For most of the 19th century, two vast and powerful empires played what became known as the “Great Game” in Central Asia. Other players came and went, but for nearly 100 years Russia and Britain played a high-stakes game of espionage, diplomacy, and military adventurism in a wild, violent and — at first, almost completely unknown to Europeans — frontier from outermost China to the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf.
The prizes included the ancient kingdoms of Persia (now Iran) and Turkey, seat of the sclerotic Ottoman empire and strategic key to the Mediterranean. But the grand prize was the glittering jewel in Britain’s imperial crown — India.
Officially, the Great Game ended with the Anglo-Russian convention of 1907. But within a decade, that treaty was torn up by the new rulers of the old Russian Empire, the Soviet Union. The Russian empire became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the iron heel of Moscow remained on the necks of the former Khanates of Central Asia. When Soviet armies rumbled into Afghanistan, they merely followed in the footsteps of old players in the Great Game.
Arguably, then, the Great Game never really ended. Britain may have retired from the table, but new players have taken their seats: the USA, principally, a resurgent Persia and Turkey, and an ebullient new player, China.
But the oldest player in the game is a long way from playing its last hand. Russia’s Ukrainian threats can be seen as merely its latest gambit in a Great Game that in fact predates the 19th century. In fact, to even begin to understand Russia’s geopolitical activities, we have to cast our eyes back over half a millennium of Russian-European history — beginning with the deadly tide of the Golden Horde.
“Rarely has an experience left such deep and long-lasting scars on a nation’s psyche,” writes one historian, as the Mongol conquests have on Russia. More than 400 years after they were overthrown, the shadow of Genghis Khan’s ferocious horsemen still hangs over world history. From the root of the Mongol conquests has grown two complimentary ideas which have shaped Russian-European geopolitics for 500 years.
The first is Russian fear — to the point of paranoia — about encirclement and invasion, as well as an acute consciousness of its own backwardness.
When the Mongol hordes swept in from the steppes, they brought a wave of destruction on a scale and cruelty rarely seen in world history. City after city was razed and put to the sword, usually after the defenders were forced to slaughter their own people who were used as human shields by the Mongols.
If survivors weren’t simply massacred, to stop them ever being a threat again, they were sold by the thousands into slavery — the very word itself derived from Slav. Slave raids continued long after: even in the 19th century, Russian officers exploring Central Asian khanates continually met desperate Russian slaves begging their countrymen to liberate them.
The dozen or so Russian principalities who survived at all did so as humiliated vassals of the rapacious conquerors. 200 years of predatory Mongol rule kept the region backwards and kept its people under the yoke of serfdom even as the rest of Europe advanced. Worse, other European powers greedily chewed off chunks of its western flank: the German principalities, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden all carved out pieces from a crippled, subjugated Russia.
Even after the previously insignificant principality of Muscovy rose up and finally drove out the hated Mongols, the following centuries only served to justify Russian paranoia. Time and again, foreign powers tried to invade Russia: The Ottomans, the Poles and Swedes.
Worse, former friends treacherously turned into invaders: Napoleon in the 19th century and then Hitler in the 20th. After the Nazi threat was vanquished, Russia’s former allies became its Cold War enemies. Churchill ordered the drafting of secret plans for an invasion of the Soviet Union in 1945 (although the plans were kept secret until the eighties, British spy Guy Burgess passed on some of the details in the 1940s). The Soviets came to see NATO as just another of the enemies determined to encircle and conquer Russia.
But an equal and opposite paranoia over Russian aggression and expansionism has also dominated Western European strategic thought for the last half-millennia.
After Ivan the Great rebelled against Mongol rule, his successor Ivan the Terrible expanded Russia’s territory with astonishing speed — and with a revenge-fueled brutality to match the Mongols. Russia’s expansion eastward across Siberia was the greatest and fastest colonial enterprise in history. Finally, Peter the Great turned his gaze south, to the riches of Persia and India.
A long-held legend emerged in 1725 that Peter’s deathbed will secretly command his successors to pursue his vision of Russian destiny: the conquest of the world. No such document has ever been seen, but it was enough that it was widely believed to exist.
The idea of a Russian drive to global domination had emerged — and the Great Game began in earnest.
Both Russia and Britain were acutely aware that any road to a Russian invasion of India lay through Central Asia. The only problem was that the entire region was a vast, blank spot on the map. Few Europeans had ever travelled the region — or at least, returned alive. So, for the next hundred years, generations of brave, resourceful soldiers and explorers from both sides set out, secretly and often in disguise, to map the deserts and mountains between the Caspian Sea and the Khyber and Bolan Passes. Many paid with their lives.
In the end, Russia never did invade India, though it succeeded better in its attempts to subjugate Persia and Turkey. Russian territory expanded deep into the Caucasus, subjugating the fierce tribes of Daghestan and Circassia. The Central Asian khanates — the “Stans” — all the way to the borders of China, Afghanistan, Tibet, Persia, and Turkey, also fell subject to Russian rule.
The fall of the Russian empire in 1917 merely replaced one imperial ruler with another: one equally as aggressive and expansionist as the Tsars. Mongolia was overrun by the Red Army and made a satellite state. Worse, from the European point of view, swathes of Eastern Europe came under Soviet domination at the end of WWII.
The Comintern and Khrushchev’s boast that, “We will bury you!”, and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, all served only to bolster the view that what Peter and his heirs failed to do, Stalin and his henchmen were determined to achieve.
Vladimir Putin’s threatened invasion of Ukraine, in tandem with Western overtures for Ukraine to join NATO, is surely just the latest outcome of centuries-old grievances and suspicions.
And so, the Great Game continues.
This article first appeared on thebfd.co.nz