The Great Game: Anglo-Russian Rivalry in Central Asia

Wednesday 25th January 2023

St John’s Place, Lower Road, Bemerton, SP2 9NP


During the 19th Century the Russian Empire was expanding eastwards by 20,000 square miles a year. In 1800 the Russian boundary was 2,000 miles away from British India; by 1900 but a few hundred. Catherine II (The Great) toyed with the idea of sending an army to seize India; her son Paul did despatch an army but it was recalled when he was assassinated in 1801. Napoleon Bonaparte tried to persuade Tsar Alexander I to join with 50,000 French troops on an expedition launched from Russian territory to take India, but this came to nothing when Napoleon invaded Russia in the disastrous campaign of 1812. Whether Russia really did harbour ambitions to take India is immaterial: the British thought they did, and so began the ‘Great Game’, the Bolshaya Igra, played out on the vast steppes, deserts and mountains of Central Asia, between the Caucasus in the west and Chinese Turkistan and Tibet in the east, where intrepid individuals, Russian and British, tried to find out what the other side was up to and persuade local rulers to ally with them. It was a dangerous occupation, often carried out in disguise and often leading to torture and execution by unfriendly tribes. In 1839-1842 the British fought the First Afghan War to stave off what they thought was Russian influence, and as the Russians expanded ever southwards, taking Tashkent in 1865, Bokhara and Samarkand in 1868 and Khiva in 1873, British nervousness grew, leading to the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880. Although the threat to British India – if it ever existed – was laid to rest by the Anglo Russian convention of 1906, there are those who think that the Great Game never really ended but simply metamorphosed into the Cold War, and in some ways is still with us today albeit with a different cast of players.

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Major Gordon Corrigan MBE was an officer of the Royal Gurkha Rifles before retiring from the Army in 1998. He is now a military historian and the author of numerous books. His television appearances include The Gurkhas, Napoleon’s Waterloo and Battlefield Detectives, and so far he has presented five series on various aspects of military history. He is an Honorary Research Fellow of the Universities of Birmingham and Kent, a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, a Member of the British Commission for Military History and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Farriers.

Image (c) National Army Museum (NAM. 1960-03-31-1)