A century before the Cold War, Britain and Russia secretly struggled for control of Central Asia.
By Timothy May
Even as the Cold War recedes into the past, the newly emerging countries of Central Asia–rich in oil and natural gas–remain a source of intense political competition between the United States, Russia and China. As early as the 18th century, the countries of Central Asia were a focus of economic rivalry between Imperial Russia and the British empire. This largely secretive struggle, popularly known as “the Great Game,” is the topic of Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (Counterpoint, Washington, D.C., 1999, $35), by former New York Times editorial writer Karl E. Meyer and his collaborator, Shareen Blair Brysac.
The book is aptly named, for much of the Great Game was an event in which the primary players were anonymous to the public, acting secretly at the behest of politicians, generals–also, no doubt, sometimes on their own behalf. Meyer and Brysac appear to be greatly impressed by the exploits of this collection of 19th-century explorers and soldiers who risked life and limb for small monetary reward. Whether it was the prominent Swedish geographer and explorer Sven Hedin–who later came to sympathize with the Nazis–or the intrepid sons of President Theodore Roosevelt who ventured into Tibet, information obtained through their thrill-seeking and intellectual curiosity opened up these countries to economic exploitation by the empire builders back home. The authors are equally impressed–in a different way–by the generals, governors and other high-ranking officials whose egos and lack of a sense of responsibility often led to disaster, but who personally escaped the consequences of their poor judgment. In fact, many were later rewarded for service, while their former agents died miserably and alone in foreign prisons.
A weakness in the authors’ account possibly lies in its focus on Western personalities, with less attention paid to Russians and very little to local people in these Central Asia countries who took part in the intrigues. Further, a large portion of the book focuses almost exclusively on Tibet. Although one may wish Tournament of Shadows to be more inclusive, it is still impressive in its detailed discussion of the events and some of the participants in the Great Game. Those interested in espionage, power politics, exploration and diplomacy will find Tournament of Shadows extremely interesting. Although the book is intended for the non-specialist, those who are well-read in Russian, Central Asian and Indian colonial history will appreciate the book for its attempts to tie some of the lesser known personalities of the Great Game into the larger scheme of things.