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Beyond the ‘Great Game’: The Russian origins of the second Anglo–Afghan War*


Drawing on published documents and research in Russian, Uzbek, British, and Indian archives, this article explains how a hasty attempt by Russia to put pressure on the British in Central Asia unintentionally triggered the second Anglo–Afghan War of 1878–80. This conflict is usually interpreted within the framework of the so-called ‘Great Game’, which assumes that only the European ‘Great Powers’ had any agency in Central Asia, pursuing a coherent strategy with a clearly defined set of goals and mutually understood rules. The outbreak of the Second Anglo–Afghan war is usually seen as a deliberate attempt by the Russians to embroil the British disastrously in Afghan affairs, leading to the eventual installation of ‘Abd al-Rahman Khan, hosted for many years by the Russians in Samarkand, on the Afghan throne. In fact, the Russians did not foresee any of this. ‘Abd al-Rahman's ascent to the Afghan throne owed nothing to Russian support, and everything to British desperation. What at first seems like a classic ‘Great Game’ episode was a tale of blundering and unintended consequences on both sides. Central Asian rulers were not merely passive bystanders who provided a picturesque backdrop for Anglo–Russian relations, but important actors in their own right.

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The research for this article was funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust. I would like to thank Evgenii Abdullaev, Raushan Abdullaev, Alima Bissenova, Ian Campbell, Valery Germanov, Beatrice Penati, Scott Savran, David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, Charles Sullivan, Tom Welsford, Zbigniew Wojnowski, and the reviewers for Modern Asian Studies for their comments on earlier drafts.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Beryl Williams Approach to the Second Afghan War: Central Asia during the Great Eastern Crisis, 1875–1878International History Review vol. 2 (1980), pp. 216–38

John Lowe Duthie Pragmatic Diplomacy or Imperial Encroachment? British Policy Towards Afghanistan, 1874–1879International History Review vol. 5 (1983), pp. 475–95

Alexander Morrison Twin Imperial Disasters. The Invasions of Khiva and Afghanistan in the Russian and British Official Mind, 1839–1842Modern Asian Studies vol. 48 (2014), pp. 253300

B. D. Hopkins The Making of Modern Afghanistan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 3447

Alexander Morrison Camels and Colonial Armies. The Logistics of Warfare in Central Asia in the Nineteenth CenturyJournal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient vol. 57 (2014), pp. 443–85

M. A. Yapp British Perceptions of the Russian Threat to IndiaModern Asian Studies vol. 21 (1987), pp. 647–65

Charles Jelavich Bismarck's Proposal for the Revival of the Dreikaiserbund in October 1878Journal of Modern History vol. 29 (1957), pp. 99101

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
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