The Great Game was a cold war carried on from about 1830 till about 1900 between Russia and England over control of the approaches to British India, which the Bear threatened and the Lion defended. In those years, across Central Asia from the Aral and Caspian seas, the Russian Empire slowly advanced towards Afghanistan and India, the khanates of Kokand, Bokhara, Khiva and Merv falling successively into her power. England, depending as democracies must on the views of the government of the day, blew hot and cold. There was no open clash of arms between the adversaries. It was, as the Russian foreign minister Count Nesselrode said, "a tournament of shadows". On either side, though, agents were put into the field to spy out the country or to influence a native ruler.
Journey to Khiva by Philip Glazebrook
When two mighty empires meet, there will always be blood and intrigue. As the Russian Empire spread south into the Kazakh steppe and the frontier of British India pushed across the subcontinent and up into Afghanistan, the no man's land in between became the jousting ground in a 19th-century 'Tournament of Shadows'. The British were keen to gain new markets here for their exported goods, and the Russians exploited the fierce rivalries of the khans of Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand, playing them off against one another to ensure protective alliances with Moscow were actively sought.
Agents, explorers and spies from both sides infiltrated courts across central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan to seek information and gain influence; they sought out unmapped wildernesses, surveying and recording everything they saw. Rudyard Kipling's protagonist, Kim, and his real-life equivalents, men like George Curzon (later the Viceroy of India), Francis Younghusband and the Russian Bronislav Grombchevsky, played hide-and-seek across mountains and deserts, adopting a veritable prop cupboard full of disguises in the hope that gaining a better understanding of the lie of the land (literal and metaphorical) would give their side a strategic advantage. Neither open warfare nor simply innocent exploration of the unknown, Rudyard Kipling declared their acts 'the Great Game'. It encompassed espionage in all its intricate, innovative forms.
The central tenet of the Great Game was suspicion: lack of knowledge about what lay in this central Asian hinterland led to doubts about where the imperial frontier might lie; and both sides jealously coveted the other's colonial possessions. Britain and Russia were frequently at loggerheads in Europe too, and by frightening each other into wrongly thinking that a full-scale military incursion was being planned in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, it tied up resources and wealth, preventing them from being deployed elsewhere.
That is not to say that actual war did not feature in the Great Game. Britain's primary strategic interest in the 19th century was to establish a frontier that could be securely defended against Russia. Britain invaded Afghanistan in the First and Second Afghan Wars (1838-42 and 1878-80), fearing that if they did not take control of the country first then it would almost certainly fall to the Russians; envoys sent to the Afghan court had raised this concern. When Dost Muhammad, the then ruler of Afghanistan, was defeated by the British in 1839, he fled across Afghanistan's northern border to Uzbekistan and sought refuge in Bukhara at the court of Nasrullah Khan.
Though many players of the Great Game were murdered in central Asia, either by each other or by the locals, or simply disappeared, those who did survive often returned to London and Moscow as national heroes. The British spoke to packed lecture halls at the Royal Geographic Society (www.rgs.org) and the Royal Society for Asian Affairs (founded in 1901 as the Central Asian Society; www.rsaa.org.uk), both of which came into their own at the height of the Great Game and exist to the present day, and accounts of daring exploits enraptured newspaper readers. Paranoia about what Imperial Russia could be up to made newspapers sell like hot cakes, much as fear of Communist Russia did fifty or so years later. Indeed, the Great Game could be interpreted as a forerunner to the Cold War as definite continuity is in evidence in the two powers'fight for influence in satellite states.