The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk

Why is history so important? Because it helps us to understand better our present, realize the deep reasons of recent events and make more accurate forecasts regarding consequences they may have. Why do we learn nothing from history? Well, perhaps because we keep ourselves too alienated, too distant from the events that happened in the past and forget that history is nothing but a sum of decisions and actions made by individuals.

The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk is one of those rare books that turn boring academic, historical reading into a breathtaking, thrilling, and eye-opening experience. Peter Hopkirk shows a century of confrontation between Great Britain and Russia in Asian regions through the lives and fates of people involved in the Great Game. There is no abstract “Britain” or “Russia” or “Persia” in the book, but there are people of flesh and blood, with their motives, wills, and ambitions. The book is written like a very good thriller. You see the grandiose chess game developing in the map of Asia and suddenly understand that it is not all over yet. The geographical names mentioned in the book are the same as those you might read on the morning news. Places of the strongest political tension in the modern world are the same that were in the 19th century. Kabul, just to mention one. “I wish our politicians would have read it before we went into Afghanistan and Iraq, one reader wrote in his review, and this is the thought you can’t get rid of throughout the book.

In early 19th century, Asia was not explored by Europeans well enough. The maps of Afghanistan, Tibet and surroundings were very approximate with many white spots on them. Europeans also lacked information about multiple tribes and nationalities that lived in the rocky and deserted area. Any pieces of information about landscapes, aboriginal people and their attitudes toward strangers were priceless those days. Great Britain needed to know everything about the lands that laid between India and Russia, Britain’s major competitor in this area. Young (many players of the Great Game were just 20 or a bit older) men volunteered for research expeditions to Asian countries and gained valuable information, sometimes at price of their health and lives.

Along with the heroism of Asian pioneers, Peter Hopkirk draws the meanness and unscrupulousness of politicians – both Russian and British. Though the author does not give moral appraisals, providing readers with the facts, it is impossible to stay calm and objective when reading about the decisions that were motivated by the greediness and/or stupidity and/or ignorance and cost a thousand innocent lives. What a miserable fate to be a pawn in the Great Game of superpowers!
It is particularly interesting to read about cross-cultural conflicts that developed in Asia, where British, Asian and Russian ways of thinking and ways of acting clashed. Although The Great Game covers the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, it delivers a message to the contemporary audiences. We think that the world is changing so fast, but in fact many things have not been changed for ages. Any modern problems the world faces today are rooted in the Great Game. At least, it is useful to know the rules…

1 thought on “The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk

  • Esta Jenth 2018-10-31 at 10:41

    Hopkirk’s book is excellent.

    The Great Game, or at least that part of it that involved a contest between the UK and Russia, was played more actively by the U.K. than by the Russians. The U.K. sought to protect their imperial holdings in what is now India and Pakistan, in part by extending their dominion to what is now Afghanistan. They sought to protect their empire against perceived (but largely imaginary) Russian threat.

    Tsarist Russia was preoccupied with establishing control over the region north of the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, Meshed and the Amu Darya — the region of Eurasia east of the Caspian to the “borders” (such as they were) of China and Mongolia. Russia had enough trouble controlling Turkmen bandits in the Karakum Desert and subordinating Khiva, Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent to formulate campaigns to take Kashmir or the Punjab let alone navigate the Ganges.

    Hopkirk provides a fascinating account of the U.K.’s horrific military misadventures of aggression into Afghanistan as well as its largely unsuccessful covert and clandestine attempts to establish commercial trade relationships in the area of Eurasia claimed by Russia as within its area of influence.

    As for the wish that Russian leaders had read Hopkirk or the history he covers before venturing into Afghanistan, they did. Russia neither precipitated nor desired the 1978 Afghani Saur Revolution, although they supported the socialist government that resulted (not that the new government in Kabul accepted Moscow’s input or proved particularly cooperative).

    The declassified documents reflect the Soviets’ profound dismay with the multiple simultaneous mujahedin insurgencies mounted against the incompetent Kabul regime and thorough indecision as to how to respond to the problem. Enter the Americans — particularly Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter — who convinced Carter to issue a “secret order” on July 3, 1979 to covertly support the most radical mujahedin factions, the Haqqani Network and the Hekmatyar organization.

    Why? There was labor unrest underway in Poland led by the group that later became Solidarity, and Brzezinski realized that having radical Islamic fundamentalists further destabilize an already unstable Afghanistan on the USSR’s southern border of largely Islamic republics would force a Soviet invasion that promised to be a “Soviet Vietnam” (Brzezinski’s words). A Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would make an invasion of Poland to quell the labor unrest impossible. Brzezinski was correct.

    The rest is of course history.



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