IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. [nummer] | Regions |Central Asia

September 1998

Dear Editor


In the 'IIAS Newsletter' No.13, Summer 1997, Dr McKay published the book review dedicated to my book 'Russia's Tibet File'. Thank you and Dr McKay for your attention to very important problems in history of his international relations in the Central Asia closely connected with the Tibetan issue of the present time.
I would like to make some notes on the book review. Dr McKay treats with some caution the claim in my book that there is not a single document in the Russian Foreign Ministry Archives which provides evidence of Russian interest in Tibet from an economic, military or diplomatic point of view. But the fact is that!
Not only Russian archives, but also British archives, quoted in book of British authors, do not provide evidence of these Russian interests either. Let us reject an old historical reminiscence about some military expeditions in the 18th century sent by Russian Emperors Peter the First and Paul the First for conquering India as well as rhetorical exercises in press in the first half of the 19th century on the theme of the Russian menace to India. At the end of the 19th century Lord Curzon used these theoretical ruins for arguing that Russian involvement in Tibet posed a serious threat to India, that Russia is going again to conquer India. Lord Curzon certainly exaggerated the 'Russian threat' for his own purposes.
The 'Russia's Tibet File' conception admits to threat without caution and to accept Dr McKay's claim that the 'British Foreign Office were totally uninterested in Tibet, and horrified by the expansionist activities of the Indian Government whose concern for Tibet endangered Anglo-Chinese relations'. We can come to terms and agree that the British archives do not have either the document which could show British interest in Tibet from an economic, military and diplomatic point of view.
But how to understand so called 'The Great Game'? Since Russia and Great Britain had no interests in Tibet who played 'The Great Game'? Dr McKay in his book review says that 'The Great Game' means 'the legendary struggle between British and Russian frontiersmen for control of the Central Asian territory between their two empires'.
However I must say, that so-called struggle was attributed by historians not to frontiersmen, but to the Great Powers and their policy and politicians, they tried to play with Tibet. The image of Tibet as a pawn in the game of the Great Powers has become trivial. Many authors repeated the comparison of this country with insignificant chese figure, which had no independent role of its own in the historical process. The source of this no doubt delusion can be found at the beginning of the 20th century, when Tibet stepped into the international scene, and the Treat of owners found themselves obligatory to define and to formulate their political credo towards Tibet. At that time the head of the India Office in the British government Lord Hamilton in his letter to Viceroy of India Lord Curzon wrote 22 August 1901: 'The Tibetans are we but the smallest of pawns on the political chessboard, but castles, knights and bishops may all be involved in trying to take that pawn'.
The book review reads: 'The Great Game was fought by frontiersmen on both sides, not politicians and bureaucrats in European capitals. Russian frontier officers such as Przevalsky and Grombchevsky were keen to contest control of Tibet as my British officers were.' However Przevalsky and Grombchevsky are known in the world science as travellers and researches. They were not the frontier officers. The Russian as well British and American Encyclopaedias mention Przevalsky only as 'traveller' and 'explorer' (see Encyclopedia Britannica, 1949. vol.18. p.529, Encyclopedia Americana, 1943, vol. p. 119).
Besides the Russia's frontiers were separated from Tibet's frontiers by many hundreds of kilometres of Afganistan's. Chinese Sinkiang's and British India's territories and these distances made absolutely impossible for the Russian officers to control Tibet, and the politicians and bureaucrats did not task the officers with the problem of such controlling.
Dr.McKay is quite right saying that politicians and bureaucrats in European capitals did not fight in the Great Game, this resume is proved in Russia's Tibet file.
The book review puts a very exact question: 'Were the British the only team playing the 'Great Game'? Was the Russian role in Tibet a purely passive one?' The exact answer is yes, the British were the only team playing the 'Great Game'. More exactly we can say, that they we not London's, but Lord Curzon's British in the Government of the British India; J.Snelling in his 'Buddhism in Russia: the Story of Dorjiev Lhasa's Emissary to the Tsar' (London, 1993) wrote that Curzon, a committed imperialist, was the key figure in this 'Great Game', who changed British policy towards Tibet 'patient waiting' to 'impatient hurry'(P103). This 'hurry' led to Younghusband mission of 1904, under the pretex of Dorjiev's negotiations in St.Petersburg, Snelling confirms that in spite of Curzon's alarmist letters to London about Russian shipment of arms, and Cossacks sent to Tibet, in actual fact no Russian arms or personnel were discovered by Younghusband in His mission to Lhasa (see pp.108 - 9). As to Russia: it did not play the Tibetan game.
Since 'Russia's Tibet File' and Dr Mckay's book review has discovered and stated that neither frontiermen, nor statesmen fought the Great Game and using Dr McKay's words 'the Great Game is one of the most enduring of the British imperial mythologies'); neither Russia, nor Great Britain had an economic, military or diplomatic interests in Tibet, so we together must firmly declare that there were no Anglo-Russian contradiction in the Central Asia, and thus we together correct a very old historiographical error and eliminate the so called Anglo-Russian rivalry in Tibet as the instrument and tool while Describing the international relations in this region of Asia.

M.Kuleshiv, Moscow

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