The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

By: MAJ Wesley "Matt" Spear, U.S. Army

Understanding the present-day conditions and ongoing struggles for political and economic clout in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and other Central Asian countries requires understanding the region's past and the role that external actors have played in Central Asia's development. In his non-fiction book, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, author Peter Hopkirk utilizes an impressive anthology of autobiographies, biographies, and contemporary accounts to describe the events and figures involved in the late nineteenth-century struggle for dominance in Central Asia by imperial powers Russia and Great Britain. This period of history was coined the "Great Game" by Captain Arthur Conolly and made famous in popular culture by Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim.1 The two sides officially called a truce when they signed the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, but the geopolitical effects of the Great Game continue to this day.

Hopkirk's book begins in the pre-Russian state of Kievan Rus', which came under Mongol attack during the early thirteenth century. The utter destruction the Mongols left behind and the Russians' struggle to expel not only the Mongol invaders but Swedish and German armies of conquest as well was a main impetus behind the Russian tsars' drive to acquire more territory as a buffer. Russia's insatiable appetite for new lands to the south inevitably brought the Russian Empire and the British Empire into a nineteenth-century precursor to the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. A shadow war of spying, espionage, and sometimes-lethal engagements emerged as the two sides fought for influence in territories that spanned from the Caucasus Mountains in the west to the Chinese empire in the east. As Russia's armies advanced closer to British India, the British often felt compelled to respond in force to prevent their sphere of influence from being threatened. Both sides employed a mixture of military officers, political agents, and explorer-spies to spy on the other, map and research uncharted lands, and try to make friends with powerful indigenous leaders in hopes of forming political alliances to counter the advances of the other. As Hopkirk notes,

Certain areas were judged too perilous, or politically sensitive, for Europeans to venture into, even in disguise. And yet these parts had to be explored and mapped, if India was to be defended. An ingenious solution to this was soon found. Indian hillmen of exceptional intelligence and resource, specially trained in clandestine surveying techniques, were dispatched across the frontier disguised as Muslim holy men or Buddhist pilgrims. In this way, often at great risk to their lives, they secretly mapped thousands of square miles of previously unexplored terrain with remarkable accuracy. For their part, the Russians used Mongolian Buddhists to penetrate regions considered too dangerous for Europeans.2

The Great Game is a well-researched book with over 15 pages of bibliographic resources, including a number of biographies and autobiographies about and by intriguing Russians, Britons, and other relevant players of the time. Hopkirk has written several previous books concerning Central Asia and the Caucasus, and uses his experience as a subaltern in the King's African Rifles and his extensive knowledge of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Far East to provide a vivid chronological account of the tangled individual motivations and strategic thinking behind the actions of Britain and Russia. Hopkirk tells the story of these many participants in the Great Game without characterizing any of the individuals or countries involved as right or wrong, moral or immoral. The story is broad enough to be interesting, but avoids becoming vague or confusing.

Hopkirk's The Great Game is recommended for personnel involved with diplomatic, military, or economic policy concerning Central Asia. In explaining the past, The Great Game also provides insight into the physical and cognitive environment of the region as it is today:

If this narrative tells us nothing else, it at least shows not much has changed in the last hundred years. The storming of embassies by frenzied mobs, the murder of diplomats, and the dispatch of warships to the Persian Gulf—all these were only too familiar to our Victorian forebears. Indeed, the headlines of today are often indistinguishable from those of a century or more ago.3

With that in mind, Hopkirk discusses how the Russians might have been better served had they paid attention to the failures of previous invaders, including Great Britain. The same logic applies to the United States, which chose not to pay attention to the lessons it might have learned, in turn, from the Russians.

The Great Game officially ended around the time of World War I, which is where Hopkirk's book ends as well. However, following the collapse of the Soviet empire, a new Great Game has emerged, with many players competing to fill the void left by Moscow's official departure from Central Asia. Some of the new players, like Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and China, have been busy constructing mosques and Qur'anic schools, opening up consulates, and proffering large infrastructure projects such as roads and dams, in an attempt to solidify their position in the region. Original player Russia continues to put pressure on Central Asian and Caucasian countries to fall in line with Moscow's policies. Wages from the 10 to 12 million immigrants who come to work in Russia are a huge economic boon for these workers' home countries, counting for half of the national GDP in Tajikistan, for example. Russia often uses such strong-arm tactics as threatening to deport these workers whenever one of the Central Asian or Caucasian countries disagrees with a Russian initiative.

Then there is the new player, the United States. In recent years, Washington's primary interest in Central Asia has revolved around how the region could support allied efforts against insurgents in Afghanistan. Central Asia's strategic significance, however, potentially will grow in the face of the pending withdrawal of most foreign military forces from Afghanistan in 2014. Consequently, experienced extremists will have increased freedom of maneuver to train, man, equip, and wage jihad against weak or failing regimes in Central Asia. The departure of U.S. and allied military forces from Afghanistan therefore should not be viewed as the end of their involvement in Central Asia. The Western powers need to decide whether they will be silent spectators or influential players in the "New Great Game," because the struggle for power and influence has already begun.

About the Author(s): Major Wesley "Matt" Spear is a United States Army Civil Affairs officer with extensive leadership and operational planning experience in both field artillery and civil affairs. In addition to three combat deployments to Iraq, MAJ Spear has served as a civil-military support element (CMSE) team leader in Tajikistan and as a theater CMSE commander with U.S. Central Command in multiple countries. He received his BA in sociology with minors in criminology and military science from Western Kentucky University. He is currently a student at NPS.


1. Kim first appeared serially in 1900, in McClure's Magazine. The first book edition was published by Macmillan and Co. Ltd. (London) in 1901. It was made into a colorful Hollywood movie of the same name in 1950.

2. Hopkirk, The Great Game, 5.

3. Ibid., 7.

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