By Peter Hopkirk.
The Great Game was played out in central Asia between Britain and Russia throughout the 19th century as the former, fearing that the ultimate prize for the latter was India, sought to counter Russian expansion. It was set against a background of brutal terrain, a brutal climate, and brutal people in a remote part of the world which was largely unknown to either Britain or Russia.
In many ways, it was another part of the Age of Discovery as British and Indian surveyor-explorers surveyed the regions north of India to assess how easy it might be for the Russians to send army through the passes to invade the Jewel in the Crown. Very often such ventures ended in death in a violent, duplicitous, and deeply xenophobic part of the world.
The British government vacillated between forward-thinking policies and masterly inactivity while the Russians deceitfully nibbled away at central Asia, often extending their borders as a fait accompli about which their opponents could do nothing. But whether the Russians really had been a threat to India is another matter, and it is incredible that apart from the Crimean War, the two sides avoided all-out war.
There was plenty of heroic derring-do which led both to terrible slaughter (Afghanistan) and close-run victories (Chitral).
Hopkirk tells an interesting tale which occasionally feels dated by references to Soviet historians and their dubious interpretation of the events of the time. His account focuses on the British side, but he does so without waving the flag directly. There is, though, plenty of implicit criticism of the Russian Empire for its duplicity as it typically denied any interest in further expansion before it did exactly the opposite, and the British government for its apparent naivety (which may just have been masterly inactivity).