Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Great Game

Book Cover

Book Title

The Great Game, 1856-1907: Russo-British Relations in Central and East Asia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.


Sergeev, Evgeny


Few phrases provoke more emotive reactions about the history of empire in Asia than ‘the Great Game,’ prompting images of Cossacks, Kipling, and the Khyber Pass. And few aspects of the history of empire in Asia have been as intensively studied, or repeatedly revised, as the long, volatile and consequential rivalry between the British and Russian Empires, east of the Urals and north of the Indian Ocean. There is indeed no dimension of the story that stands undisputed: what caused it, what ended it, what drove it, what were its consequences, how can we best understand it. It takes almost Kiplingesque confidence to enter the lists with a single volume study that aspires to reshape our grasp of all these questions. Evgeny Sergeev, a senior historian at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of World History, does just that, with this provocative reassessment that draws on multiple Russian and British archives, libraries, and an impressive grasp of the very large contemporary and secondary literatures devoted to this most famous of all geopolitical ‘games.’

Sergeev starts by embracing the metaphor. Construing ‘game’ to be a competition calling for commitment, endurance, and resilience, Sergeev revives an older argument: this Russo-British competition was, to be sure, broad, multifaceted, untidy, contested within on both sides, changed much over time, and often featured almost stunning levels of misperception or confusion—but despite the fact it should not be reduced to a contest between intelligence agencies and military agendas, it was, fundamentally, geopolitical and geostrategic. Drawing on a deep well of contemporary Russian and British official and elite discussion, debate, and perception, Sergeev insists the two empires sought to establish a solid ascendancy in their reordering of the sprawling spaces of continental Asia. Indeed, Sergeev defines the contest as spanning, and connecting, political, military, territorial, economic, and cultural rivalries and frictions ranging from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan. Perhaps the most crucial recurring concept is expressed by a word he never actually uses: linkage. There is nothing new about the argument that Russian and British statesmen and soldiers sought to threaten each other in one area in order to ease pressure in another, but Sergeev argues that this was the most fundamental underlying theme of continuity in the entire story. Indeed, he uses it to periodize his ‘Great Game,’ once again reviving, and reinforcing, an older argument: the consequences of the Crimean War launched this sprawling rivalry, and the Entente forged in response to German behavior in Europe in 1907 brought it effectively and truly to an end. This interpretation thus defines his ‘Great Game’: the direct threat each posed to the arena of expansion in Asia that most interested the other, and the use of ‘linkage’ to leverage those threats.

Sergeev explains his story chronologically, arguing that the evolution of the rivalry is best understood as the working out of live and let live arrangements, especially on the spot, from Persia to Tibet and beyond, and that the centre of gravity shifted in response to the imposition of political dominance by each empire, in varying form, over different territories. Along the way he makes some points that will surprise, persuade, confound, confuse. The Gorchakov Memorandum of 1864 was a tactical compromise to maintain cohesion within a badly divided Russian state over broad policy for empire building in Asia, not a grand theoretical assessment of the existential interplay between ‘East’ and ‘West.’ The British had good reason to be worried about Russian military ambitions in Afghanistan in 1877 and 1878, ambitions undone by lack of capability not lack of will. The Penjdeh Crisis of 1884-85 did indeed bring the two empires closer to war over the ‘Game’ than at any other time, but also created the conditions that enabled a gradual reorientation of the whole struggle. But perhaps his most interesting argument is also his most original: how to contextualize this whole story.

Sergeev emphasizes the need to see this great imperial drama as driven by the mutual desire to reorder the Asian peoples, territories and states encountered by British and Russian ambitions into a new, and truly global and ‘modern,’ order of politics and economics. He acknowledges that this dynamic was also multifaceted, and sprawled untidily across time, space, national and imperial agendas, institutions, and personalities. Notions of civilization and progress we may now find sanctimonious often sincerely shaped recommendations about how to handle problems on the spot, and decisions about those recommendations. Men on the spot often did indeed prove more assertive, and more suspicious, than metropolitan authorities. But unfolding through the noise, across the decades, was the sense that the British-Russian rivalry of empire building was itself reordering the Asian world, was  globalizing it, in a new political economy. That mutual vision of these empires as the agents of globalizing modernity shone through in such episodes as the challenge posed by Yakub Beg, the problems associated with the decline of the power of Qing China, and of course the awkward position of Afghanistan and the territories to its north. The instrument of the imperial frontier, the physical, military, and political demarcation of space, proved to be the most reliable barometer in the search for the balancing points at which British and Russian ambitions and concerns, along with local realities and reactions, could be reworked. The Great Game was really, to British and Russian players, about reordering a world of empires in Asia. It began when circumstances focused both on the most sensitive area where each faced the other. It ended when both found that greater threats arising in Europe made it easier to agree on the ‘balancing points’ in each region of the vast Eurasian territory over which they contended. This sprawling work of imperial, political, military, diplomatic, and economic history deserves wide readership and close attention. It is a multilingual multi-archival model of how to summarize, resurrect, and effectively revise an old and apparently familiar story.

Review by Brian P. Farrell
National University of Singapore