The Great Game was a defensive cold war for control of Central Asia and Afghanistan and their wealth and access to British colonies in South Asia. Lasting roughly from 1830 to 1900, it pitted imperial Russia, which was expanding to the south, against Britain, which was intent on protecting India and spreading its sphere of influence into Central Asia and Afghanistan. Rudyard Kipling used the term “Great Game” in his novel “Kim”. “Bukhara” Burns, the author of “Travels to Bokhara”, is credited with coining the term.

The Great Game for the most part was played with diplomats, adventurers, railroads, spies and local rulers rather than direct confrontations between military forces. A great effort was made on both sides, particularly the British, to gain access to particular areas and other "favors" by currying up with loyal local leaders.

Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, western China and Afghanistan were more important in the Great Game than Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan because they formed the buffer zone between the Russian Empire and the British-Indian Empire. Geok Tepe in 1881 is regarded as the last event of the Central Asian chapter of the Great Game.

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in the Washington Post: Central Asia’s “unmapped terrain represented prime real estate to the expanding Russian Empire and to the British Empire in India. Over decades, the Russian czars sparred with Queen Victoria for influence, all parties sending their spies and emissaries to appease the khans, emirs and shahs who ruled the region. Many of those sent were killed. In one grisly incident in 1842, two British agents, Capt. Arthur Conolly and Col. Charles Stoddart, were captured, forced to dig their own graves, then beheaded by the emir of Bukhara, a city in present-day Uzbekistan. Ironically, it was Conolly who, in a letter to a fellow spy just five years earlier, had coined the phrase the "Great Game." Rudyard Kipling enshrined the term in his novel "Kim," the story of an orphan boy who is groomed by the British secret service to go "far and far into the North, playing the Great Game." Central Asia was eventually swept into the Russian Empire. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the communists chopped the territory up into separate Soviet Socialist Republics. For more than 70 years, no one disputed the communists' hold on Central Asia.” [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, Washington Post January 29, 2006]

Book on the Great Game, Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Caucasus: “The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland” by Karl E. Meyer (Century Foundation/Public Affairs, 2003)


Russia and the Great Game In Central Asia

Russia viewed Central Asia as territory in its own backyard vital for security and necessary as a buffer zone and a stepping stone to the coveted warm water port on the Arabian Sea. The British, who had been established in India and South Asia for some time were looking to expand their empire and protect it from Russian advances. At the beginning of the 19th century, Central Asia was largely in the hands of local khans, emirs and warlords.

In the 1860s, after seizing present-day Uzbekistan, Russian tsarist armies. Russians slowly advanced towards Afghanistan and India by capturing the khanates of Kokand, Bukhara, Khiva and Merv with military forces. The British tried to slow the Russian advances by persuading the local leaders to do as they wished. There were no direct military battles between the Russians and British.

In 1859, after forces of Aleksandr Baryatinskiy had captured the legendary Chechen rebel enough territory to form the Guberniya (Governorate General) of Turkestan, the capital of which was Tashkent. The Bukhara (Bukhoro) Khanate then lost the crucial Samarqand area to Russian forces in 1868. To avoid alarming Britain, which had strong interests in protecting nearby India, Russia left the Bukharan territories directly bordering Afghanistan and Persia nominally independent. The Central Asian khanates retained a degree of autonomy until 1917. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Russian diplomatic and military interests later returned to Central Asia, where Russia had quelled a series of uprisings in the 1870s, and Russia incorporated hitherto independent amirates into the empire. Britain renewed its concerns in 1881 when Russian troops occupied Turkmen lands on the Persian and Afghan borders, but Germany lent diplomatic support to Russian advances, and an Anglo-Russian war was averted. *

Britain and the Great Game In Central Asia

Britain became alarmed about the Russian threat to South Asia in 1838 when Herat in Afghanistan, which had been deemed the “key to India,” was the goal of siege by Russia-backed Persia. The entire Central Asian region became a concern when Merv fell and the Russian tsar Nicholas I proclaimed that the “Tartarian frontier”—a reference ti Central Asia—was “the best and only convenient line to assail India.”

In some ways the British fear were justified. One Russian general wrote in 1855: “our presence in Afghanistan will promote the risings of the Indians against the hated English rule.” After the Sepoy Mutiny on 1857 — in which Indian Hindu and Muslim soldiers under British command fought each other and the British army— many Russians felt that Indians hated the English so much that all the Russians had to do was break into Indian territory to set off a major uprising.

The main problem that the British had, one colonel admitted, was Central Asia was “a region of the world which we have left most unexplored, and with which we have the least communication.” Some sought profit there and met tragic ends. Early British travelers to the region also had a bad experience: James Baille Fraser was captured and nearly killed by Turkmen in 1822. William Moorcroft who went to Bukhara in search of a breeding horse died (possibly from poison) in 1825.

British Figures in the Great Game

The presence of the British in Central Asia was limited and rather ineffectual but given more attention than perhaps it deserved because of the mysterious, unexplored nature of Central Asia, the romanticized stories about the places and people that lived there and the riveting accounts of some of the players, whose books became bestsellers back in Britain.

These players included Alexander Burns, the author of “Travels to Bokhara” and the man credited with coining the term “the Great Game”. He was among te first Europeans to visit Bukhara. The Reverend Joseph Wolff was an eccentric Jewish-Anglican clergyman who trained in a Catholic seminary and traveled to Bukhara to uncover what had happened to Stoddart and Connolly (See Below). At one point when he was he Pamirs he was robbed of all his clothes and continued on his journey naked.

Captain James Abbott was sent to Khiva in 1839 to convince the khan there to release all the Russian slaves there so that Russia would not have an excuse to attack and annex the khanate. At that time Khiva was the home the largest slave market in Central Asia. Recounting his experiences in the book “Journey from Herat to Khiva”, he was captured by Turkmen, narrowly escaped execution and managed to make his way back to England. Captain Richmond Shakespear achieved the objective of winning the release of 418 Russian slaves in Khiva in 1840. Theses tactics delayed the Russian capture of Khiva, a stepping stone to Afghanistan, by 33 years. See Separate Article: RIVAL KHANATES, SLAVERY AND ENTRANCE OF RUSSIA TO CENTRAL ASIA

Stoddart and Connolly and the Bug Pit

Colonel Charles Stoddart came to Bukhara in 1838 on a diplomatic mission to persuade the emir there, Nasrullah 'the Butcher," to support British military activity in Afghanistan during the time of the first Afghan War. Stoddart has been described as temperamental character with an exaggerated sense of honor. He refused to obey local laws forbidding infidels to ride horses and requiring them to wear special clothes. For the crimes of arriving without a gift for the emir, refusing to be frisked when he approached the emir. and presenting a letter from the governor-general of India rather than Queen Victoria, Stoddart was thrown in the Bug Pit. The Bug Pit of Zindan Prison (behind the Ark in Bukhara) is where enemies of the emir waited to have their throats cut with a sheep butcher’s knife after they were tortured. It is so named because it was filled with unpleasant insects as well as spiders, ticks, rats, and scorpions. Stoddart remained in the Bug Pit for two years until Connolly showed up.

Arthur Connolly, author of “A Journey North of India”, went to Bukhara to secure Stoddart’s release. Connolly had just been ditched by his girlfriend and in may ways acted on his own. He entered Bukhara as a “private traveler.” He arrived with heroic ambitions of not only rescuing Stoddart but of winning the support of the emir for a plan to unite Bukhara, Khokand and Khiva under British rule. For his trouble, Connolly too was thrown in the bug pit, where he and Stoddart remained together for a year. The British government did virtually nothing to help them.

On June 24, 1842, Col. Stoddart and Capt. Connolly were let out of the pits and marched into the into the city square in front of the Ark. "Filthy and half-starved," one historian wrote," their bodies were covered with sores, their hair, beards and clothes alive with lice." While crowds cheered and musicians played drums and pipes, they dug their own graves and were executed. The executioner seized Stoddart’s hair and slit his throat with a knife usually used for butchering sheep. Connolly it was reported could have saved his life if he repeated the Muslim creed, but he didn’t and his throat too was cut.

Another occupant of the bug pit, or at least a prison similar to it, was an Italian named Giovanni Orlando, who was captured in 1851 after encouraging marauding Kazakhs to raid Bukharan estates. He managed to initially escape trouble by building a clock for Emir Nasallah. After the clock was made the emir was delighted and Orlando was accorded special privileges but after he was discovered drunk with an Armenian the Emir told him he would have to renounce Christianity or face death. The Italian refused. Even after his execution nicked his neck with a blade he refused to renounce his religion and was ultimately beheaded.

Great Game in Xinjiang (Western China)

Russian influence was arguably stronger than that of China or Britain in Xinjiang (present-day western China). In 1890s there were rumors that the Russian czars were going to invade Xinjiang. In 1930 camel caravans traded Russian cigarettes, matches and sugar for Xinjiang wool. In 1935,British journalist Peter Fleming wrote that Kashgar "in effect was run by secret police, the Russian advisors and the Soviet Consulate."

China's hold on Xinjiang was weak. There were frequent rebellions, shifting alliances and civil wars. Both Britain and the Soviet Union felt they had a chance to claim the region. Kashgar was filled with spies and conspiracies. Fleming wrote: "You never know what to expect at a banquet in Kashgar and each of our official hosts had prudently brought his own bodyguard. Turkic and Chinese soldiers lounged everywhere; automatic rifles and executioner's swords were much in evidence, and the Mauser pistols of the waiters knocked ominously against the back of your chair as they knelt over you with the dishes."

The British had some success in western China with the warlord Yakup Beg, a Tajik of low birth who rose through the ranks in the Kokand empire was awarded large chunk of land in western China. In 1867, he grabbed Kashgar, giving him control of most of western China.

The British were one of the first to recognize Yakup Beg's claim on the land. The Russians established trade links between Kashgar and its Central Asian possessions. Spies, diplomats, adventurers and opportunism appeared in Kashgar not only from Britain and Central Asia, but also the United States, Turkey and other places.

Yakup Beg played Russia and Britain off one another and finally tried to strike a deal with Russia but his advanced were spurned because Russia wanted to friendly relations with Manchu China. Russian troops entered the region, Yakup died mysteriously and the British changed tactics and bankrolled a Manchu Chinese offensive into the area.

The Chinese cracked down brutally on the local people, and drove the Russian's out. When the dust cleared the British were left out of the formula when the Chinese established Xinjiang Province ("New Territories") in 1882. But at least their main objective was achieved: keep the Russians from getting closer to South Asia and India via the via passes into what is now Pakistan.

Explorers and Spies During the Great Game

Groundbreaking expeditions by Francis Younghusband and Nikolay Przhevalsky in Central Asia were motivated by the desire of Russia and Britain to control Central Asia. Przhevalsky traveled through Mongolia, west China, Kazakhstan and other eastern former Soviet Republics between 1870 and 1880. Younghusband, a British explorer-spy, traveled west from China into Central Asia and what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan between 1886 and 1894. While in western China, he came across a large Russia force in the Pamirs.

Przhevalsky wrote about his experiences and findings and received awards for his contributions to science and geography. Advised and inspired by another great Russian traveler Pyotr Petrovich Semenov-Tyan-Shansky, chairman of Russian Geographic Society and explorer of the Tian-Shan mountains, Przhevalsky led pioneering expeditions that crossed the Mongolian and western Chinese deserts and mountains. He explored and described the Alashan and Kunlun mountains; discovered a number of mountains and lakes; and had a wild horse he first described to the West named after him. The goal of his most famous expedition was Lhasa in Tibet. Unfortunately, he never reached it. When the expedition was just a couple of days away, his group was told by Tibetan ambassadors that foreigners were not welcome in Lhasa as they might attempt to steal the Dalai Lama. In 1888, as he was preparing another expedition to Lhasa, Przhevalsky died of typhoid in Kyrgyzstan. He was buried on the shore of Issyk-Kul lake there with the simple epitaph "Traveler Przhevalsky" on his grave. []

Swedish explorer Sveb Ander Hedin spent more than 50 years (1885 to 1935) exploring and mapping the deserts of Central Asia, Tibet and western China. He traced the Silk Road and the source of several rivers. In the 19th century Xinjiang was was explored by European adventurer-archaeologists such as Hedin and Britain's Sir Aurel Stein. Stein (1863-1943) was a Jewish Hungarian-born explorer who pioneered the study of the Silk Road and looted Buddhist art from caves in the western Chinese desert. Accompanied by his dog Dash, he carted away a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist, Chinese, Tibetan and Central Asia art and texts in a number of languages from the ancient city of Dunhhaung and gave them to the British Museum.

One of the most memorable figures of the Great Game was Shoqan Uaalikhanov (1835-65), a writer-explorer, statesman and spy who was the grandson of a Kazakh khan. He graduated from a famous Russian military school and was a friend of Dostoyevsky. He traveled extensively in Central Asia and filled notebooks with also sorts scientific and anthropological observations. Shoqan’s greatest claim to fame was his infiltration of Kashgar disguised as a Muslim merchant. It is said he was only the second European since Marco Polo to enter the city (the other fellow was beheaded after his identity was discovered).

The following is one of Shoqan’s journal entries: "In Kashgar, and in the Six Cities in general, there is custom that all foreigners upon arrival must enter into marriage.".The wedding is conducted in due form, and all that is required of the groom is that he consummate the union with his bride. So as not to depart from common procedure, and at the insistence of our new friends, we too were obliged to submit to this custom."

According to one rumor, T.E. Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia fame, came to Xinjiang to lead an effort against the Russians and formed commando groups made up of local tribesmen.

Chinese Take on the Great Game Period in Xinjiang

According to the Chinese government: “Not long after the outbreak of the Opium War, the Uyghurs and Huis in Kuqa, influenced by rebellions of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and the Nian Army uprisings by ethnic minority peasants in Yunnan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, launched an armed uprising in 1864. People in Urumqi, Shache (Yarkant), Ili, Barkol, Qitai, Hami, Mori, Jimsar and Changji responded. Uprisings against the Qing court swept Xinjiang, and several separatist regimes came into being. However, a handful of national and religious upper elements usurped the fruits of the uprisings under the cloak of "ethnic interest" and "religion," and became self-styled kings or khans. The warfare that ensued among them brought still greater catastrophes to the local people. [Source: |]

“Britain fostered Yukub Beg, the General Commander of the Kokand Khanate in 1865, who invaded Xinjiang and established the Zhedsar Khanate (Seven-City Khanate). Yukub Beg was a tool in the hands of Britain and Tsarist Russia, who wanted to split Xinjiang. He exercised cruel rule and, in the name of Allah, killed 40,000 non-Muslims in southern Xinjiang. His persecution was also extended to Islamic believers, who were tried at unfair "religious courts." The local people had to shoulder the war burdens, supplying warring factions with food grain, fuel, vehicles and draught animals, and the local economy suffered catastrophic damage. Bankrupt peasants fled, and some had to sell their children for a living. The slave trade boomed at local bazaars. |

“To preserve Russia's vested interest and maintain an equilibrium in influence with Britain in Central Asia, the Tsar, behind the back of the Qing Court, signed illegal commercial and trade treaties with Yukub Beg. Russia claimed that it could not "sit idle" while there were uprisings in the provinces in western China, and in the name of "recovery and defense upon request," it sent troops to occupy Ili in 1871 and started a 10-year period of colonial rule. The Russian troops forced people of the Uyghur, Kazak, Hui, Mongolian and Xibe tribes into designated zones in a "divide and rule" policy. Many Uyghurs had to flee their home towns, and moved to Huicheng and Dongshan. |

“It was in the interest of all ethnic groups to smash the Yukub Beg regime and recover Ili. So many local people supported the Qing troops when they overthrew Yukub Beg and recovered Xinjiang in 1877. However, not long after the Qing government had signed the "Sino-Russian Treaty of Peking" and the "Tahcheng Protocol on the Delimitation of the Sino-Russian Border," whereby China was compelled to cede 440,000 square kilometers of land to Russia, the Qing Court again concluded the "Ili Treaty" with Russia in 1881. Although China recovered Ili, it lost another 70,000 square kilometers of territory west of the Korgas River, and was charged nine million roubles compensation. On the eve of its withdrawal from Ili, Tsarist Russia coerced more than 10,000 Uyghur, Hui, Mongolian, Kazak and Kirgiz people to move to Russia. Farmland, irrigation facilities, houses and orchards were devastated and food grain and animals looted. Five of nine cities in Ili became virtually ruins, and the Uyghurs in the nine townships on the right bank of the Ili River were reduced to poverty.” |

Struggle in the Pamirs and the End of the Great Game

The capture of Merv and the Pandejah oasis by the Russians in 1884, raised alarm that the Russians were going to try and annex Afghanistan and the Pamirs. The British controlled the Punjab Valley and Peshawar Valley in northern Pakistan.

Both the Russians and Britons set up offices in Kashgar and were courting leaders in the Pamirs, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountains and using spies, posing as explorers, traders, Muslim imam and Buddhist monks to establish contacts and keep an eye on the enemy.

The British were angered by presence of Russian troops in the Pamirs and proceeded to seize the Hunza valley in northern Pakistan. Around the same time the Russians were fighting in northeast Afghanistan.

All of this activity brought Russia and Britain to the negotiating table. A series of agreements hammered out in 1895 and 1907 that gave the Russian the Pamirs (present-day Tajikstan) and established the Wakhan Corridor, the finger of Afghanistan that touches China. The Wakhan corridor was attached to northeast Afghanistan as a no-man land between Russia-controlled Central Asia and Britain-controlled India (Pakistan). The agreement on the Pamirs for all intents and purposes brought the Great Game to an end. But spy activity in Kashgar and other places continued.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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