secret trips to the Caucasus and press campaign. These activists tried with all their might to provoke their government into a conflict with Russia and despaired that their efforts failed in the face of cautiousness from London. Their anti-Russian passion didnt let up over the years. Many years later, in 1877, the most ferocious of them, David Urquhart died of despair after hearing that Russia had declared war on Turkey in the name of freeing the Balkan nations.

Once it had begun, the Great Game was like a chess match, consisting of alternating moves in lengthy and complex combinations. The Great Game proper began in 1857. Its important to understand the players motivations. First and foremost, these were empires, acting by the rules and traditions of empires during their time. Its common to condemn imperial politics today, but one cant apply later lawswhich dont act retroactivelyto any country. Englands primary motivation during the Great Game was a fear of losing India. Nineteenth-century British India included, besides present-day India, the territories of contemporary Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The main financial basis for Englands economic growth and prosperity for a period of over two centuries was the income that they received from this massive colonya fact familiar to any educated Englishperson at the time.

Russias Underbelly to the South

Russia didnt have a source of profits remotely like this one. Of course, the vast expanse beyond the Urals had brought in an income in the form of valuable furs from the 16th-18th centuries, but that hardly paid off the efforts invested there. Russia continued to invest in acquiring new territories without turning a profit up until the development of oil fields in Baku. And there was little reason to think they would bring a profitmany even thought these territories were a mistake. In the 1860s and 1870s, General Rostislav Fadeyev wrote newspaper articles and notes to the tsar demonstrating that the Asiatic territories were shackles on Russia. He was upset that the per capita tax on residents of the Caucasus was a quarter of the rate in Russia, while residents in Central Asia paid only a fifth. But Russia leapt forward.

Being in a natural state of geographical isolation (and quite often one of political isolation to the west), Russia was invested in finding new trade routes. As one would expect of an empire, on more than one occasion Russia tried to establish these routes with force. This was the cause for the Prince Bekovich-Cherkasskys Khivan campaign of 1717 and Peter the Greats Persian campaign (1722-23). Russian trade was obstructed with Bukhara, Samarkand, Kokand, and Herat by militant Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Khivans, Turkmen, and Kara-Kalpaks. The whole eighteenth century was marked by their raids on Russian, Kalmyk, and German settlements in the Lower Volga region.

Nomads robbed caravans, took prisoners, and sold captives into slavery in the Bukharan and Khivan khanates. In the 1830s alone they abducted around two thousand Russian subjects. Slave-holding and the slave trade may have been the main economic drivers of Bukhara and Khiva. In 1845 the English official Joseph Wolff gave a speech in London proclaiming that out of the 1.2 million people living in the emirate of Bukhara, 200 thousand were Persian slaves. Skipping ahead, two of the first measures undertaken by the Russian government after defeating the three monarchies of Turkestan was to order their rulers to free all slaves and to prohibit slavery. This fact alone allows us to accept the claim made in Soviet textbooks about the progressive significance of Central Asia being joined with Russia.

The Russian historian E. Iu. Sergeev writes: As the documents show, tsarist strategists were preoccupied with planning military operations in the Caucasus and ignored India right up until the Crimean War (The Great Game, 1856-1907 (Moscow, 2012), p. 68). But people who are afraid see danger everywhere, and alarmists in London accused their government of turning a blind eye to the Russian threat. The above-mentioned Urquhart called the English Foreign Minister (and future Prime Minister) Palmerston a Russian agent in print. (Does this remind you of anything?)

It was inevitable that Russia would expand from the Urals and South Siberia in the direction of Central Asia. The main reason was the obvious difference in potential between the empire and the archaic agricultural and nomadic monarchies. Russian goods (textiles, sugar, flour, and also instruments, metal and glass wares, clocks, dishes, andfrom 1850 onkerosene) needed to find new distribution markets, and Russian merchants needed access to cotton, silk, lambskin, rugs, and spices from Turkmenistan, as well as traveling Chinese goods. But trade caravans were subject to raids by bandits. Back in the Petrine era Russia started to form lines of defense along the perimeter of the Great Steppe, slowly moving them to the southto Orenburg, New Orenburg, the Sirdaryo Region, and the Aral District.

As early as the late 1820s, English scouts were found in Bukhara and Samarkand. The oases of Turkmenistan were enticingly close to North Afghanistan, which had tacitly become part of the British sphere of influence. Once they had secured their position in these oases on this still-neutral territory, a hostile England could cut Siberia off from Russias older regions with a quick move by their sepoy armyafter all these parts of Russia were joined only by a delicate umbilical cord of Siberian land.

V. Vereshchagin. The Spy, 1878-79

The events of 1839-1842 reinforced concerns in Petersburg. With an unclear motive, the English brought their Indian forces into Afghanistan and kept them there for over three years. The intelligence and rumors coming from Kabul were contradictory. Russia had every reason to worry that the English had effectively annexed Afghanistan and would make a move to the north at any moment, first taking the Merv oasis, at which point Samarkand and Bukhara would look like easy picking. If they crossed the Hindu Kush, what would prevent them from taking all of the lowlands in Turkestan? Its true that reliable intelligence arrived in 1842 to the effect that the English had suffered a total defeat in Afghanistan and left for home after losing 18 thousand soldiers. But the threat had been declared, and it needed to be met not at the border of the Ural-Siberian underbelly, but further south, preferably as far away as possible. Russia made a firm decision to advance its border beyond the wide swath of desolate deserts and semi-deserts. The struggle against bandits went onto the backburner.

How did this move southward go? The Kazakh khanate had ceased to exist back in 1822. Khan Kenesary tried to reinstate it, but he died in 1847 in a feud against the Kirghiz. Nearly all of the lands in todays Kazakhstan that hadnt joined earlier were now becoming Russian subjects, but the Crimean War stopped Russias further progress south.

The Game Begins

When the Caucasus had finally been stabilized and the Polish rebellion of 1863 had been put down (with Prussias help), Russia once more took up its expansion into Central Asia, which would continue almost to the end of the century. From now on the empire did not act in an ad hoc manner as before, but in a concentrated way, continually keeping the English factor in mind. The Great Game had begun.

England continued its worldwide expansion, conquering territories in South Africa, Burma, the West Indies, and Nigeria; making the Gold Coast (Ghana), Lesotho, and Sikkim into its colonies; putting the finishing touches on its possessions in Canada and Australia; and subjugating the semi-independent principalities of India (more than 600 of them!) to the British crown. Beginning in 1864 England occupied Egypt, seized Fiji and Cyprus, lashed out in Afghanistan and Ethiopia, and colonized Malaya.

The history of Russian-English relations in this period is a story of mutual jealous watch, veiled threats, mutual obstruction, intrigues, and temporary alliances at very high levels. Each side bluffed and tried not to be the first to blink, which more than once led to dangerous situations. But at a lower level, there were talks between Russian and English officers and mid-level diplomatsnot in the capitals, but on the basis of shared interests or on the neutral ground of proximity. There was no difficulty in understanding each other since both sides could speak in French. There were secret meetings between spies, as well as meetings between travelers in military professions. Through their shared efforts they helped avoid direct conflicts.

At the same time, Russia and England always had plans at the ready for fixing their problems militarily. Its characteristic that in an 1863 note to the Foreign Minister Gorchakov the Russian General Ignatev writes: In order to have peace with England and to force her to respect Russias voice, to avoid a break with us, it is necessary to bring the English government officials out of their pleasant misunderstandings in respect to the safety of their Indian holdings, the impossibility of Russia resorting to an aggressive action against England, the absence of enterprise on our part or of sufficient accessibility to routes through Central Asia. Ignatev knew what he was writing about: in the General Headquarters at that moment no less than three plans had been prepared for a campaign into India along various pathways.

In Russia, the thought was that everyone would be better off if the possessions of Russia and England didnt directly touch. It would be better if they were divided by an independent Persia and Afghanistan, and it would be better for them to remain independent. Russia needed to border these nations directly, since British India already bordered them on the opposite side. Of course, the northern borders of Persia and especially Afghanistan were not entirely clear. The situation in Pamir was also unclear, not to mention Tian Shan. And the question remained: Was it necessary to absorb the Central Asian khanates or would it be enough to make them protectorates of Russia (allowing for the free movement of Russian troops)?

Despite the backwardness of their monarchies, the khans and emirs of Central Asia were quite militant. Thus, the Kokand khanate actively seized land from the Kazakhs and Kirghiz and fought Bukhara with variable success. Bukhara wouldnt be outdone and constantly fought with the Khivan and Kokand khanates over Merv, Chadzhou, Khujand, and Shahrisabz (Tamerlanes favorite city). But the rulers actions covered over another picture. We find it in the writings of an ethnographer (an officer of the General Staff and friend of Dostoevsky) Shoqan Walikhanov (1835-1865), a Kazakh by birth who didnt see any need to sugarcoat. He writes about the terrible desolation of great expanses, that giant emptiness, where at times abandoned aqueducts, canals, and wells appear; about the burial mounds of ancient cities, long ago covered in sand, where saiga antelope and wild donkeys roamed; about poor wattle-and-daub huts with impoverished residents oppressed by their faith and the will of their rulers.

V. Vereshchagin, The Mausoleum of Gur-e-Amir. Samarkand, 1869-70

The memory of ancient kingdoms, poets, astronomers, incredible manuscripts, palaces, and mausoleumsall of this could not on its own become a motive force capable of pulling this impoverished land out of the Middle Ages. These kingdoms trapped far from a coastline could only flourish as long as dependable trade routes crossed through them. But the Great Silk Road was no more, and the lands lying along it were falling into stagnation and regression. There werent navigable rivers; the Amu Darya and Syr Darya lead to the dead end of the Aral Sea. Only an external power could pull them out of this state of regression and decline.

The Central Asian Campaign and Masterly Inactivity

On the initiative of military minister Miltyutin, the great campaign into Central Asia began in 1864. Before the end of 1865 several important cities in the Kokand khanate had been seized, including Tashkent. The following year Russia occupied Khujand, standing at the entry to the Fergana Valley, and the path to Kokand was open. Another campaign wasnt needed, however, as talks began and the war ended with the signing of a trade agreement between Khudayar Khan of Kokand and the governor general of Turkmenistan, Konstantin von Kaufman, in 1868. In spite of its modest name, this agreement gave the Kokand khanate something like vassal status and opened for Russia a direct pathway to the Chinese market, since Kokand possessed two passages leading to western China. They were not immediately successful in making use of this asset: for several more years revolts against the infidels rocked the Fergana Valley. As a result, the khanate was abolished in 1876, and its territories were divided into two oblasts, or regions: Sirdaryo (centered at Tashkent) and Fergana.

The emir of Bukhara also did not capitulate right away, but only after the capture of Samarkand. Samarkand Oblast was cut out from the territory of the emirate, and to appease the emir the Russian army returned the rebellious borderlands to his command and reinstated a link with Bukharas possessions in Pamir.

At first, England reacted with studied skepticism. One could read in the Times: In Petersburg they continue to contemplate projects for adding the East to a single large empire… Such projects will certainly show themselves to be a mad and impossible fantasy. Judging by the (temporary) lack of retaliatory acts, the English leadership thought it best to maintain this point of view. The viceroy of India, Northbrook, wrote to Minister of Indian Affairs Argyle: The more Russia expands its holdings [in Turkestan], the more it will be vulnerable to our attack, and the less power it will have to respond. That is, let the situation develop, and well respond when necessary. Such views came to be known as masterly inactivity, but they could not prevail forever.

The English press was less cool-headed. At all stages of the Great Game the press reinforced its worries with an information war. There were endless references to the fictitious Testament of Peter the Great (a falsification that had appeared back in 1836) with a complete program for conquering the world. According to the Testament, a global Russian state was only possible if Russia controlled Constantinople and India.

Caricature from the times of the Great Game

From the beginning of the 1860s on, Russia was always one step (or move) ahead, and England didnt dare raise the stakes for several years. Russia instated the General Governorship of Turkestan at avery opportune moment (1867). And they also established a port on the Caspian Sea at an opportune moment (1869), which began the unification of the vast Caspian oblast (todays Turkmenistanby contemporary measures, that is three times Bangladesh, plus Ceylon). This territory didnt have a single ruler but belonged to a number of warring seminomadic tribes, and control over it turned out to be decisive in the outcome of the Great Game. A historian demonstrates that these two events forced London to turn to Petersburg on 30 October 1869 with the idea of a friendly agreement (entente cordiale; the first time an Entente was declared!). Talks about the two empires respective spheres of influence continued from that moment forward for almost 40 years. The search for harmony several times hung by a thread.

The Border Between Empires

In the end a clever solution was found. If you look at a map of Afghanistan, its hard not to notice the long and thin appendix sticking out from its northeast corner. Were talking about the so-called Wakhan Corridor, artificially cut out of the South Pamira in 1895 to separate British India from the Russian Empire. And it worked! But a new round of the Great Game was already getting ready to startin the Far East.

Many perceived the shift in Russias attention to China and the Pacific coast as an attempt to creep up on India, this time from the northeast. The activities of Russian researchers in Tibet and nearby, the travels of Russian (Buryat and Kalmyk) Buddhists to Lhasa, Russia being pulled into the Chinese conflict with Muslims in western China, the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, and now the building of naval bases in Vladivostok and Port Arthurit all reinforced this perception. On this basis, England made plans for an assault on the Ussuriysk region and the Amur River estuary, preferably in alliance with China and Japan. The English strategists didnt know that (as the historian E. Iu. Sergeev explained) back in 1888, in anticipation of this turn of events, a special commission was established in Vladivostok to consider the possible ways in which naval cruiser could take action against the navies of Britain and the Qing dynasty. And once more things were worked out.

An accord signed by Russia and Great Britain in Saint Petersburg on 18 August 1907 put an end to the Great Game. Russia recognized Afghanistan as a protectorate of England, and England recognized Bukhara and Khivan as protectorates of Russia, as well as the inclusion of the rest of Central Asia in the Russian Empire. Russian and English spheres of influence were defined in the north and south of Persia, respectively, which proved useful in 1941 when the USSR and England moved their troops into this country during the war.

The Great Game kept all of Europe, and nearly all of Asia, on edge for half a century. In time it engendered its own literature with a tendency toward mystery, behind-the-scenes episodes, spy operations, and so forth. But these entertaining pieces of writing usually miss the main point: the efforts of these two empires over many years helped them solve seemingly insoluble problems regarding their respective spheres of influenceincluding the most disputed issuesand to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable interests without resorting to force (or almost without resorting to force). There were plenty of hawks on either side, but patience, sense, and the desire to find compromises won out. The Great Game enriched the practice of diplomacy with the concepts of buffer states, natural borders, de-escalation, accords, and spheres of influence (or interests), which hadnt previously existed in the conceptual apparatus of foreign affairs.

[Bukharan General and Officers]

Its clear now that the main beneficiaries of the Great Game were the peoples of the territories that were ripped out of the Middle Ages and joined to the Russian Empire. Left to its own devices, Central Asia would be something like a giant Afghanistan. Its not for nothing that a monument to Nikolai II was erected in Khorugh, Tadzhikistan, in 1995long before such monuments appeared in Russia.

While we recognize the right of some national groups to see things differently, it would have been a pity if there were no Central Asian period in Russias history: if the adventures of Chernyayev and Stoletov had not happened; if we didnt have the works produced by Vereshchagin, Karazin, Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky, Przhevalsky, Mushketov, and a brilliant plead of cartographers, surveyors, geologists, and botanists; if there were no Semirechye Cossacks or Kushka with its giant cross looking southward; if Tibet, the Fedchenko Glacier, the Peter the Great mountain chain, the great border passages of Erkeshtam and Torugart had not been part of Russian history.


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