Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia

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9781582431062: Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia

The original Great Game (18001917), the clandestine struggle between Russia and Britain for mastery of Central Asia, has long been regarded as one of the greatest geopolitical conflicts in history. The prize, control of the vast Eurasian heartland, was believed by some to be key to world dominion. Teeming with improbable drama and exaggerated tensions, the conflict featured soldiers, mystics, archeologists, and spies, among them some of history’s most colorful characters.While the original Great Game ended with the Russian Revolution, the geopolitical struggles in Central Asia continue to the present day. Beginning with the soldiers and propagandists of the Victorian era, Tournament of Shadows chronicles nearly two centuries of conflict in the Eurasian heartland, conflict that has spawned wars in Afghanistan, the invasion of Tibet, and economic scrambles for control of Caspian oil. Karl E. Meyer, formerly of the New York Times, and his wife, Shareen Blair Brysac, formerly of CBS News, have created a vivid narrative that brings to life the engaging personalities in this colorful conflict: Russia’s greatest explorer, Nicholas Przhevalsky, who died trying to shoot his way to Lhasa; Nicholas Roerich, the Russian artist and mystic who searched for fabled Shambhala under the patronage of Henry Wallace, the American Secretary of Agriculture; Philadelphia socialite Brooke Dolan, like a figure out of Hemingway, who reached Lhasa as an OSS operative; SS Captain Ernst Schäfer, who led an expedition to Tibet in the late 1930s in an attempt to confirm Nazi racial theories; William Rockhill, the first American to befriend and advise a Dalai Lama; Sarat Chandra Das, the Bengali explorer who went to Lhasa in the secret service of the Raj.Revealing a wealth of new material that has never before been published, Meyer and Brysac have written a sweeping history of a riveting tournament, a two-century joust with political and economic implications that remain as topical today as this morning’s newspaper.

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Review:

Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, the Russian and British Empires played out a chess game of diplomacy, espionage, and military thrusts into Central Asia to protect their expanding interests. When play began, the frontiers of their empires lay 2,000 miles apart, across vast deserts and almost impassable mountain ranges; by the end, they were separated by only 20 miles. Karl E. Meyer of The New York Times and Shareen Blair Brysac, documentary filmmaker for CBS, update and significantly expand earlier studies of the imperial rivalry, notably Peter Hopkirk's pioneering The Great Game. Tournament of Shadows reads like a racy adventure story, yet there is no need for the authors to embellish their well-researched facts. The region attracted a host of bizarre characters, each with his own idiosyncratic goals. The authors begin with the journey to Bokhara of an ambitious horse doctor, hired by the East India Company in 1806 to improve its breeding stock, and end with the CIA's assistance to anti-Chinese guerrillas in Tibet during the cold war. American participants in the opening of Central Asia have not previously received much attention, but Tournament of Shadows introduces adventurers such as William Rockhill, commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1880s to explore Tibet, and William McGovern, who, to the chagrin of the British, reached Lhasa in 1923. The wealth and instability of Central Asia continue to keep the region in the headlines, motivating the Soviet Union's disastrous 10-year intervention in Afghanistan and fueling an international race for resources--especially oil--today. --John Stevenson

About the Author:

Karl E. Meyer was London bureau chief for the Washington Post before joining the editorial board of the New York Times. He is the editor of World Policy Journal.

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