The Russians in the Great Game
From the time of their defeat in the Crimean War in 1856, the Russians sought to extend their Empire into Central Asia. Their success was rapid. Imperial expansion was not, however, the sole motivation: almost all Russian military excursions and expeditions within Central Asia were accompanied by scientists and undertaken with remarkable academic rigour. This interest in the local peoples, their history, culture and environment was one of the main differences between the Russian performance in the ‘Great Game’ and that of their British rival, whose interest was almost exclusively strategic. In addition to a more coherent military policy, it also explains the greater success of the Russians in not only subduing the Central Asian tribes but creating new and lasting alliances. This was nowhere truer than in the Pamir region of today’s Tajikistan.
The multiple Russian expeditions in the Pamirs from 1871 to 1935 resulted in a sound and broad-based scientific record of the region and its inhabitants and cemented a close relationship with them. The Russians liberated the peoples of the Pamirs from Afghan and Bukharan oppression and made significant investments (first as Empire, subsequently as Soviet Union) in the economic and social development of the region. A major crisis occurred as a result of the break-up of the Soviet Union that was only relieved thanks to the support given by various actors in the Tajik and Russian governments and the international community, in which the author was an active participant. Friction between Russian border guards in the Pamirs and the local population led in 2004 to the replacement of the Russians by a Tajik contingent, thus putting an end to 120 years of very close Pamir-Russian relations.