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April 2000

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Tournament of Shadows:
The Great Game and the Race for Empire In Central Asia
By Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac
(Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999. Pp. xxv, 573. $35 cloth)
Other reviews in this issue:

Uncle Sam: Supreme Guardian of the Saudi Crown
Hermann Fr. Eilts on Parker T. Hart's Saudi Arabia and the United States: Birth of a Security Partnership:
"Putative external threats to Saudi Arabia remain a major factor in the Saudi leadership’s regional thinking. And there continues to be a Saudi recognition, however reluctant, that only the United States has the capability and the willingness to help the kingdom retain its independence."

The Arabists: WASP Missionaries to Arabia
Michael Kolodner on Robert D. Kaplan's The Arabists:
Kaplan "skillfully exposes how the clique of WASP missionary Arabists goes on to become the core of the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau at the State Department and how their perspectives shape American foreign policy for good and ill throughout the twentieth century."

The American Metternich Remembers Realpolitik
Victor Fic on Henry A. Kissinger's Years of Renewal:
Kissinger’s supporters will invoke the memoirs as proof that he was the master conjurer behind magical diplomatic feats; his detractors will say that the book covers up his role as the evil warlock who destroyed Vietnam.

VENONA: The Cold War's "Smoking Gun"
Rorin Platt on
Haynes and Klehr's VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America
"The authors claim that most of the 349 Americans identified by the Venona transcripts to be Soviet agents were members of the Moscow-controlled CPUSA, an ‘auxiliary’ of Soviet intelligence, whose active collaboration facilitated Stalin’s espionage offensive against the United States."

Called to Serve: The Life of an American Envoy
Kenneth P. Vickery on Peter Bridges' Safirka: An American Envoy
"Indeed, it is accurate to say there is no such thing as Somalia, or at least a Somali state, anymore; rather, a congeries of breakaway regional movements and warlord-driven zones."

The Great Game
A Duel of Intriguing Imperialists

By Michael Cotter

Journalists Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac have produced an interesting, if long, account of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ European competition for control of the Asian heartland. Once described as a “tournament of shadows,” that turmoil-plagued region of the world continues to gain the world’s attention with headlines concerning religious fundamentalism, cultural repression, and oil.

The saga of Western penetration into Central Asia over the past two centuries cannot be captured adequately in a single volume. A number of scholars have tackled the complicated relationship between Russia and Great Britain in their nineteenth century struggle for secure borders and domination of Central Asia. Although the title and breadth of coverage might lead the reader to expect a more scholarly work, this book is instead written more along the lines of Peter Hopkirk’s multiple volume popular history. In their preface, the authors explain that they intend to focus on the interesting characters who gave spirit and meaning to the contest. In that regard, Meyer and Brysac have succeeded admirably. Their rendering of the tales of the explorers, adventurers, spies, and archaeologists who ventured deep into the Eurasian heartland during this period makes intriguing reading.

But in also attempting to link these tales of “daring do” to the larger picture, the authors complicate their task by trying to include everything from the earliest British East India company ventures into Afghanistan and Kashmir to mid-twentieth century efforts to penetrate Tibet. The unfortunate result is a myriad of loose ends, odd detours, and a general lack of cohesion. The chapter entitled “Swastikas to Lhasa,” for example, is more about World War II and the link between the Nazi regime and the two explorers, Sven Hedin and Ernst Schaffer, than about their activities or the Nazis’ interest in Central Asia. The book’s saving grace is that Meyer and Brysac know how to spot and tell a good tale, so some of the odd detours make the best reading. For instance, their account in chapter nineteen of the relationship between FDR’s vice-president and future Progressive presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, and the Russian Theosophist and explorer, Nicholas Roerich, is truly entertaining.

A good bibliography is critical in a book designed to introduce newcomers to such a sweeping subject. Too often, however, it is simply a dry list of pertinent works, demonstrating the author’s encyclopedic knowledge of the subject but almost impenetrable for the average reader. Fortunately, the bibliography in this volume is presented in an innovative way that will be appreciated by all but the real experts. Chapter notes at the end of the book (52 pages of them!) include a discussion of the principal works on the subjects discussed therein, including recommendations as to which are best for a particular purpose. Most readers will benefit from their selections. The authors’ treatment of footnotes is another tip-off that the book is aimed at non-academics. There are no footnotes in the body of the book, and the chapter notes simply cite specific sources for quotations by page.

With Tournament of Shadows’ heavy emphasis on describing the routes taken by the many expeditions into Central Asia, the inclusion of good maps showing those routes and the towns mentioned in the text would have been very useful. Unfortunately, the maps included in the book leave much to be desired. And, as is the case with so many books including this one, the maps cover two pages, leaving critical sites inevitably obscured by the binding.

Overall, this work is a creditable effort to expand popular interest in and knowledge of this relatively unkown part of the world, and it will amply reward the patient reader. At the same time, it does not replace Peter Hopkirk’s books (four of which cover much of the same historical territory) as the standard for the genre.   


Michael Cotter, a strong supporter of American Diplomacy, served as U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan.

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