A report on the Russo–Khivan War of 1873 in the Uzbek town Xiva was written by a German lieutenant Hugo Strumm in 1873, in the year the city was taken over by the Russian troops during The Great Game, an epic contest between Great Britain and Russia for domination of the heart of Asia that lasted most of the 19th Century. Strrumm was a lieutenant of the Westphalia Hussar Regiment, at the time attached to the Russian Headquarter. The highly detailed maps at the back showcase the Russian operations in Xiva in 1873, three detailed city battles and a route of march of the Caucasian troops under Colonel Lamaking between the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea.
The Great Game: The World’s First Cold War
The Great Game, often referred to in Russia as the ‘Турниры теней’ (Tournament of Shadows), in Central Asia the conflict was dominated by proxy wars and grand designs of espionage, bearing amazing similarities to the 20th Century’s Cold War (it even had some of the same flashpoints, such as Afghanistan and Persia/Iran).
Up the Napoleonic Wars, the British and Russian empires had a relationship limited to trade. While they were occasionally allies or opponents in various multi-national wars, the vast geographic distances separating their domains ensured that they did not really see themselves as rivals. Russia was more concerned with Sweden, Prussia and Poland; and Britain was preoccupied battling France and Spain.
However, the Peace of Vienna reordered World geopolitics, creating a power vacuum. France and Prussia were brought low by the war, and while they would eventually recover, their absence as existential threats gave Britain and Russia the freedom and financing to pursue their own designs of imperial expansion.
From 1800 to 1828, Russia had progressively conquered the Caucuses, placing pressure on both Persia and the Ottoman Empire, two states where Britain maintained vital diplomatic interests. This came on the heals of their conquest of large parts of the Kazakh Steppe, in Central Asia, which they added to their Siberian domains.
Meanwhile, Britain had gained domination of most of the Indian Subcontinent upon her conquest of the Maratha Confederacy in 1818. While still hundreds of miles apart, both empires had formed large domains increasingly close to the heart of Asia.
British theorists began to openly warn about the threat Russia posed to India. Notably, Colonel George de Lacy published The Designs of Russia (1828) and On the Practicability of an Invasion of India (1829). Works such as these caused great (and perhaps exaggerated) alarm in both Whitehall and Calcutta, spawning all sorts of wild conspiracy theories.
At this point, something must be said of the motivations and objectives of both Britain and Russia, which like the players during the Cold War over a century later, were not always clear or consistent. In short, Britain aimed to shore up its control of the Indian Subcontinent and to gain suzerainty over the Persian Gulf and Red Sea regions (areas where the Royal Navy was already the main power). It also harboured less-defined designs to control the vast mineral wealth of Central Asia.
On the other side, Russia, wanted to eventually take control of the Turkic khanates of Central Asia (Khiva, Bokhara, etc.), to not only gain its agrarian and mineral wealth, but to place pressure on Persia so that it would become a client state. To that end Russia adamantly desired a warm water port with direct access to the high seas.
The Great Game heated up considerably during the 1830s. The Royal Geographic Society (founded 1830), while a legitimate sponsor of cartographic and scientific discovery, also served as thinly-disguised espionage arm of the British government. It sponsored numerous exploring expeditions into the Central Asia. Notably, Alexander Burnes’s voyages to the Punjab (1831) and Afghanistan and Bokhara (1832) was viewed with alarm in St. Petersburg.
Meanwhile, John O’Neill, a Tehran-based British diplomat anonymously penned a work The Progress and Present Position of Russia (1836) that caused a great furore amongst British policy makers.
In 1839, Russia made an ill-fated attempt to conquer the Khanate of Khiva. During the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) Britain prosecuted a catastrophically unsuccessful attempt to make Afghanistan a client state, to serve as a buffer between British and Russian interests. While both pf these bids at expansion field, interference by both sides created a proxy wars along the Persian frontier, bringing the players closer to direct conflict.
The Russian Imperial Geographic Society (founded 1845) began to fulfil the same espionage role for St. Petersburg as the RGS performed for Whitehall, sponsoring numerous missions of ‘scientific inquiry’ to Central Asia. From 1847 to 1853, Russia built a line of forts running eastwards from the northern edge of the Aral Sea over to the Syr Darya River. Simultaneously, Russian forces began to cross the eastern Kazakh Steppe, constructing forts near the border of Kyrgyzstan.
Meanwhile, Britain conquered the Sindh (1843) and the Punjab (1849), while making Kashmir a client state, thus establishing its direct rule near to the heart of Asia for the first time.
During the 1850s, the focus of the Anglo-Russian rivalry shifted to the Black Sea region. The Ottoman Empire, a British ally, was in an unprecedentedly weak position, and Russia desired to conquer Istanbul, an objective that was thought easily achievable should Britain and her allies not come to the Sublime Porte’s aid. During the Crimean War (1853-6), Britain and France throttled Russia, although the conflict merely served to limit St. Petersburg’s power in the Balkans-Black Sea region. The Anglo-Russian rivalry remained a cold war in Central Asia, and here Russia was undeterred in pressing its advantages.
In what can only be described as curious and bizarre incident, in 1864, Walker visited the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg as an honoured guest. He forged close enduring friendships with the main Russian cartographers and explorers of Central Asia, and by all accounts both sides exchanged maps, geographic information and discoveries in natural science in a spirit of openness and mutual admiration. What British and Russian officials thought of this enlightened behaviour is not clear; however, Walker returned to London, and later back to India carrying precious Russian knowledge on Central Asia that revolutionized Britain’s understanding of the region, leading the creation of the present map.
Later the same year as Walker visited St. Petersburg, Count Nikolai Pavlovich Ignatieff became Russia’s chief spymaster, overseeing a dramatic escalation in The Great Game. Gratuitously ruthless and shockingly clever, he established Russian spy rings into British colonial and diplomatic outposts from Istanbul to Calcutta, as well as within the courts of British-Allied states.
From 1864 to 1868, Russia conquered Kyrgyzstan, capturing the fabled cities of Tashkent and Samarkand, while making the Khanates of Kokand and Bokhara client states. In 1873, it vanquished the Khanate of Khiva, a long-held objective.
Russia’s bold moves drove British officials in both London and Calcutta into a frenzy. Britain and Russia were supporting proxy wars along the Afghan-Persian border, and Whitehall was confident that Russia was now close to making a play to seize Afghanistan, which would make Russia a clear and present danger to India. Britain had to strike first.
During the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80), Britain successfully invaded Afghanistan, making it a client state. Undeterred, in 1881, Russia commenced its conquest of Turkmenistan, an objective it would achieve in 1884.
The early 1880s, can be considered the height of The Great Game. Both Britain and Russia had achieved their long-held of objectives of conquering vast territories in Central Asia and now, for the first time, shared a direct, yet ill-defined, border. Tensions were at a fever-pitch and the question on everyone’s lips was: Would cool heads prevail in London and St. Petersburg, or would some unplanned incident plunge both empires into a mutually destructive war?
Fortunately, both sides realized their limitations and agreed to a diplomatic solution. In 1884, they set up the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission, with a mandate to agree upon and survey the boundaries between British-controlled Afghanistan and Russian Central Asia. Importantly, the present 1883 edition of Walker’s map was used as the official starting point for this endeavour. The operations of the Commission immediately saw a major de-escalation in The Great Game, and while there were a few hiccups, from 1884 to 1888 the British and Russian officials and cartographers generally co-operated amicably. The Anglo-Russian rivalry simmered down, and the settling of the final aspect of the Afghan-Russian borders, overseen by the Pamir Boundary Commission (September 10, 1895) marked a milestone along the road to Anglo-Russian reconciliation.
A variety of factors led to the formal end of The Great Game. The amicable settlement of the Afghan boundary fostered mutual good will between the two powers. Moreover, both Britain and Russia were exhausted; Britain had fought the gruesome Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa and Russia was throttled in the Far East during the Russian-Japanese War (1904-5), in addition to suffering from severe internal unrest. Moreover, both Britain and Russia faced a new threat in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany. It was time to make a deal.
The Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 was a comprehensive accord, whereby both powers agreed to respect each other’s sovereignty over their territories and to divided Persia into zones of influence. It also opened the way for the Anglo-Russian military alliance that would be carried into World War I.