The Great Game



The Great Game

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For other uses, see The Great Game (disambiguation).


Map of Central Asia today

Map of Central Asia circa 1848

“The Great Game” (also referred to as the Tournament of Shadows (Russian:Турниры теней, Turniry Teney) is a term used to describe the political and diplomatic confrontation that existed during most of the 19th Century between the British Empire and the Russian Empire centered around Afghanistan and its surrounding regions. The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running approximately from theRusso-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, in which nations like the Emirate of Bukhara fell. A less intensive phase followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, causing some trouble with Persia and Afghanistan until the mid 1920s.

The term has informally been used since the late 1990s by some journalists as a metaphor to describe what they believe to be the geopolitical machinations of the Great Powers and regional powers as they vie for geopolitical power and influence in the area, especially in Afghanistan and Iran/Persia.[1][2]

Origin of the term “The Great Game”[edit]

A watercolor of Lake Zorkul, Pamirs, by British Army officer Thomas Edward Gordon (1874).

The term “The Great Game” is attributed to Arthur Conolly (1807–42), an intelligence officer of the 6th Bengal Light Cavalry.[3]

In July 1840, in a correspondence with Major Henry Rawlinson who had been recently appointed as the political agent in Kandahar, Conolly stated:

You’ve a great game, a noble game, before you.[4]

Conolly believed that Rawlinson’s new post gave him the opportunity to advance humanitarianism in Afghanistan, and summed up his hopes:[5]

“If the British Government would only play the grand game — help Russia cordially to all that she has a right to expect — shake hands with Persia — get her all possible amends from Oosbegs — force the Bokhara Amir to be just to us, the Afghans, and other Oosbeg states, and his own kingdom — but why go on; you know my, at any rate in one sense, enlarged views. Inshallah!The expediency, nay the necessity of them will be seen, and we shall play the noble part that the first Christian nation of the world ought to fill.”[6]

The term The Great Game had both a popular and academic usage. The narrow popular use related to spies and their military value or political influence on the peoples of a region.[5] It was introduced into mainstream consciousness by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim (1901).[7]It was first used academically by Professor H.W.C. Davis in a presentation titled The Great Game in Asia (1800-1844) on 10 November 1926, well after the close of the event, when it referred to what had once been British and Russian rivalry in Central Asia and the possible invasion of British India from the North West by Russia.[5]

British–Russian rivalry over Afghanistan[edit]

People of Central Asiac. 1861–1880.

During most of the 19th Century there existed a political and diplomatic confrontation between the British Empire and the Russian Empire centered around Afghanistan and its surrounding regions. It later became known as The Great Game.[8] From the British perspective, the Russian Empire’s expansion into Central Asia threatened to destroy the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire, India. The British feared that the Russians would subdue the Central Asian khanates (Khiva, Bokhara, Khokand) one after another. The Emirate of Afghanistan might then become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India.[8][9] From the Russian perspective, British commercial and military expansion into Central Asia was feared.[8]

It was with these thoughts in mind that in 1838 the British launched the First Anglo-Afghan War and attempted to impose a puppet regime on Afghanistan under Shuja Shah. The regime was short lived and proved unsustainable without British military support. By 1842, mobs were attacking the British on the streets of Kabul and the British garrison was forced to abandon the city due to constant civilian attacks.

The retreating British army consisted of approximately 4,500 troops (of which only 690 were European) and 12,000 camp followers. During a series of attacks by Afghan warriors, all Europeans but one, William Brydon, were killed on the march back to India; a few Indian soldiers survived also and crossed into India later.[10] The British curbed their ambitions in Afghanistan following this humiliating retreat from Kabul.

After the Indian rebellion of 1857, successive British governments saw Afghanistan as a buffer state. The Russians, led by Konstantin KaufmanMikhail Skobelev, and Mikhail Chernyayev, continued to advance steadily southward through Central Asia towards Afghanistan, and by 1865 Tashkent had been formally annexed.

Samarkand became part of the Russian Empire in 1868, and the independence of Bukhara was virtually stripped away in a peace treaty the same year. Russian control now extended as far as the northern bank of the Amu Darya river. By the 1870s, the Central Asian khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand had become Russian protectorants.

In a letter to Queen Victoria, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proposed “to clear Central Asia of Muscovites and drive them into the Caspian“.[11] He introduced the Royal Titles Act 1876, which added Empress of India to Victoria’s list of titles and dominion over the recently formed British Raj.

Political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his “friends” the Russian Bear and British Lion (1878)

After the Great Eastern Crisis broke out and the Russians sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878, Britain demanded that the ruler of Afghanistan, Sher Ali, accept a British diplomatic mission. The mission was turned back, and in retaliation a force of 40,000 men was sent across the border, launching the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The war’s conclusion left Abdur Rahman Khan on the throne, and he agreed to let the British control Afghanistan’s foreign affairs, while he consolidated his position on the throne. He managed to suppress internal rebellions with ruthless efficiency and brought much of the country under central control.

The Pashtuns battled and conquered the Uzbeks and forced them into the status of ruled people who were discriminated against.[12] Out of anti-Russian strategic interests, the British assisted the Afghan conquest of the Uzbek Khanates, giving weapons to the Afghans and backed the Afghan colonization of northern Afghanistan which involved sending massive amounts of Pashtun colonists onto Uzbek land. British literature from the period demonized the Uzbeks.[13]

In 1884, Russian expansionism brought about another crisis – the Panjdeh Incident – when they seized the oasis of Merv. The Russians claimed all of the former ruler’s territory and fought with Afghan troops over the oasis of Panjdeh. On the brink of war between the two great powers, the British decided to accept the Russian possession of territory north of the Amu Darya as a fait accompli.

Without any Afghan say in the matter, between 1885 and 1888 the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance, but retain Panjdeh. The agreement delineated a permanent northern Afghan frontier at the Amu Darya, with the loss of a large amount of territory, especially around Panjdeh.[14]

This left the border east of Zorkul lake in the Wakhan. Territory in this area was claimed by Russia, Afghanistan and China. In the 1880s the Afghans advanced north of the lake to the Alichur Pamir.[15] In 1891, Russia sent a military force to the Wakhan and provoked a diplomatic incident by ordering the British Captain Francis Younghusband to leave Bozai Gumbaz in the Little Pamir. This incident, and the report of an incursion by Russian Cossacks south of the Hindu Kush, led the British to suspect Russian involvement “with the Rulers of the petty States on the northern boundary of Kashmir and Jammu“.[16] This was the reason for the Hunza-Nagar Campaignin 1891, after which the British established control over Hunza and Nagar. In 1892 the British sent the Earl of Dunmore to the Pamirs to investigate. Britain was concerned that Russia would take advantage of Chinese weakness in policing the area to gain territory, and in 1893 reached agreement with Russia to demarcate the rest of the border, a process completed in 1895.[15]

Anglo-Russian Agreement[edit]

Main article: Anglo-Russian Entente

Signed on August 31, 1907, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 was an agreement on their disputes in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. It delineated spheres of influence in Persia, stipulated that neither country would interfere in Tibet’s internal affairs, and recognized Britain’s influence over Afghanistan. The agreement led to the formation of the Triple Entente, a convention between Britain, Russia and France.[17]

In the run-up to World War I, both empires were alarmed by the unified German Empire‘s increasing activity in the Middle East, notably the German project of the Baghdad Railway, which would open up Mesopotamia and Persia to German trade and technology. The ministers Alexander Izvolsky and Edward Grey agreed to resolve their long-standing conflicts in Asia in order to make an effective stand against the German advance into the region. The Anglo-Russian agreement in 1907 brought a close to the Great Game.

The Russians accepted that the politics of Afghanistan were solely under British control as long as the British guaranteed not to change the regime. Russia agreed to conduct all political relations with Afghanistan through the British. The British agreed that they would maintain the current borders and actively discourage any attempt by Afghanistan to encroach on Russian territory. Persia, though independent, was divided into three zones of influence: a British zone in the south, a Russian zone in the north, and a narrow neutral zone serving as buffer in between.[18]

In regards to Tibet, both powers agreed to maintain territorial integrity of this buffer state and “to deal with Lhasa only through China, the suzerain power”.[19]

Reviews of the 19th and early 20th century Anglo-Russian rivalry[edit]

Gerald Morgan’s Myth and Reality in the Great Game (1973) approached the subject by examining various departments of the Raj to determine if there ever existed a British intelligence network in Central Asia. Morgan wrote that evidence of such a network did not exist. At best, efforts to obtain information on Russian moves in Central Asia were rare, ad hoc adventures. At worst, intrigues resembling the adventures in Kim were baseless rumours and Morgan writes such rumours “were always common currency in Central Asia and they applied as much to Russia as to Britain”.[7]

In his lecture “The Legend of the Great Game” (2000), Malcolm Yapp said that Britons had used the term “The Great Game” in the late 19th century to describe several different things in relation to its interests in Asia. Yapp believes that the primary concern of British authorities in India was control of the indigenous population, not preventing a Russian invasion.[20] According to Yapp, “reading the history of the British Empire in India and the Middle East one is struck by both the prominence and the unreality of strategic debates”.[20]

Other uses of the term “Great Game”[edit]

In the late 1990s, some journalists used the expression The New Great Game to describe what they proposed was a renewed geopolitical interest in the Central Asia based on the mineral wealth of the region which was becoming available to foreign interests after the break up of the Soviet Union. For example, in 1997 the New York Times published an opinion piece titled The New Great Game in Asia in which was written:

While few have noticed, Central Asia has again emerged as a murky battleground among big powers engaged in an old and rough geopolitical game. Western experts believe that the largely untapped oil and natural gas riches of the Caspian Sea countries could make that region the Persian Gulf of the next century. The object of the revived game is to befriend leaders of the former Soviet republics controlling the oil, while neutralizing Russian suspicions and devising secure alternative pipeline routes to world markets.[21]

In 2004, the journalist Lutz Kleveman wrote a book titled The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia,[22] that linked the expression to the exploration of mineral wealth in the region. While for many other people the direct American military involvement in the area was part of the “War on Terror” rather than an indirect Western governmental interest in the mineral wealth, another journalist Eric Walberg suggests in his book that access to the region’s minerals and oil pipeline routes is still an important factor.[1][2]

Other authors disagree with these views. One strategic analyst has written that the Central Asian states are not pawns in any game and the so-called “New Great Game” is a misnomer that has not eventuated. Rather than two empires focused on the region as in the past, there are now many global and regional powers active with the rise of China and India as major economic powers. The emergence of Russia from a local-level player to an international-level one has seen Russia regarded as not an offensive power by the Central Asian states, which have diversified their political, economic, and security relationships.[23] Another has written that the “Great Game” or the “New Great Game” implies that the Central Asian states are passive pawns in the hands of more powerful states. However, their membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, established in 2001, shows that they have gained a degree of real independence, with China offering a degree of predictability unknown in the “Great Game”.[24]

The Great Game has been described as a cliche-metaphor,[25] and there are authors who have now written on the topics of “The Great Game” in Antarctica,[26] the world’s far north,[27] and in outer space.[28]


In popular culture[edit]





  • The plot of the James Bond film The Living Daylights partially revolves around an updated version of the Great Game. Bond’s character travels to Afghanistan and convinces the local mujaheddin to turn upon the Soviet occupiers, to whom the mujaheddin had previously sold heroin.[citation needed]
  • The documentary The Devil’s Wind by Iqbal Malhotra.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jump up to:a b Golshanpazhooh 2011.
  2. ^ Jump up to:a b Gratale 2012.
  3. Jump up^ Hopkirk 1992, p. 1.
  4. Jump up^ J.W. Kaye, Lives of Indian Officers, 2 vols, (1867), ii, p.101. cited in the 2000 Lectures and Memoirs, by the British Academy, Chapter: The Legend of the Great Game by Malcolm Yap. pages 180-1
  5. ^ Jump up to:a b c 2000 Lectures and Memoirs, by the British Academy, Chapter: The Legend of the Great Game by Malcolm Yap. pages 180-1
  6. Jump up^ Brysac, Shareen; and Meyer, Karl. Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia. Basic Books.
  7. ^ Jump up to:a b Morgan 1973, pp. 55-65.
  8. ^ Jump up to:a b c Marin Ewans, ed. (2004). The Great Game: Britain and Russia in Central Asia, Volume 1, Documents. RoutledgeCurzon, Oxon. UK. p. 1.ISBN 0415316391.
  9. Jump up^ Penzev 2010.
  10. Jump up^ Gandamak at
  11. Jump up^ Mahajan 2001, p. 53.
  12. Jump up^ Brian Glyn Williams (22 September 2011). Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America’s Longest War. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 32–. ISBN 0-8122-0615-0.
  13. Jump up^ Bleuer, Christian (17 October 2014). “From ‘Slavers’ to ‘Warlords’: Descriptions of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in western writing”. Afghanistan Analysts Network.
  14. Jump up^ International Boundary Study of the Afghanistan-USSR Boundary (1983) by the US Bureau of Intelligence and Research
  15. ^ Jump up to:a b Robert Middleton, The Earl of Dunmore 1892–93 (2005)
  16. Jump up^ Forty-one years in India – From Subaltern To Commander-In-Chief, Lord Roberts of Kandahar – The Hunza-Naga Campaign
  17. Jump up^ Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Anglo-Russian Entente
  18. Jump up^ Lloyd 2001, p. 142.
  19. Jump up^ Hopkirk 1992, p. 520.
  20. ^ Jump up to:a b Yapp 2000, pp. 179–198.
  21. Jump up^ NYT editor 1996.
  22. Jump up^ Kleveman 2004.
  23. Jump up^ Ajay Patnaik (2016). Central Asia: Geopolitics, Security and Stability. Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 28–29.
  24. Jump up^ David Gosset, 2010. Beyond the “Great Game” stereotype, the “Zhang Qian’s Diplomacy”.
  25. Jump up^ Sam Miller. A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes. Vintage Books, London 2014. p286.
  26. Jump up^ Dodds, Klaus (2008). “The Great Game in Antarctica: Britain and the 1959 Antarctic Treaty”. Contemporary British History 22: 43.doi:10.1080/03004430601065781.
  27. Jump up^ Scott G. Borgerson. The Great Game Moves North. Foreign Affairs.
  28. Jump up^ Easton, Ian. The New Great Game in Space. The Project 2049 Institute.
  29. Jump up^ DocsOnline


Further reading[edit]

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