• Email
  • Print

The Empire’s New Clothes

In 1914 the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen calculated that the Russian Empire had been expanding for over four centuries at an average daily rate of fifty-five square miles, or more than 20,000 square miles a year.

At first this seems an absurd statistic, the sort of mistake made by people who can’t remember how many zeros make a million. How could any country, over a period of four hundred years, annually absorb territory almost twice the size of Belgium? But Nobel Prize winners understand about zeros—Nansen won his in 1922 for relief work in Russia—and a glance at a pre-Yeltsin atlas makes the calculation comprehensible. As Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac point out in their estimable book Tournament of Shadows, Siberia alone is much larger than the continental United States.

In the eighteenth century, after absorbing Siberia, tsarist Russia concentrated on the west and the south, collecting territories stretching in a long arc from the Baltic to the Black Sea. During the subsequent hundred years Russia’s forces moved southeast, from the Caspian to the Aral Sea, from the Aral to the borders of Afghanistan and the Chinese Empire.

Samarkand, Bokhara, and Tashkent fell as the independent khanates of Central Asia were overthrown. In 1800, two thousand miles separated the tsarist realms from the frontier of British India; by 1876 the distance had been halved, and before the century was over the outposts of the world’s two largest empires were barely a dozen miles apart in the mountains on India’s northwest frontier.

Perhaps these Russian conquests were inspired by historic memories of ancestral humiliation, the desire to avenge the Mongol invasions, the exhilaration of colonizing the heartland of the Golden Horde. Perhaps too there was a vague belief that occupation of the empty steppe was the strategic key to the domination of Asia. But the circumstances of the age were surely more vital—the excitement of military adventure, the restlessness of officers with nothing much to do after losing the Crimean War. Why shouldn’t Russians use Asia as Europeans were using the American continent? If the North Americans hadn’t stopped until they hit the Pacific, why should Russia hold back before it reached China and India? In any case, what was wrong with aspiring to invade India when Britain was tiresomely thwarting Russia’s aim of dismembering Turkey and grabbing Constantinople?

This expansionism was explained in terms similar to those used by other colonial powers: trade, security, the imperative of “civilizing” savage tribes—though the Russian mission civilisatrice was expounded a little more brutally than was usual in Western Europe. As Nikolai Przhevalsky, a brilliant explorer, argued, the Asian conquests were not only glorious for Russia but were victories for mankind: “Carbine bullets and rifled cannon bear those elements of civilization which would otherwise be very long in coming to the petrified realms of the Inner Asian khans.”

The Western ambassadors in St. Petersburg remained baffled by the number of distinct and often contradictory policies emanating simultaneously from different corners of the government: one ministry (foreign) was conciliatory, another (defense) was bellicose, a third (finance) was cautious, while officers on the frontier, encouraged by Tsar Alexander II, pressed on without orders but with the confidence that they would be congratulated later. As Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac write, the government seldom authorized the conquests, but neither did it relinquish the new territories afterward.

Without official sanction General Cherniaev stormed Tashkent in 1865, a feat regarded as too glorious to reverse, so that the wretched Foreign Ministry was left struggling to convince the world that the occupation of the city was only “temporary” (an adjective which turned out to mean 126 years). After rewarding Cherniaev for taking Tashkent, the Tsar (known as “the Liberator” not because he “liberated” other people’s lands but because he emancipated the serfs) urged General Kaufmann to capture Khiva in 1873 and ordered General Skobelev not to take a step backward during his conquest of Geok-Tepe (1880-1881), where that officer massacred thousands of the Tekke Turkmen in accordance with his “principle” that “the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter you inflict on the enemy.”

Taking a step backward would in any case have been a very uncharacteristic move for the Russians, who had not voluntarily withdrawn from anywhere except Alaska (which they had sold to the US for $7 million in 1867). No power was more aware of the relentless nature of the Russian juggernaut than Great Britain, whose rulers were also very conscious that India’s history was largely one of conquest and settlement. As one Russian general gleefully remarked, India had been successfully invaded from the north and west no fewer than eighteen times.1

Its size and armed power made Russia by itself an alarming opponent for the British. But allied to France it became a terrifying prospect. La Grande Armée had invaded Russia in 1812, but before that Napoleon had discussed proposals with two Tsars for a joint invasion of India. In 1807, casting himself in his favorite role as a modern Alexander the Great, he made an agreement with Persia that would have enabled French troops to march through the Shah’s territories before expelling the British from India. By the end of the nineteenth century Russia and France were again close allies, with armed forces (900,000 and 600,000 respectively) far outnumbering the 315,000 men (plus 148,000 native Indian troops) with whom Britain tried to defend its possessions around the globe. Apprehension in London and Calcutta that the French and Russians might combine to cut the route between the two capitals was understandable even if sometimes it sounded a little paranoid. When the French demanded a coaling station at Muscat, did it really mean they were planning to help Russia reach the Gulf in return for St. Petersburg’s support of France’s position on Tangier and Bangkok?

Lord Salisbury, the preeminent British statesman after 1885, was a realist who understood that it was futile for a small island that refused to accept conscription to threaten to fight wars around the world. It was more sensible to remain firm about a few strategic places, such as Constantinople, Egypt, and India’s northwest frontier, and stay flexible about the rest. Diplomacy should be used quietly, without giving offense, and above all without offending Russia and France simultaneously. When his daughter showed surprise at his mild reaction to Russian aggression in China, Salisbury replied that in six months’ time he would be on the verge of war with France in Africa and could not afford to antagonize Russia beforehand.2 He knew he had to be tough with the French where it mattered—in this case the Upper Nile—but he could be generous about places where Britain had no interests. When France annexed Madagascar after promising not to, he shrugged his shoulders because Madagascar did not matter. Nor did Tunis. When the Parisian press was indulging in a frenzy of Anglophobia, he placated the French prime minister with the words “Prenez Tunis, Carthage ne doit pas rester aux barbares.3

During the nineteenth century Britain evolved a three-tier policy with which to confront the Russian menace to India. The first priority was to safeguard the route between London and Bombay by ensuring control over the Suez Canal: France was thus excluded from Egypt while Russia was prevented from taking Constantinople, thereby leaving its fleet bottled up in the Black Sea and limiting its influence in Greater Syria. Secondly, pursuing the aim of avoiding direct confrontation with Russia, Britain labored to create buffer states by dominating Afghanistan (and later Tibet) and buttressing decrepit Persia and declining Turkey. And thirdly, in case the worst happened and the Russians actually did invade, India had to be made ready to defend itself either on or beyond its borders.

The second and third of these policies are the principal subjects of Tournament of Shadows, a contest known as the Great Game. (The phrase was first used by one its bravest victims, Captain Conolly, who was executed in 1842 by the Emir of Bokhara, and publicized much later by Kipling’s great novel Kim.) From the beginning, Britain’s leaders disputed among themselves about not only the Game’s tactics but also what board it should be played on. As foreign secretary in 1840, Lord Palmerston argued that, since the Russian and British-Indian armies were bound to meet one day, it was important to ensure the meeting took place as far as possible from India instead of “staying at home to receive the visit.” The “Forward School” accepted this argument for three generations, demanding British garrisons in Afghanistan and insisting that the policy of “masterly inactivity” would be interpreted as weakness, an encouragement to the Russians to invade and to the native Indians to rebel.

Opponents of the Forward School dismissed its assumptions. The subject peoples, they said, would not rebel as long as they were well governed; Afghanistan would be difficult to defend and not worth the trouble; the Russians would be easier to defeat on the Indian frontier, where their lines of communication would be long and insecure, than in the solitudes of Central Asia. As the Viceroy of India, Sir John Lawrence, put it in 1867,

…Let [the Russians] undergo the long and tiresome marches which lie between the Oxus and the Indus; let them wend their way through poor and difficult countries, among a fanatic and courageous population, where in many places, every mile can be converted into a defensible position; then they will come to the conflict on which the fate of India will depend, toil-worn, with an exhausted infantry, a broken-down cavalry, and a defective artillery.

Each side had a passionate and cogent case, and each enjoyed periods of influence over the governments in London and Calcutta. But hindsight, restricted to what happened rather than what might have happened, gives its verdict against the Forward School. As Meyer and Brysac show, the invasion of Afghanistan in 1838 was the most complete humiliation in the history of the British Empire—a cocktail of viceregal arrogance, diplomatic stupidity, and military ineptitude leading to the annihilation of the invading army on its way back. The war was entirely pointless—the Russians were still then at the northern end of the Caspian—and incomprehensible to almost everyone, including the Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed, who could not understand “why the rulers of so great an empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country.”

Forty years later, the Forward School persuaded a Conservative government (against the advice of the foreign secretary, Salisbury) to authorize another attempt to intimidate the Afghans. A similar combination of viceregal and diplomatic incompetence ensured the murder of the British Resident and his staff in Kabul, but total disaster was averted this time by an adroit political maneuver and a successful military campaign. The British offered the now vacant Afghan throne to a claimant backed by the Russians, defeated on his behalf his principal rival, and promised to withdraw their troops; they thus secured what they had wanted all along, a buffer state run by a strong, subsidized, and friendly ruler. Yet although they had now learned the lesson—that the conquest of Afghanistan was pointless in aim and almost impossible in practice—their Russian adversaries required another century (and another military disaster) before they too absorbed it.

The Great Game had its thunderous moments—a cacophony of ultimatums, mobilization, and invasion—but for the most part it was played in a minor key by obscure officials and adventurers, pawns intent on thwarting their opposite numbers, map-makers and frontier officers, pundits (Indian surveyors usually masquerading as merchants), and explorers who provided information about the tribes and geography of the lands between the two empires. Meyer and Brysac regard these as the “true heroes” of the tournament, contrasting their “courage and brilliance” (and the violent deaths they often suffered) with the “feckless irresponsibility” of their superiors, blundering from a distance and seldom accountable for the disasters they caused.

The cast of characters the authors have assembled is memorably portrayed on the immense tournament field of the Game. In one corner is Surgeon Brydon, sole survivor of the retreat from Kabul in 1842 and later a survivor of the epic Siege of Lucknow; in another is Przhevalsky, who, when not using carbine bullets to bring “elements of civilization” to savage nomads, was busy discovering a wild horse (Equus przewalskii) and previously unknown plants such as Rhododendron przewalskii and Euonymus przewalskii. We are introduced to the indistinct but remarkable figure of Agran Dorzhiev, the Russian Mongol and Buddhist lama who inadvertently provoked the British invasion of Tibet in 1904, and Duleep Singh, the deposed Sikh maharajah who pleaded in Moscow for the Russians to conquer India. The Swedish explorer Sven Hedin is also here, a ruthless and sinister figure whose principal hero (until he met Hitler) was the last German Kaiser, and so is “Hatter” Bailey, a master of disguise recruited in Tashkent by the Bolshevik secret police to catch a particular British spy—himself, as it turned out.

In their well-written and fair-minded book, Meyer and Brysac use these and many other characters to tell the story of the Game, leaving readers with a powerful sense of what it was like to be a participant. The sheer sweep of the contest, its imperial scale and its exhilaration, are admirably conveyed.

The climax of the Great Game coincided with the apogee of the British Empire, Lord Curzon’s viceroyalty (1899-1905), and an event the authors call “the last classic imperial adventure,” an invasion of Tibet undertaken in the belief that Russia was about to establish a protectorate there. Curzon arrived in India with a reputation as an alarmist drawn to confrontation: on hearing of his appointment, the Liberal politician Sir William Harcourt begged him as “a personal favor” not to make war on Russia in his lifetime.4 By the time he left nearly seven years later, the Tibetan excursion had enhanced his reputation as the last leading exponent of the Forward School. Yet as Meyer and Brysac recognize in a fine chapter on his life, his position was much more complicated.

Curzon was the most traveled man ever to sit in a British cabinet. As a young MP, he had made arduous journeys in the East and had published important works on Persia and the Far East as well as Russia in Central Asia. He had traveled on Russia’s Transcaspian Railway and seen how the line increased the threat to Persia and Afghanistan. He had witnessed the Russianization of the conquered cities, their bazaars straightened out, their tea and opium supplanted by beer and vodka. And he had been to the mountain town of Chitral in the Hindu Kush, recognized its strategic importance, and persuaded Salisbury’s government that a small garrison should be retained there (just in time, it later turned out, to prevent Russia from seizing it).

Yet he did not criticize the Russians for wanting to expand and impose order in Central Asia; and he did not believe they would invade India in force, though they might launch a diversionary attack to dissuade Britain from interfering with their schemes for Constantinople. In typically Curzonian phraseology, at once orotund and facetious, he dedicated Russia and Central Asia to “the great army of Russophobes who mislead others, and the Russophiles whom others mislead.” The book, he predicted, would be found “equally disrespectful to the ignoble terrors of the one and the perverse complacency of the others.”5

Curzon’s viceregal policies also were hardly compatible with the dogmas of the Forward School. He waged no wars, sanctioned only one major expedition (to Tibet), pulled the army back from the frontier, and concentrated on improving Britain’s position with the two main buffer states, Persia and Afghanistan. As Meyer and Brysac acknowledge, he much preferred to spend money on restoring the Taj Mahal and other Indian monuments than on building “impossible forts in impossible places…to sustain an impossible siege against an impossible foe.”

In retrospect it could be argued that the Great Game effectively ended in 1895 with the British keeping hold of Chitral and an agreement between London and St. Petersburg settling the frontier between Afghanistan and Russian Asia. A more conventional moment, accepted by the Great Game’s principal historian, Peter Hopkirk,6 is the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Although the deal was criticized by Curzon in the House of Lords (thereby enshrining his reputation as a Forward man), it enhanced the security of India by restricting Russian influence to northern Persia and excluding it altogether from Afghanistan. By that time, moreover, an agreement had become a financial necessity. Under sustained industrial challenge from America and Germany, Britain could no longer afford militant frontiers throughout the globe. Circumstances had also changed, and by now Germany, busy multiplying its navy and driving hard for colonies, had emerged as the most dangerous potential enemy. The enmities of the past were thus quickly dropped, an agreement with France (the entente cordiale of 1904) preceded that with Russia, and the foundations of the World War alliances were put in place.

In the last part of Tournament of Shadows the authors strike out beyond Hopkirk’s territory and extend the tournament’s duration into the 1960s. The approach is prefigured at the beginning of the book when the Game is called “a Victorian prologue to the Cold War” and the Americans are described “first as bit players, then as partners, and finally as successors to the British, just as the Soviet Union carried on the imperial policies of the Tsars.”

Theodore Roosevelt, whom Meyer and Brysac describe as the first President to “articulate a truly global role” for the US, would certainly have appreciated this description. His breezy expansionism was well suited to the late Victorian age, and he agreed with his friend Kipling that the Anglo-Saxon powers should jointly shoulder the White Man’s Burden. But not many other Americans thought of themselves as Britain’s partners; they might not have wanted to be enemies (despite intense anti-British feeling over the Venezuelan boundaries dispute in 1895), but they were at best peaceful commercial rivals. It was a British rather than an American leader who later compared their countrymen’s respective roles to those of the Greeks and the Romans.

It is also a little facile to see America’s Asian policy in the twentieth century as a sequel to Britain’s in the nineteenth. Of course they had common features, such as the desire to keep Russia out of Afghanistan and the Gulf. But the underlying aims were dissimilar. While Britain opposed the Russians because they threatened its principal imperial possession, the US did not care about India—in fact it has preferred to have good relations with China and Pakistan—and confronted the Soviet Union for very different reasons throughout the world. Nor can American efforts to gain influence and secure oil supplies in Southwest Asia be plausibly compared to Britain’s encouragement of buffer states along the Tsar’s southern boundaries.

Yet if the “successor” thesis seems somewhat tenuous, the last third of the book contains well-recounted descriptions of episodes as diverse as the “international race for antiquities” in Central Asia, the Nazis’ fascination with Tibet as “the supposed cradle” of the Aryan race, and the CIA’s clandestine program of training Tibetan guerrillas in the mountains of Colorado.

In a wise epilogue, the authors sum up their view of the reality of the Great Game. Reacting to what they saw as the Russian (or sometimes Franco-Russian) menace over a period of seventy years, the British occupied Egypt, invaded Tibet, fought two wars in Afghanistan, and eventually divided Persia into spheres of influence. But astonishingly there was no actual fighting between the tournament’s contestants, except in the Cri-mea, where the war was fought for other reasons and with the French on the “wrong” side. India never in fact came under real threat of invasion, and in retrospect it seems unlikely that the Russians could ever have got there in sufficient strength to conquer it.

Toward the end of their research, Meyer and Brysac went to London to see Harry Hodson, an old and eminent former journalist who had been long familiar with their terrain. When they told him their view that “the antagonists in the Great Game were mutually prone to exaggerating each other’s capacity for mischief,” he enthusiastically agreed. Britain’s “overriding fear,” he said, had always been that the Russians would occupy Afghanistan with “calamitous results”; but when in 1979 they eventually did so, he observed, “it really didn’t matter.” Obviously it mattered disastrously both to the Russians and the Afghans—and it certainly contributed to the breakup of the USSR—but it did not disturb strategic positions or balances of power. One hundred forty years after a British army had been exterminated in the retreat from Kabul, it was finally demonstrated that Afghanistan “didn’t matter.”

The following day Hodson wrote a note that the authors use appropriately as an epitaph to their subject: “In the light of history, I think the Game really was a game, with scores but no substantive prizes.”

  1. 1

    Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia (London: John Murray, 1990), p. 524.

  2. 2

    Lilian Penson, Foreign Affairs under the Third Marquess of Salisbury (London: Athlone, 1962), p. 16.

  3. 3

    Andrew Roberts, Salisbury (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999), p. 203.

  4. 4

    Harcourt to Curzon, August 13, 1898, Curzon Papers.

  5. 5

    Russia in Central Asia in 1889 (London: Frank Cass, 1967 reprint).

  6. 6

    See note 1.

  • Email
  • Print