One of the most incredible examples of the 19th century Cold War-style maneuvering can be found in the struggle between Russia and Britain for control of Central Asia, a conflict known collectively as “the Great Game.” During the Great Game, the two greatest imperial powers in the world expanded into the various small states in the Central Asia region, sometimes annexing them and sometimes pushing them into treaties of friendship. The Russians generally preferred the first tactic, and the existence of modern former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are a testament to Russia’s 19th century conquests. Britain’s expansion was largely focused on securing the northern states of India; outside of their prized colonial possession, they were content to establish treaties with buffer states, such as Afghanistan. In both cases, they were not above using shows of force to ensure allegiance, and if that failed they had no concerns about supporting a rival claimant to the throne in exchange for greater loyalty.
The difference in tactics can largely be traced to a difference of interests. Both Russia and Britain wanted access to Central Asian markets, which had previously been closed to European merchants, but Russia also wanted a strong foothold in the region, which it originally lacked. Britain, in contrast, already possessed one of the most prized parts of Asia, the Indian subcontinent, which had been coveted by countless would-be conquerors from Alexander to Timur to Tsar Paul I. While it is uncertain if the 19th century Russian Empire truly had its eyes on India—or whether it simply wanted control of the khanates and emirates further north—anything that potentially threatened control of India was enough to worry the British.
The techniques employed during the Great Game have the feel of something from a Cold War spy thriller. When agents went into the field, it was under the pretense of other purposes: British officers went on “shooting leave” while the Russians dispatched “scientific expeditions.” Military actions were carried out under similar pretenses. When the Russians attempted to annex the city of Khiva in 1839, it was justified as an attempt to rescue Russians held as slaves by the Khivans. When the British invaded Afghanistan during the First Anglo-Afghan War, they did so under the pretense of returning the exiled Shah Shuja to the throne they claimed was rightfully his.
During the conquest of Central Asia, the Europeans enjoyed technological superiority, but their opponents were capable of inflicting significant damage from concealed or fortified positions in the rocky and mountainous region. For example, the Afghans utilized a long-barreled firearm known as the jezail, which could out-range British muskets and was ideal for sniping and irregular warfare tactics. One might say that the jezail was the Great Game’s rocket propelled grenade or AK-47.
In addition to instigated changes in government, the Great Game saw new and unexpected players emerge onto the scene. In the 1860s, Muslims in far western China rose up in revolt against the Chinese government, and in 1865 a soldier named Yakub Beg took control of the region and established the new nation of Kashgaria, named for the city of Kashgar, which became his capital. As with the leaders of coups and revolutions in the Cold War, Yakub Beg became a new and unexpected factor in the Great Game, and both the British and the Russians endeavored to establish positive relations with him.
Ultimately, the Great Game was supplanted by a new threat in Europe. Russia and its ally France were strategically threatened by the rise of Imperial Germany following the Franco-Prussian War, while the British were alarmed by Germany’s new naval program. In the end, the Russians and British found enough common ground to sign an accord in 1907. They agreed upon territories and spheres of influence, and became as cordial as suspicious competitors could be.
G. D. Falksen is a writer and student of history who has given lectures on the steampunk genre and subculture. He insists that history books on the Great Game qualify as light reading. Further details can be found on his website, www.gdfalksen.com