What Was the Great Game?

The Russians and British vied for influence in Central Asia during the 18th & 19th centuries
A Russian officer negotiates with a group of Turcoman (Turkmen) elders as part of the Great Game between tsarist Russia and the British Empire. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Great Game — also known as Bolshaya Igra — was an intense rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia, beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through 1907 wherein Britain sought to influence or control much of Central Asia to buffer the "crown jewel" of its empire: British India.

Tsarist Russia, meanwhile, sought to expand its territory and sphere of influence, in order to create one of history's largest land-based empires.

The Russians would have been quite happy to wrest control of India away from Britain as well.

As Britain solidified its hold on India — including what is now Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh — Russia conquered Central Asian khanates and tribes on its southern borders. The front line between the two empires ended up running through Afghanistan, Tibet and Persia.

Origins of Conflict

The British Lord Ellenborough started "The Great Game" on January 12, 1830, with an edict establishing a new trade route from India to Bukhara, using Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan as a buffer against Russia to prevent it from controlling any ports on the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, Russia wanted to establish a neutral zone in Afghanistan allowing for their use of crucial trade routes.

This resulted in a series of unsuccessful wars for the British to control Afghanistan, Bukhara and Turkey. The British lost at all four wars — the First Anglo-Saxon War (1838), the First Anglo-Sikh War (1843), the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848) and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878) — resulting in Russia taking control of several Khanates including Bukhara.

Although Britain's attempts to conquer Afghanistan ended in humiliation, the independent nation held as a buffer between Russia and India. In Tibet, Britain established control for just two years after the Younghusband Expedition of 1903 to 1904, before being displaced by Qin China. The Chinese emperor fell just seven years later, allowing Tibet to rule itself once more.

End of a Game

The Great Game officially ended with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Persia into a Russian-controlled northern zone, a nominally independent central zone, and a British-controlled southern zone. The Convention also specified a borderline between the two empires running from the eastern point of Persia to Afghanistan and declared Afghanistan an official protectorate of Britain.

Relations between the two European powers continued to be strained until they allied against the Central Powers in World War I, though there still now exists hostility toward the two powerful nations — especially in the wake of Britain's exit from the European Union in 2017.

The term "Great Game" is attributed to British intelligence officer Arthur Conolly and was popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his book "Kim" from 1904, wherein he plays up the idea of power struggles between great nations as a game of sorts.