Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Great Game

I once shared a tutorial session on the process of British decolonisation with someone who forgot to mention the role played by the Suez crisis. It was hard to take his analysis terribly seriously as a result. In today's Guardian there's a piece describing Britain's historic antipathy to Russia. I'm sure its author, Hywel Williams, is not a complete ignoramus, yet he does little to dispel such a suggestion.
For starters his piece is sub-titled: Britain has long cast Russia as a corrupt and destabilising state - because it disturbed the established imperial order. Ignoring the palpably ludicrous implication that Russia was outside of the established imperial order, it's still worth looking at what Williams is trying to say here. The area that he specifies as having caused Britain concern to the extent that it viewed Russia as a threat was, apparently, Pan-Slavism, which was one of the great 19th-century ideologies, and the idea that the Russian tsar was the protector of all the Orthodox faithful also threatened British interests.
Tish pshaw and bibble. Russia's machinations in Eastern Europe, from the battle of Poltava through the Silent Sejm up to the Bolshevik war in the Ukraine were never a real concern to the British. Russia's pan-slavism was a matter of the utmost indifference to all but a handful of British strategists. It was not Russia's 'cultural imperialism' that was a threat to the British - any suggestion to the contrary is absurd.
For it is also a fact that Tsarist Russia figured as highly in British thoughts throughout the 19th century as Bolshevik Russia did in the 20th. Not because of European expansion, never because of European expansion, but because of Eastern expansion. Whenever Britain intervened actively against Russia, both in the Crimean war and in the intervention in the civil war in 1917-920, it was because she perceived her Eastern empire to be threatened. The Crimea was a reaction to Russian expansion in Turkey; when Britain intervened in the Civil War, it was primarily in Baku, to protect British interests in Persia.
Britain feared and fought Russia, not because her pan-slavism was seen as an alternative threat to European imperialism, but because traditional Russian imperialism in the east was seen as a strategic threat to the British Empire. Hywel Williams has done what I would not have believed possible: written an article about Britain's historically difficult relationship with Russia, identified imperialism as the reason for the difficulty, and not ever mentioned the underpinning factor that explains it all. Hywel Williams has written an article about the history of the Great Game, and hasn't mentioned India. Blinding.


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