Monday, July 09, 2012

[Books] Book Look: The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk

Book Look: The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk: I picked this up because I was so impressed with last month's Trespassers on the Roof of the World. The style is similar (a good thing), highlighting individual stories of daring and adventure with a fair amount of bloodletting, all in the context geopolitical history.

"The Great Game" is a term popularized by Rudyard Kipling to describe the maneuverings of the British and Russian Empires for control of central Asia -- call it the area of modern day Iran, Afghanistan and portion of the other 'Stans (Turkmen-, Uzbek-, Kyrgyz- and Tajik-) -- from the mid-19th century through the early 20th.

The British motivations were actually quite simple. They feared for the safety of India from invaders. This fear waxed and waned with political fashion. When it waxed, they adopted a "forward" policy of directly influencing the tribal governments often through military intervention, or threats thereof. When it waned, they used bribes, promises of protection, and other forms of coercion to try to keep a wide cushion of influence between them and the Russians to the northwest.

The Russians were, even then, and enigma wrapped in a mystery. Their motivations remain speculative, but like the Brits, their efforts at expanding their empire moved in sync with internal politics. Often the Russian motivation was simple geographic (and therefore economic) expansion, or the same with the purpose of eventually giving them a southern coastal outlet. Sometimes the stated purpose was protect the indigenous population from the barbarities of British rule. Sometimes it was the Tsar's duty as protector of Christianity to do some aggressive protectin' in light of the fact that Russians on the fringes of their empire were often kidnapped and sold into slavery by plundering Muslims.

Where you point fingers of good and evil in this is almost certainly going to be a function of your existing prejudices rather than an objective reasoning, despite what you may think about yourself. For me, it was telling that lands and people that came under British influence were often quite better off, provided they could stomach the loss of self-determination. Native operatives and military personnel were often fiercely loyal to their British superiors, engaging in remarkable acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. The Russians, on the other hand, were arrogant pricks at best, and had no hope of ruling other than with the threat of violence.

But that's my reading. Hopkirk does a good job of staying as neutral as possible. He has researched Soviet historians on the topic and well as all the archives the British have on hand, although one must realize that much of this was shadowy intrigue -- not the sort of stuff you put on record.

The Great Game can almost be read as an adventure novel. Much of it takes place in some of the most remote points on the globe, and showcases people undertaking astounding hardships to reach destinations where they have no idea if they will be met with hospitality or beheading. If they survive they then find that situations have changed so much that the mission orders they received are irrelevant or have been overtaken by events. The men profiled in this book have to have been some of the most resourceful people who ever lived.

Hopkirk follows the key players through the years, identifies the political and strategic aspects of the Game and even passes along some personal insights gained from his travels in the area.

Should you read The Great Game? Yes...but, it is a long book -- nearly six hundred pages. Trespassers on the Roof of the World, the precursor to this book focussing on the Tibetan portion of the Great Game, is a good deal shorter. You may want to start there to make sure it is to your taste. If it is, do not hesitate to follow it up with The Great Game. It's a classic for a reason.