In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Britain and Russia competed in a ‘Great Game’ of espionage and covert diplomacy across the steppes of Central Asia. The aim, for the British, was to stop the Tsar’s empire advancing towards Britain’s most prized imperial possession – India. Peter Hopkirk, a former soldier and an expert on the region, has written the definitive account of this shadowy, often lethal enterprise and the colourful personalities who took part in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.
On the British side was a mixture of officers, explorers and gifted amateurs including Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes, the master spy who brought the British to Afghanistan and was hacked to death by a mob in Kabul, and the resourceful and ambitious Arthur Conolly, who journeyed on foot and horseback from Moscow to India, disguised as a Persian merchant, to determine the routes that a hostile Russian army would use. Their formidable opponents included Major-General Mikhail Cherniaev, dubbed the Lion of Tashkent after his astonishing capture of that city. As they attempted to stake their claims across the ‘vast chessboard’ of Central Asia, from the Caucasus in the west to Chinese Turkestan and Tibet in the east, both sides sought the friendship of powerful khans and emirs.
Hopkirk brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of these turbulent years. Apart from the danger and excitement of the action, what emerge are the seismic consequences of this ‘tournament of shadows’. The Great Game officially ended with the signing of the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907, but its violent repercussions are felt today across the world – indeed, some would argue that it is still being played.