Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk

Why is history so important? Because it helps us to understand better our present, realize the deep reasons of recent events and make more accurate forecasts regarding consequences they may have. Why do we learn nothing from history? Well, perhaps because we keep ourselves too alienated, too distant from the events that happened in the past and forget that history is nothing but a sum of decisions and actions made by individuals.

by Peter Hopkirk is one of those rare books that turn boring academic, historical reading into a breathtaking, thrilling, and eye-opening experience. Peter Hopkirk shows a century of confrontation between Great Britain and Russia in Asian regions through the lives and fates of people involved into the Great Game. There is no abstract “Britain” or “Russia” or “Persia” in the book, but there are people of flesh and blood, with their motives, wills and ambitions. The book is written like a very good thriller. You see the grandiose chess game developing in the map of Asia and suddenly understand that it is not all over yet. The geographical names mentioned in the book are the same as those you might read in the morning news. Places of the strongest political tension in the modern world are the same that were in the 19th century. Kabul, just to mention one. “I wish our politicians would have read it before we went into Afghanistan and Iraq” one reader wrote in his review, and this is the thought you can’t get rid of throughout the book.

In early 19th century, Asia was not explored by Europeans well enough. The maps of Afghanistan, Tibet and surroundings were very approximate with many white spots on them. Europeans also lacked information about multiple tribes and nationalities that lived in the rocky and deserted area. Any pieces of information about landscapes, aboriginal people and their attitudes toward strangers were priceless those days. Great Britain needed to know everything about the lands that laid between India and Russia, Britain’s major competitor in this area. Young (many players of the Great Game were just 20 or a bit older) men volunteered for research expeditions to Asian countries and gained valuable information, sometimes at price of their health and lives.

Along with the heroism of Asian pioneers, Peter Hopkirk draws the meanness and unscrupulousness of politicians – both Russian and British. Though the author does not give moral appraisals, providing readers with the facts, it is impossible to stay calm and objective when reading about the decisions that were motivated with the greediness and/or stupidity and/or ignorance and cost a thousand innocent lives. What a miserable fate to be a pawn in the Great Game of superpowers!

It is particularly interesting to read about cross-cultural conflicts that developed in Asia, where British, Asian and Russian ways of thinking and ways of acting clashed. Although The Great Game covers the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, it it has a message for contemporary audiences. We think that the world is changing so fast, but in fact many things have not been changed for ages. Any modern problems the world faces today are rooted in the Great Game. At least, it is useful to know the rules…