Tournament of Shadows, a Review

by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 5/22/2008 · 9 comments

Tournament of Shadows CoverIt’s been a long time since my last review, but in my defense, this is a MAMMOTH book. It covers much of the same material as Peter Hopkirk’s seminal Central Asian work “The Great Game,” and oodles more, as it finds cause to cover both northern India’s and Tibet’s intriguing histories as well. Karl Meyer of The New York Times and Shareen Brysac, a documentary director at CBS, have significantly expanded on the earlier looks into the Imperial Rivalry of Great Britain and Tsarist Russia, along with a laundry list of sideline actors, from Nazi-sympathizing Swedish adventurers to my favorite, the American Quaker Prince of Afghanistan, Josiah Harlan. In parts it does seem more Indiana Jones than anything else, but its length is not entirely necessary – there’s a lot of dragging on about points not really central to the “Tournament of Shadows.” In short, I definitely preferred Hopkirk’s volume. Personally, I wish that Mr. Harlan would have had more than the lackluster treatment they handed him in this work, as he may not have been a player in either British or Russian imperialism, his story is still amazing and was definitely a real precursor to the possibilities that founded the so-called Tournament/Great-Game in the first place. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for The Man Who Would Be King elements in Harlan’s story.

I thought I’d add, after the break, that I really didn’t mean to spend sooooo much time on this book! In the long run, I have to say that it wasn’t worth it – for reviewing purposes – as so much of the action happens outside of this blog’s focus. I’d say that at least 40% of the book concerned Indian, Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Mongolian hi-jinx of various sorts and calibers. I have a couple books lined up to review next, and they are thankfully short and sweet. I have a couple about Afghanistan, but in light of how much Afghani/Pakistani politics Josh has been covering, I’ll try and pick up something more Caucasus related. I still have a large coffee-table book on Persian history that I’d like to curl up with and see if I can recommend…

To reiterate, I don’t have too much to say about this work. It’s definitely meant to be a cornerstone in the literature, and it certainly casts a wider net than Hopkirk did, but it’s not really something I could recommend. You’d get more out of reading the Hopkirk canon and tossing in the character specific histories [Mission to Tashkent, The Man Who Would Be King, Setting the East Ablaze, etc.]. That’s my two cents!

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– author of 20 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

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Joshua Foust May 23, 2008 at 6:38 am

Mission to Tashkent remains my favorite spy novel. Except it’s not a novel. What an amazing story. I keep meaning to pick up The Man Who Would Be King — both the novel, AND the biography. Alas. I’m trying to gather my thoughts on “The Railway” by Hamid Ismailov, which I imported from the UK since it’s not sold stateside, but I’m afraid I don’t have the insight into Uzbek culture Nathan does. I’ll still give it a try, but reviewing fiction takes a lot of work for me 🙂

You’ll enjoy Anja Politovskaya’s book, “Putin’s Russia,” as well. I should finish that soon. And this book, along with “Empire of the Steppes” and “The Frontier Scouts” is lined up in my queue.

GOD i love books.

Duncan Kinder May 23, 2008 at 9:52 am

The problem with Tournament of Shadows is that it has two divergent themes. The first is the 19th Century “Afghanocentric” theme of the Russo-British struggle for dominance in Central Asia. The second is the 20th century struggle for Tibetan independence against China. These themes should be treated separately, in two different books.

My primary criticism of current Great Game literature is that it is all “Anglo Centric.” We view things from the British point of view. They are the protagonists, attempting to protect the Raj from the real or perceived Russian threat from the North.

What we need is a “Russo Centric” book. How did all this view from Petersburg? Who were their gamesmen. How did they view themselves? How do they relate to the Westernizer vs. Slavophile controversy then raging within Russia? There was then an enormous amount of Russian art and literature about Central Asia, e.g., several compositions by Borodin. How does this relate? In short, we need a story of the Great Game portraying the Ruskies as the protagonists.

Michael Hancock May 23, 2008 at 10:24 am

I agree 100% Duncan. Where is the Russian side of the story? The British are our natural ‘allies’ in the struggle, through shared culture and language, but I’m curious as to how the Russians in power saw the struggles in Central Asia. Was it more like the “Indian campaigns” in North America, a racist, almost murderous view of bringing civilization to savages? Or something slightly more Imperialist, like the occupation of India?

Ian May 23, 2008 at 11:22 am

There are some excellent books about what you’re talking about–most recently, Adeeb Khalid, Jeff Sahadeo, and Robert Crews have published on this topic. Granted, they’re more academically-oriented than the Hopkirk series, but then perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.

Nathan May 23, 2008 at 11:30 am

Looks like Ian beat me to it, but I was going to recommend Crews. I’ve read parts of the Sahadeo book as well — also worth checking out.

Matt May 23, 2008 at 6:42 pm

While Khalid, Sahadeo, and Crews all discuss different aspects of Russian/Soviet rule in Central Asia, they do not specifically focus on the Anglo-Russian rivalry the way Hopkirk does.

The lack of English-language books from a Russian perspective is due in part to the difficulty of archive access – both from a political standpoint (especially before the 1990s), and a linguistic one (19th-century Russian isn’t the easiest read, especially for non-native speakers).

One book that does come to mind is Tibet, the Great Game and Tsarist Russia by Tatiana Shaumian. As you can gather from the title, it covers the late period of the Great Game, including the 1907 convention. It’s an interesting read, and I believe it draws more from Russian sources than British ones.

Personally, I would find a version of Hopkirk’s “Setting the East Ablaze” from a Russian perspective very interesting.

Jim May 26, 2008 at 3:18 pm

I’m grateful for the review, as I’ve been considering picking this up and will probably give it a pass.

I did pick up Crews’ book, per the recommendations in this thread.

I’ve read a few of Hopkirks’ books, and they were great for being both informative and page turners. When I read “The Great Game” for a class on Central Asia in college it may have been the only time I stayed up all night reading for school purely because I wanted to.

Alexander May 27, 2008 at 10:35 am

Hmm – looks as if several people are thinking along the same lines as me. I’m actually planning to write my next book about the ‘Great Game’ from a Russian and Central Asian perspective (the British were only ever bit-players in this business, after all). There are huge numbers of campaign memoirs and several published Islamic chronicles which I’m planning to use, alongside archival material detailing things like Russian embassies to Kashgar. For those who are interested in Russian colonialism in Central Asia per se, I second the comments about Khalid and Sahadeo, but I think Crews’s book is deeply flawed, for reasons which are too complicated to go into here. And if I might be pardoned a little plug for my own forthcoming work on that subject, follow the link below (the price is horrendous, I’m afraid):

Alexander May 27, 2008 at 11:53 am

Oh, and Jennifer Siegel’s ‘Endgame’ is well worth reading: it uses Russian sources to examine Anglo-Russian relations in Asia in the period 1907-14, although the focus is mainly on Iran.

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