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Review of the Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk

July 3, 2012

The British Empire lasted for nearly three hundred years in one form or another. It stretched from Canada to Australia, South Africa to Egypt. However, the Empire was centered around one very important possession, India. Almost the entirety of British Imperial policy from 1700 to 1945 was based around protecting, expanding, or insuring communication with India. This is the reason for the acquisition of both South Africa – for control of the Cape – and of Egypt – for the Suez Canal. In the 19th Century, Britain became convinced, with the help of some Russian hawks, that the Czars had their sights set on Delhi. The Russians for their part believed that Central Asia was well within its sphere of influence and that its resources and markets were essential for the continued survival of Czarist rule. Miscommunication and mutual suspicion led to a game of spies and shadows that lasted right up to the First World War.

If you ever want to have a thrilling action story and be educated at the same time then look no further than Hopkirk’s epic The Great Game. The word “epic” is thrown around a lot these days, but Hopkirk manages to move seamlessly through roughly one hundred years of Anglo-Russian struggle in Central Asia in just over five hundred pages. The real treat of the story is not the subject matter itself, while be extremely interesting and very topical, but rather the episodes he paints for the reader. For instance the fact that the British lost an army of over 15,000 men in Afghanistan to Afghans who were substantially worse off in equipment, numbers, and training, that might sound familiar to anyone who has studied our current dilemma in that country. However even more interesting are the exploits of those explorers – both British and Russian – who went out to fill in the blank bits on the map. We take for granted today that we know with a high degree of certainty not only where everything is in the world but also how far away it is from everything else. These explorers did not. There were men who set out on journeys that they thought would be five hundred miles in length and three thousand miles later ended, exhausted, at their destination. It is these sorts of stories that make the book feel less like a history and more like an adventure novel. This combined with the excellent writing makes it so that large swaths of the book can be read in a day.

All of this being said, the book does have some drawbacks, the first and easiest to identify of these problems is that the author is British. Although he does document what the Russians were doing during this period. He spends a lot more time describing British exploits and policy. This may be due to either a language barrier, or a lack of sources, which might explain this. Also I had a problem with his bibliography. My problem is that it was a bibliography and not a works cited and he had no footnotes or end notes. The reader simply has to take him at his word, which is okay for casual reading, but less so for serious scholarship.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book, as it has a great wealth of knowledge and is a very easy read.

Here is is on Amazon

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