Written by Bijan Omrani
The ‘Great Game’ is the term applied to the long-term contest between the British and Russians for influence in central Asia, and particularly Afghanistan, during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Throughout the 1800s, the British Empire in India pushed its frontiers northwest through Sindh and the Punjab, gradually taking the area of modern-day Pakistan under its control. Similarly, the Russian Empire annexed huge swathes of territory in central Asia. This land was made up of a number of emirates based around the old Silk Road cities such as Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva. Most of the area that comprises modern-day Tajikistan was dependent on the Emirate of Bukhara, which was taken into Russian control at the end of the 1860s.
With this territorial expansion, it became clear that a major problem was looming: it was not clear where the two empires would meet. Much of Afghanistan and central Asia was little known to Western cartographers, and the lack of certainty as to where they might establish their frontiers gave rise to deep suspicion. On top of this, each side coveted the other’s possessions in Asia. The British were eager to gain new markets for their manufactures in the old emirates. The Russians equally wished to lay their hands on British India and access to the Indian Ocean. They regarded these objectives as the ultimate prize.
The Great Game is also commonly known as the ‘Tournament of Shadows’, a phrase that gives accurate flavour to this period in central Asian history. The conflict never came to outright war between Britain and Russia, but nevertheless their agents, explorers and spies fervently competed throughout the region, racing to explore and map out the terrain, win over native allies and find ways of preserving and extending their nations’ influence. Bearing in mind that Britain and Russia were also frequently at loggerheads in Europe, each would attempt to frighten the other into thinking that an outright attack in Asia was being planned, thereby tying up their military resources and wealth from use in the European theatre. This is not to say that actual war was not a part of the Great Game. Britain’s primary strategic interest in the 19th century was the desire to find a frontier that could securely be defended against Russia: Britain invaded Afghanistan in the First Afghan War (1838–42) and again in the Second Afghan War (1878–80).
After 1880, the British came to terms with Afghanistan. They allowed a strongman named Abdur Rahman to take control, but the British themselves controlled Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Whilst this made the chances of a Russian attack through Afghanistan unlikely, the British were still worried about the Pamir Mountains. Strategically they were of vital importance, standing at the meeting place of the British, Russian and Chinese empires. Yet even by the latter part of the 19th century, they were still imperfectly known. At first, the British feared it was possible for Russia to march an army over the Pamirs into British India. However, as it became clear with further exploration that the difficulty of its passes would not allow this, the threat from Russia still did not recede. At the end of the 1880s, Russian agents searched out ways they could get through the Pamirs to towns on the very edge of British India – Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral – and made attempts to win over their rulers against the British. It was in this context that one of the more famous encounters of the Great Game took place. In 1891, the British explorer and spy Francis Younghusband encountered a Russian colonel named Yanov in the isolated wilderness of Boza-i Gumbad on the northern fringe of the Wakhan Corridor. Being officers and gentlemen they greeted each other cordially in the frozen wastes and shared an excellent dinner, supplied by Yanov, washed down with vodka, wines and brandy. Over their aperitifs, however, Yanov made it clear that he was present with a Cossack detachment to annex large sections of the Pamirs that the British regarded as belonging to Afghanistan and China. Such an action would bring British territory face to face with Russia. Three days after having shared dinner, Yanov was given the task of expelling Younghusband from what the Russians now regarded as their dominion, something he did with regret. However, the news of Younghusband’s expulsion caused an outcry in London, and Russia withdrew from large parts of the territory they had just claimed. After the British had secured Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral against Russian intrigue, they came to a final border agreement with Russia in 1895. This finally fixed the frontier between them above the Wakhan Corridor, which itself became an Afghan buffer zone to prevent British and Russian lands from touching. This border, forged in the heat of the Great Game, was later inherited by Tajikistan and is still in operation today.