When Will the Great Game End?

Konstantin PENZEV (Russia)

Let us begin with some definitions as the scientific community does. The “Great Game” is the term used to describe the period of imperialist rivalry between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia between 1813 and 1907. But the term seems to describe only part of the phenomenon because the Game has been played in Central Asia for many centuries, with the only difference in modern times being that the players initially included Great Britain and later, after the collapse of the British Empire, its geopolitical heir, the United States. That point must be kept in mind if you wish to thoroughly understand the intricacies of Eurasian and thus international politics and the world economy.

It may seem to the modern reader that the term “rivalry” to characterize relations between Russia and Great Britain is rather flattering when applied to Britain. However, that opinion only reflects the current political situation. In speaking of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, we should point out that during that time period Great Britain controlled about one fourth of all the Earth’s land mass, about a fourth of the world’s population and virtually the entirety of the world’s oceans, and thus virtually all of the important maritime trade routes. Therefore, Great Britain in the 19th century was the greatest empire ever established by man. It took uncommon commitment and rare courage to compete with that military-economic machine. The Russians at the time possessed both in abundance.

The Russian Army’s march on India that was conceived and almost carried off by Emperor Pavel I set the stage for the Great Game. Historical and popular historical literature about the campaign pictures Pavel as a schizophrenic and maniac who sent the Cossacks off into the unknown towards India. But Pavel I was neither a maniac nor a schizophrenic. That description is denigrating and a label that the liberal intelligentsia likes to hang on many Russian rulers. The fact is that Pavel I wanted to conclude a treaty with Napoleon and share spheres of influence with him, correctly believing the great Corsican to be the most powerful player on Europe’s political stage. However, Pavel disregarded one significant factor. Russia at that time was actively trading with England by routinely exchanging raw materials for finished products, and some of the Russian nobility were profiting greatly from that trade.

The British government entered into negotiations with a group of influential nobles in the Imperial Court who were unhappy about the possibility that commerce between Russia and England could come to a halt. The negotiations resulted in a palace coup, a blow to the head with a snuffbox and the death of Pavel I, who had not bothered to take needed security measures. That was followed by Alexander I’s ascension to the throne, the War of 1812, the appearance of Russian Cossacks in Paris, the corruption of some officers by liberal ideas and the revolt and hanging of the Decembrists.

Plans for the conquest of India were not seriously discussed in St. Petersburg after the Napoleonic wars. Nevertheless, British diplomats were shaking in their boots throughout the entire 19th century at the thought that Russia might gain access to the Indian Ocean—through Persia or Afghanistan. The Crimean war, in particular, grew out of that panic (however, it is impossible now to say precisely what secret thoughts were brewing in the minds of the 19th-century Russian czars).

In any event, in 1888 a Russian almanac published an article entitled “Is a Russian March on India Possible?” It stated the reasons for the Crimean war as follows: “England’s rivalry with Russia was initiated by the former and found definite expression in the Crimean campaign. To defend the integrity of their Indian possessions, which the Russian had no thought of threatening, the British sought in every way possible to entangle Russia in European politics and draw its attention away from the distant Orient. They felt that the supremacy of our Black Sea Navy threatened Constantinople, which is situated on the road from Europe to India. Their intrigues were directed towards the destruction of that glorious fleet.”

It is difficult now to say with certainty what the English thought about the Black Sea Navy. In any event, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, the originator of the sea power theory, wrote: “It is hard to imagine a more threatening condition of naval power than the possession of the Black Sea and its impregnable entrance by a vigorous nation so close to the eastern highway of the world (The Influence of Sea Power on the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812).”

By “impregnable entrance” Mahan meant the Black Sea Straits, the Bosporus and Dardanelles, which link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Currently, the world’s second most important maritime trade route passes through the Mediterranean Sea, and until recently it was perhaps the most important. The capture of the Black Sea Straits by Russia would have given it a serious claim to world supremacy. According to Mahan: “It is difficult to understand how Russia can be quiet until she has secured an access to the sea [the Mediterranean] not dependent upon the good-will of any other State.”

It is curious that originally, or more precisely since Peter the Great’s reforms, the European maritime powers did not pay much attention to Russia’s progress northward and southward towards the sea. English naval officers served in the Russian Navy with complete freedom until virtually the end of the 18th century. As early as 1770, British officers were commanding Russian squadrons and ships, and one English admiral even received permission to enter St. Petersburg’s service with the promise that his former rank would be restored to him when he returned to his homeland. However, the circumstances changed radically a short time later.

What distinguished the political and economic situation during the 18th century was that Great Britain were fully aware from the outset of the goals established by Peter the Great for the Russian state and subsequent generations of Russian emperors, as well as the series of events that accompanied Russia’s historical movement and its struggle for access to maritime trade routes in the Mediterranean. But as Admiral Mahan put it so well, there is a difference between knowing facts and understanding their full significance. International politics changed greatly beginning in 1785. Russia won the northern Black Sea coast after the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774, and the Kyuuchuk-Kaynardzhiysky Peace Treaty of 1774 gave it the freedom to trade in the Mediterranean Sea.

In brief, the chronology of events in the Great Game was as follows:

Starting in 1813, the Russian military-political establishment achieved a number of successes against Persia (Iran), which were codified by the signing of the Gulistan (1813) and Turkmanchai Treaties (1828). The treaties ceded Russia the territory of present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan. The British military responded by training and arming the Persian army, and a crowd of Persians repeatedly besieged the Russian embassy at the instigation of British diplomats. One of the sieges ended in the brutal murder of the Russian poet and diplomat Alexander Griboyedov. The British government dragged its feet for a while; then in December 1838 it decided to take action. A 30,000-man corps crossed into Afghanistan in order to block Russia’s way to India, and a British protégé took power—Shah Shuja. The occupation of Afghanistan lasted three years, until an uprising broke out in Kabul in November 1841. Shuja was overthrown and the British expelled from the country—if the massacre perpetrated by the Afghans can be called that.

Russia increased its pressure on the South for this reason. In the words of the historian A. A. Mikhailov: “The abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861 gave domestic industry and trade a powerful impetus. Cities, factories and plants were flooded by many thousands of freed serfs. The increased production made the task of expanding markets especially pressing. Industrialists inundated government with petitions to increase market opportunities for their products, including in Central Asia” (from Battle with the Desert). What did the industrial lobby’s strong pressure on the government cause to happen? Central Asia was conquered. To what end? Russian industry got both a market outlet and a source of raw materials.

At the time, of course, they could not be satisfied with just central Asia. The great Russian geographer and explorer N. M. Przhevalsky was not just a scientist (and perhaps not much of a scientist); he was also a Major General in the Russian officer corps and clearly an active player in the Great Game. Another player was Sultan Chokan Valikhanov, a descendent of Genghis Khan, great-grandson of Ablai Khan and grandson of Wali Khan, who was a Middle Juz Kazakh. Valikhanov was born in the Kokchetav District in 1835 and was educated in the Omsk Cadet Corps. In 1856, a mission took him to Kashgar dressed as a merchant, and he crossed the Tian Shan in 1858. In 1859, Valikhanov was sent to St. Petersburg to work on the extensive ethnographic and historical material he had collected. There are numerous other examples of Russian intelligence and research activities in Asia during the 19th century.

Finally, Lord Disraeli, who was unable to sit passively by and watch Russia push to the South, gave the order to begin the second invasion of Afghanistan by British troops. The British government saw Afghanistan as a springboard for a Russian invasion of India. In January 1879, 39,000 British soldiers entered Kandahar. A guerrilla war broke out, and the British soon found themselves under siege in Kabul. Military failures led to the defeat of the Conservatives in elections and the fall of the Disraeli government in 1980. His successor, Gladstone, withdrew troops from Afghanistan and signed a treaty with the Afghan ruler that obliged him to coordinate his foreign policy with London.

Anglo-Russian relations worsened again in 1885. A Russian army commanded by General A. V. Komarov seized Merv and advanced on Afghanistan. The British government demanded that the local Emir repulse the Russian advance. Negotiations began after the Battle of Kushka (Mach 18, 1885) and resulted in the demarcation of a definitive border between the Russian empire and Afghanistan.

Over the next two decades, the Great Game mainly consisted of intelligence and espionage activities, and Tibet became the new playing field for geopolitical rivalry. After receiving information about Russian activity in that area, the British government gave the order in 1904 for its expeditionary forces to invade its borders. In 1910, the Manchu Empire struck back in Tibet by sending its own troops in, and the Eighth Dalai Lama fled to seek refuge with the British administration in India. This was followed by the London-inspired (there is little doubt of London’s involvement) Xinhai Revolution of 1911. Qing troops were forced to withdraw from Tibet, and the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa in January 1913.

The Great Game officially ended with the signing of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which established the Entente. Russia recognized Afghanistan as part of the British zone of influence. Both empires agreed to support Tibet’s independence and neutrality; Persia was partitioned into three zones of influence: a northern Russian zone, a southern British zone and a middle neutral zone left to the Shah.

Unofficially, the Great Game is still going on; and as Rudyard Kipling said, it will end when everyone is dead, i.e. it will never end. Of that we can be sure. Whereas the main players in the Great Game were Russia and Great Britain during the 19th century and Russia and the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries, in retrospect we can say that the main participants in this massive intrigue have been the North and the South; and it began as early as the first century BCE. Is that surprising? By no means. The emergence of the various representatives of Western civilization on the Eurasian political stage does not mean that nothing happened before that in the vastness of Eurasia.

What did the geopolitical situation in Eurasia, for example, look like from the Middle Ages until the Anglo-Saxons joined the Great Eurasian Game? And what might it look like today? A. Vandam (1867-1933) had this argument: “With their primitive outlook on life and primitive weapons, the Tatars [who the Tatars were is a very complex and interesting question—K. P.] solved the problem by dominating China and India. But we, as a people of higher culture, should take a different approach, specifically: end our advance across Siberia with access to the Yellow Sea to become the same kind of maritime state on the Pacific Ocean that England is on the Atlantic, and the same kind of guardians of Asia that the Anglo-Saxons of the United States are for the American continent. With that, we would be no poorer and no weaker than our rivals who are oppressing us so menacingly today?”1.

However, the prehistory and future of the Great Game is a topic for another conversation.

Konstantin Penzev – Russian historian and writer.


1 A.Vandam. Geopolitics and Geostrategy [Geopolitika i geostrategiya], Moscow: 2002, p 76.

Source: New Eastern Outlook


The Great Game Today

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
    1. Pingback: The Great Game Today | Oriental Review

    2. Pingback: VN MADE » Brazil’s Asymmetrical Challenges & the World’s Covetous Eyes on the Amazon

    3. Pingback: Morning Feature – Framing the Ukraine, Part II: Jewels and Spheres in the Great Game | BPI Campus

    Leave a Reply