Like Kim’s Game, “the great game” was played with jewels and spheres. But unlike the childhood memory drill, the jewels and spheres of competing empires bled. (More)

Framing the Ukraine, Part II: Jewels and Spheres in the Great Game

This week Morning Feature considers the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine. Yesterday we began with core concepts of international relations: peoples, places, and governments. Today we ask whether the Ukrainian crisis echoes the 19th century, when Britain and Russia struggled to dominate southwest Asia in “the great game.” Tomorrow we’ll see whether post-Soviet Russia today echoes post-Imperial Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Friday we’ll explore whether this crisis echoes the Cold War. Saturday we’ll conclude with the limits of historical frames and the need to assess and respond to the present, rather than the past.

“Look on them as long as thou wilt, stranger”

British intelligence agent Arthur Conolly is usually credited with coining the phrase “the great game” in reference to the Anglo-Russian struggle for dominance in south Asia. Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac quoted Conolly in Tournament of Shadows:

If the British Government would only play the grand game – help Russia cordially to all that she has a right to expect – shake hands with Persia – get her all possible amends from Oosbegs – force the Bokhara Amir to be just to us, the Afghans, and other Oosbeg states, and his own kingdom – but why go on; you know my, at any rate in one sense, enlarged views. Inshallah! The expediency, nay the necessity of them will be seen, and we shall play the noble part that the first Christian nation of the world ought to fill.

Conolly’s “the grand game” was popularized as “the great game” as the backdrop for Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, set between the Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars. In the novel, young Kim is taught another game to sharpen the observation and memory skills he will need as a British spy. His instructor tosses a handful of jewels into a brass tray and tells Kim:

Look on them as long as thou wilt, stranger. Count and, if need be, handle. One look is enough for me. When thou hast counted and handled and art sure that thou canst remember them all, I cover them with this paper, and thou must tell over the tally to Lurgan Sahib. I will write mine.

“The jewel in the crown”

Kipling calls this “the jewel game,” an allusion that would not have been lost on his early 20th century readers. For India was “the jewel in the crown” of the British Empire, as University College London history professor Kathleen Burk explained in a 2005 lecture:

One real problem of the Company’s activities in India was the mixing up together of its commercial activities and its revenue-collecting activities. If it was primarily a company, why was it collecting taxes? If it was a government, why was it involved in trade? What this act required was that the government should review and if necessary revise the Company’s despatches sending out instructions to India. Because of the confusion of activities, the government began to interfere in commercial matters, causing a great deal of tension. However, it now had the upper hand, a power made manifest in 1813 with the renewal of the Company’s charter, which underlined the Crown’s ‘undoubted sovereignty’ over all of the East India Company’s territories.

As Dr. Burk emphasizes, the British presence in India began as a commercial venture, and local resistance prompted calls for military protection that grew into imperial rule.

“Both a market outlet and a source of raw materials”

Yet the British East India Company remained vulnerable, as that ‘jewel’ lay near two other empires, one expanding and the other near collapse. For hundreds of years, the Ottoman Empire held sway in the Levant and south Asia, but “the Sick Man of Europe” was moribund and an expanding Russia saw opportunities in the south, as Russian historian Konstantin Penzev explains:

Russia increased its pressure on the South for this reason. In the words of the historian A. A. Mikhailov: “The abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861 gave domestic industry and trade a powerful impetus. Cities, factories and plants were flooded by many thousands of freed serfs. The increased production made the task of expanding markets especially pressing. Industrialists inundated government with petitions to increase market opportunities for their products, including in Central Asia” (from Battle with the Desert). What did the industrial lobby’s strong pressure on the government cause to happen? Central Asia was conquered. To what end? Russian industry got both a market outlet and a source of raw materials.

The result was a series of clashes between Britain and Russia, such as the Crimean War that spawned the calamitous Charge of the Light Brigade. More often, however, the British and Russian armies fought local Afghan and Persian forces. Some were proxies sponsored by one empire against the other. Others fought for their own reasons and against both Britain and Russia.

“The enemy of my enemy”

Geography and proximity favored Russia in the Black Sea and trans-Caucasus region, and “the great game” briefly moved east. But by then both Britain and Russia saw a new threat in Imperial Germany. Access to Tibet and southwest China paled by comparison, and Britain and Russia found wisdom in the Sanskrit adage: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In 1907 Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky and British ambassador Arthur Nicholson signed the Anglo-Russian Convention. That carved Persia into designated spheres of influence, guaranteed Afghanistan as a British protectorate and buffer state around India, and settled “the great game” between Britain and Russia.

But lines drawn on maps by empires could not settle the issue with local peoples. Both Russia and Britain would face rising resistance in south Asia. Britain would lose India, Afghanistan, and Iran within 40 years of the Anglo-Russian Convention. Russia would lose the Ukraine and much of the trans-Caucasus with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Many Russians still consider the Ukraine their jewel, and the eastward expansions of NATO and the European Union since the Soviet collapse does suggest a struggle for spheres of influence. But as the ultimate end of “the great game” showed, the jewels and spheres of geopolitics are rarely content to be tokens counted by children … or empires.


Happy Wednesday!