The Great Game — Peter Hopkirk [Book 1/52]

Samia Haimoura
Jan 24 · 4 min read

Genre: History & Strategy

After reading the Penguin’s Historical Atlas of Russia and acquainting myself with the history and development of Russia, I decided to book a ticket to Russia and get a full immersion in the local culture, from Moscow to St Petersburg to further villages nearing Siberia. During my time in the country, I was surprised how little we knew about this country, its culture, its food, its people and mostly its history. Prior to my trip, hardly anything I heard from Russia came from outside news, mostly political, often under a not so pleasant light, especially after last year’s Mueller investigation in the Trump election. I resolved to the fact that most we knew was propagandist belief and stereotypes, and attempts to frame certain nations in our mind to justify future strategical and political moves.

This book is a thick one (524 pages) and requires some prior knowledge of Russian History (which I was able to get from the Atlas above), and still, I perhaps spent a good chunk of time pausing my reading to check geography resources. Central Asian borders kept shifting around the 19th century and were riddled with independent tribes, in addition to belonging to different empires back and forth. So additional reading and documentation was needed throughout.
Understanding Russia and the Russian Empire in the 19th century meant understanding Central Asia as well, which was my initial aim, having had the first hand experience of meeting Russians with Central Asian roots, and vice versa, during my time there, which is a prime example of the rich heritage and influence this nation exercised on its territories through an extended period in history.

This book is about the intense rivalry that took place between the British & the Russian Empire in Central Asia during the 19th Century. (1830. At the time, India was under British rule in what was known as the “British East India Company”. Britain’s strategy was to create a buffer between her and Russia in order to prevent the latter from marching onto India and taking over its riches (which represented a great deal of economic hegemony for Britain). Russia, in the mean time, had its eyes on Afghanistan for trade route purposes. Fearing that this was a tactic of the Russians to only get closer to India, Britain through a series of “divide and rule” strategies between local tribes, ended up engaging in series of unsuccessful wars in the race of imperial control over Afghanistan, Bokhara & Turkey, and involving Russians into what Rudyard Kipling once coined as the “Great Game”.

Perhaps my favorite passage in the book relates to how anti-Russian sentiment has been fomented throughout the past 2 centuries as a result of British accounts, though there were never any evidence of Russian intent back then. These same accounts still to this day explain Russophobia in many other parts of the world. It struck me how the same arguments in the 19th century are still used today to justiry sanctions and cook up public opinion.

Some pros: This book exposed me to a great deal of political strategy & deal making, in addition to tactics used in the 19th century for geographical reconnaissance and intelligence. I’m quite surprised how little of Central Asia was still unknown to the world in the 19th century, given so much exploration was completed in other parts of the world.
This book is also a great way to understand Central Asian history, and lays the ground for the formation of Afghanistan and perhaps an introductory understanding to the catastrophy it has become. It has definitely opened up my appetite to understand a nation which, again, I only heard of in a series of calamitous wars waged against it in the past century — again pushed for by American propaganda.

Some cons: I felt this book was extremely biased against the Russians, and though the author tries to sound neutral and using historical accounts, most often than not these accounts are those of the British, knowing fully that these writers happened to be serving a Victorian decree and thus have the obligation to paint Russians as barbarics to foment dissent and consensus to go to war.


This article is part of my 52 Books in 2020 Challenge. If you found this useful and would like to stay up-to-date with what I’m reading this year, don’t hesitate to follow my channel.

Samia Haimoura

Written by

Tech Entrepreneur @SEON, Data Science/AI Consultant, Duke University - Fuqua grad ‘19. Blogging @ gradientdissent.org.

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