Global Context (Central Asia): The Great Game

January 24, 2009 by Bruce Ashford

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This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions in particular. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk, is the single most valuable book one can read in order to gain an understanding of Central Asia. Hopkirk, formerly a reporter for The Times of London, pieces together research ranging from public news stories to private journals and intelligence files in order to chronicle Russia and Britain’s battle for supremacy in Central Asia. (Note: Central Asia, as a regional designation, generally includes Russia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, and the other “stans.”)

The title of the book refers to the “game” played between Tsarist Russia and Victorian England for control of the region. The term was coined by Captain Arthur Connolly of East India Company, who was beheaded in Bukhara as a spy in 1842. In Hopkirk’s masterful retelling of the story, we see the great game played out over more than a century and at the cost of thousands of Central Asians, in spite of their innocence.

In the first nine chapters, “The Beginnings,” Hopkirk sets the stage by tracing the historical context from the 13th century onwards. Chapters Ten through Twenty-Two chronicle the “Middle Years” of the game. He tells the story of countless British and Russian soldiers making their way into Central Asia, often in disguise, to gain information and seeking to form alliances. In general, Russia has the upper hand, making its way slowly toward England’s crown jewel, India.

In Chapters Twenty Three through Thirty Seven, “The Climactic Years,” we learn of Russia’s full frontal advance into Central Asia. Early in the 19th century, the two empires were separated by 2,000 miles, but a century later, the gap had narrowed to only 20 miles. England was paranoid about losing its grip on India and Russia decided to play on those fears, advancing toward India for its own benefit. The irony, as Hopkirk tells it, is two-fold: (1) Russia never really cared about India, and (2) a Russian invasion of India was highly unlikely anyway. It was separated from Russia not only by deserts and mountains, but also by treacherous tribes and local politics.

Who lost the great game? The real losers were the hapless Central Asians caught between two imperial powers who cared not one whit for them. Although the Central Asians were not always peaceful themselves, even those who were peaceful often lost their lives. Their rulers were given a black-and-white choice between two empires, but those empires cared nothing for these “pawn” people groups.

Christians seeking to live and work in a Central Asian context will be wise to take note that Western “Christian” nations have been among the chief culprits in the bloodshed and exploitations of the past century. The phrase “Jesus is Lord” does not conjure up thoughts of a God of love and of life. Rather, for them, it evokes memories of strife and bloodshed. Among the Tatars, for example, who were conquered by Ivan the Terrible, to call a person “baptized” is to call them the one of the strongest curse words in their contemporary vocabulary. It is for this reason, therefore, that believers who wear the name “Christian” will need to work hard, through word and through deed, to fill that word with new meaning.

One should also note that, throughout the book, Hopkirk never mentions a Central Asian woman playing a role in The Great Game. Those Central Asian women who are mentioned are the ones being taken advantage of by Westerners to plunder their cities. The overall impression gained from the book (and confirmed by present experience in some cultures within Central Asia) is that a woman is inferior to a man in her very essence. In Afghanistan, it is not hard to find men who will brag that their wife or daughter has never left their house. That is correct: many women never leave the home; they are not allowed to shop, to drive, or to socialize outside of the home. It is for this reason that women in this region are the “unreached of the unreached.”

Finally, it is evident throughout the book that Westerners have viewed, and treated, Central Asians as inferior people. Although this is evident throughout the centuries, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the West had come up with a sophisticated “scientific” apparatus for explaining exactly why and how they were inferior. Darwin’s biological evolution found its counterpart in the idea of cultural evolution.

This is seen, for example, in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, where Russia and England failed to see the Central Asians as equal to themselves. It is also seen, for example, in Hopkirk’s account of a British officer’s words: “Ultimately the British name will be blessed with the proud distinction…of having civilized the Turcoman race, which has for centuries been the scourge of Central Asia.” The Brits of Connolly’s generation believed that they were to take the message of salvation and Western civility to these people; since British rule was founded in the Christian faith, it was the best way to help the barbarians to become more civilized.

Hopkirk accomplished what he set out to do. He is a Brit and as such does lean a bit in favor of the Brits, but he does not do a bad job of being objective and calling out the bad guys, whoever they were. I recommend this book for those who are interested in doing serious reading about Central Asia.

Book: The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1994)
Author: Peter Hopkirk
Region: Central Asia
Length: 524 pp.
Difficulty: Intermediate Advanced

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