Monday, April 28, 2008

I read a couple of great books over the winter. Two books, by Peter Hopkirk, really stand out. The first is entitled "The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia" (I'll refer to it as TGG). TGG is about the history of European colonialism in Central Asia. It focuses on the competition between the Russians and the British to bring the Central Asian tribes into alignment. Britain, desperate to protect her interests in India, was constantly sending spies into Central Asia and attempting to map the passes through which a Russian attack might be mounted upon India. The Russians, wanting to expand their empire and apply pressure to the British, also sent forth numerous spies and agitators. TGG relays its information largely through telling the stories of individuals. In contrast to ordinary history books, which state (interpreted) facts about events, TGG tells adventure stories about what happened to specific people as they attempted specific missions. The historical information thus become part of the narrative, and the reading is far more compelling.

The second book, "Setting the East Ablaze," picks up right where the first leaves off right about the time of the Russian Revolution. The Russian objectives in East Asia changed, but the goals in terms of empire remained essentially the same. Rather than simply padding the coffers of the Russian empire, Central Asia became the jumping off point for communist revolution in India, as well as a buffer against the Imperialist British.

Both of these books are insightful and informative. If you have any interest in world political history or if you enjoy books like the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser, you'll really like these. They remain roughly neutral (though with a cheerful adoration of British bravado and ingenuity). They helped me to understand much more about Afghanistan and the conflicts there and in northern Pakistan and even Iran.

Both TGG and SEA help to make clear why so many people over there don't like westerners. We've been stepping on their toes for hundreds of years, messing around in their politics and trying to use them as our pawns. I'd be bitter too.

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