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Greater Persia at the beginning of the Great Game in 1814
Central Asia, circa 1848.

The Great Game (Russian: Большая игра, Bol'sháya igrá) is a term used for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running approximately from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. A second, less intensive phase followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 .

The term "The Great Game" is usually attributed to Arthur Conolly (1807–1842), an intelligence officer of the British East India Company's Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry.[1] It was introduced into mainstream consciousness by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim (1901).


British-Russian rivalry in Afghanistan

Political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his "friends" the Russian Bear & British Lion (1878).

From the British perspective, the Russian Empire's expansion into Central Asia threatened to destroy the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, India. As the Tsar's troops began to subdue one khanate after another, the British feared that Afghanistan would become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India.

It was with these thoughts in mind that in 1838 the British launched the First Anglo-Afghan War and attempted to impose a puppet regime under Shuja Shah. The regime was short lived, and unsustainable without British military support. By 1842, mobs were attacking the British on the streets of Kabul and the British garrison was forced to abandon Kabul due to constant civilian attacks.

The retreating British army consisted of approximately 4,500 troops (of which 690 were European) and 12,000 camp followers. During a series of attacks by Afghan warriors, all but one, Dr. William Brydon, were killed on the march back to India.[2]

The British curbed their ambitions in Afghanistan following the humiliating retreat from Kabul. After the Indian rebellion of 1857, successive British governments saw Afghanistan as a buffer state. The Russians, led by Konstantin Kaufman, Mikhail Skobelev, and Mikhail Chernyayev, continued to advance steadily southward toward Afghanistan and by 1865 Tashkent had been formally annexed.

Samarkand became part of the Russian Empire three years later and the independence of Bukhara was virtually stripped away in a peace treaty the same year. Russian control now extended as far as the northern bank of the Amu Darya river.

In a letter to Queen Victoria, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proposed "to clear Central Asia of Muscovites and drive them into the Caspian".[3] He introduced the Royal Titles Act, which added to Victoria's titles that of Empress of India, putting her at the same level as the Russian Emperor.

After the Great Eastern Crisis broke out and the Russians sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878, Britain demanded that the ruler of Afghanistan (Sher Ali) accept a British diplomatic mission. The mission was turned back and in retaliation a force of 40,000 men was sent across the border, launching the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

The war's conclusion left Abdur Rahman Khan on the throne, and he agreed to let the British maintain Afghanistan's foreign policy while he consolidated his position on the throne. He managed to suppress internal rebellions with ruthless efficiency and brought much of the country under central control.

Russian expansion brought about another crisis — the Panjdeh Incident — when they seized the oasis of Merv in 1884. The Russians claimed all of the former ruler's territory and fought with Afghan troops over the oasis of Panjdeh. On the brink of war between the two great powers, the British decided to accept the Russian possession as a fait accompli.

Without any Afghan say in the matter, the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance, but retain Panjdeh. The agreement delineated a permanent northern Afghan frontier at the Amu Darya, with the loss of a large amount of territory, especially around Panjdeh; however, Britain continued to have troubles in the region towards the end of the 1800s.

In 1890–91 the British suspected Russian involvement "with the Rulers of the petty States on the northern boundary of Kashmir".[4] This was the reason for Hunza-Naga Campaign after which the British established control over Hunza and Nagar.

Anglo-Russian Alliance

In the run-up to World War I, both empires were alarmed by Germany's increasing activity in the Middle East, notably the German project of the Baghdad Railway, which would open up Iraq and Iran to German trade and technology. The ministers Alexander Izvolsky and Edward Grey agreed to resolve their long-standing conflicts in Asia in order to make an effective stand against the German advance into the region. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 brought a close to the classic period of the Great Game.

The Russians accepted that the politics of Afghanistan were solely under British control as long as the British guaranteed not to change the regime. Russia agreed to conduct all political relations with Afghanistan through the British. The British agreed that they would maintain the current borders and actively discourage any attempt by Afghanistan to encroach on Russian territory. Persia was divided into three zones: a British zone in the south, a Russian zone in the north, and a narrow neutral zone serving as buffer in between.

In regards to Tibet, both powers agreed to maintain territorial integrity of this buffer state and "to deal with Lhasa only through China, the suzerain power".[5]


Gerald Morgan’s “Myth and Reality in the Great Game” approached the subject by examining various departments of the Raj to determine if there ever existed a British intelligence network in Central Asia. Morgan writes that evidence of such a network does not exist. At best, efforts to obtain information on Russian moves in Central Asia were rare, ad hoc adventures. At worst, intrigues resembling the adventures in Kim were baseless rumours and Morgan writes such rumors “were always common currency in Central Asia and they applied as much to Russia as to Britain.”[6]

In his lecture “The Legend of the Great Game”, Malcolm Yapp says that Britons had used the term “The Great Game” in the late 1800s to describe several different things in relation to its interests in Asia. Yapp believes that the primary concern of British authorities in India was control of the indigenous population, not preventing a Russian invasion. [7]

According to Yapp, “reading the history of the British Empire in India and the Middle East one is struck by both the prominence and the unreality of strategic debates.” [7]

British-Soviet rivalry in Afghanistan

Caption from a 1911 English satirical magazine reads: "If we hadn't a thorough understanding, I (British lion) might almost be tempted to ask what you (Russian bear) are doing there with our little playfellow (Persian cat)."

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 nullified existing treaties and a second phase of the Great Game began. The Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 was precipitated by the assassination of the then ruler Habibullah Khan. His son and successor Amanullah declared full independence and attacked British India's northern frontier. Although little was gained militarily, the stalemate was resolved with the Rawalpindi Agreement of 1919. Afghanistan re-established its self-determination in foreign affairs.

In May 1921, Afghanistan and the Russian Soviet Republic signed a Treaty of Friendship. The Soviets provided Amanullah with aid in the form of cash, technology, and military equipment. British influence in Afghanistan waned, but relations between Afghanistan and the Russians remained equivocal, with many Afghanis desiring to regain control of Merv and Panjdeh. The Soviets, for their part, desired to extract more from the friendship treaty than Amanullah was willing to give.

The United Kingdom imposed minor sanctions and diplomatic slights as a response to the treaty, fearing that Amanullah was slipping out of their sphere of influence and realising that the policy of the Afghanistan government was to have control of all of the Pashtun speaking groups on both sides of the Durand Line. In 1923, Amanullah responded by taking the title padshah — "king", and by offering refuge for Muslims who fled the Soviet Union, and Indian nationalists in exile from the Raj.

Amanullah's program of reform was, however, insufficient to strengthen the army quickly enough — in 1928 he abdicated under pressure. The individual who most benefited from the crisis was Mohammed Nadir Shah, who reigned from 1929 to 1933. Both the Soviets and the British played the circumstances to their advantage: the Soviets getting aid in dealing with Uzbek rebellion in 1930 and 1931, while the British aided Afghanistan in creating a 40,000 man professional army.

With the advent of World War II came the temporary alignment of British and Soviet interests: In 1940, both governments pressured Afghanistan for the expulsion of a large German non-diplomatic contingent, which both governments believed to be engaging in espionage. Afghanistan complied in 1941. With this period of cooperation between the USSR and the UK, the Great Game between the two powers came to an end.

The New Great Game

Recently there has been some recognition of the fact that the Great Game continues as a conflict between the United States, the United Kingdom and other NATO countries and the Russia, the People's Republic of China and other Shanghai Cooperation Organisation countries over the Central Asian oil pipelines.[8][9][10]

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, Kodansha International, 1992, ISBN 4-7700-1703-0, p. 1
  2. ^
  3. ^ Quoted from Disraeli's letter to the Queen in: Mahajan, Sneh. British Foreign Policy, 1874-1914. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0415260108. Page 53.
  4. ^ Forty-one years in India - From Subaltern To Commander-In-Chief, Lord Roberts of Kandahar - The Hunza-Naga Campaign
  5. ^ Quoted from: Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. ISBN 1568360223. Page 520.
  6. ^ * Morgan, Gerald, “Myth and Reality in the Great Game”, Asian Affairs, vol. 60, (February 1973) 64.
  7. ^ a b Yapp, Malcolm, “The Legend of the Great Game”, Proceedings of the British Academy, no. 111, 2001, 179–198
  8. ^ The "Great Game": Eurasia and the History of War
  9. ^ Welcome Back To the Great Game
  10. ^ The "New Great Game" in Eurasia is being fought in its "Buffer Zones"
  11. ^ DocsOnline


  • Johnson, Robert, Spying for Empire: The Great Game in Central and South Asia, 1757-1947, (London: Greenhill, 2006) ISBN 1-85367-670-5 [1]
  • Meyer, Karl and Brysac, Shareen,'Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia', Counterpoint, 1999 reprinted with new introduction on the Middle East by Basic Books, 2006 ISBN 0-349-11366-1
  • Naik, J.A., Soviet Policy Towards India, from Stalin to Brezhnev, (Delhi: Vikas Publications, 1970) 3–4.
  • Vogelsang, Willem. The Afghans, pp. 245–272. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2002. ISBN 0-631-19841-5
  • von Tunzelmann, Alex, Indian Summer. Henry Holt and Company, LLC, New York, 2007. ISBN 078-0-8050-8073-5, ISBN 0-8050-8073-2

External links



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