Great Game

"Defragmentation of History" by Galim Madanov and Zauresh Terekbai (2010)

I have found some other people who believe, like me, that the New Great Game narrative in Central Asia is overplayed. Several months ago I went to very good and very temporary exhibit at the A. Kasteev State Museum of Fine Arts, where I work one day a week. The show, entitled “Between Past and Future: Urgent Archeology,” collected recent works by local artists reflecting on the years since the collapse of the USSR. The show was curated by a local art critic of Russian descent who has worked extensively and has many connections in Germany. Of the art I’ve seen, the works presented in this exhibit were the most creative, fun, provocative and diverse (in terms of media, message, mood).

I want to start with a piece that was not my favorite: “Defragmentation of History” (2010) by Galim Madanov and Zauresh Terekbai, partially pictured above. This was far from the best piece in the show, but it spoke directly to the problem I (vaguely) identified in an earlier post about the New Great Game narrative – i.e. that the narrative functionally treats the Central Asian states much like the body of a goat is treated in the regional game of kokpar (or buzkashi in Persian). It reduces the countries here to littler more than giant mines and oil wells.

Madaov and Terekbai’s piece consists of 40 canvases painted a dirty gold and arranged in a grid. Appearing on each of the canvases in raised letters is the name of a publication about the Great Game – either historical or “new” – and the name of the author, as if each canvas is a book. (I think the artists found the titles by searching “Great Game” and / or “New Great Game” in Google Books, since I received a very similar list when I ran these searches after returning home.) Accompanying the canvases were two texts, one that described the color used as a mix between oil and gold (a reference to the spoils to be won) and the second  is this poem:

A close up of one title in "Defragmentation of History"

Летящие потоке времени осколки нашей культуры
мы стараемся собрать воедино для того,
чтобы наши потомки
смогли увидеть в них свое отражение.

We try to gather together the splinters of our culture,
Flowing through time,
So that our descendants
Can see their reflections in them.

It is my opinion that this poem offers the “splinters of our culture,” as represented by the Great Game and New Great Game titles, in an ironic mode; this piece latches onto the unspoken belief that Central Asian cultures and histories (Kazakh, Uighur, Tartar, Cossak, Uzbek, Tajik, etc.) are so much more than other nation’s competitions for oil, gold and access across the Eurasian steppe. Future generations of Central Asians must understand this, but, as the collection of titles suggests, they won’t do so from the majority of the English-language literature about the region.

Though heavy-handed in its indictment, I enjoyed the piece for the feeling of vindication it gave my point of view. Of course, this is probably ranks among the basest reasons to enjoy art, and you may be relieved to know that my appreciation for the show’s other works was for more sophisticated reasons.

"Project" by Narynov (late 1980s)

In my opinion, one of the consistent trends connecting the best post-Soviet art is a sense of humor and irony. Usually, although not in Madaov and Terekbai’s piece, this mitigates the heavy-handedness of the message. It also, paradoxically, simultaneously lightens the treatment of frequently depressing subjects and communicates the great tragedy of the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. Take, for example, Narynov’s “Project” from the late-80s (unfortunately damaged). Narynov is a professional architect, but also drew mock-architectural plans for fanciful homes and apartment blocks. The project pictured shows an tower supporting detachable and transportable living-modules. To me this evokes the utopian urban planning repeatedly popular among modernist and leftist architects throughout the 20th century. The legacies of such idealism are, in America, “the projects;” in the former-Soviet Union, the five-story “Khrushchëvki;” in France, the occasionally-successful mixed housing of le banlieues; in China, the hugely broad roads and the endlessly repeating grey apartments that have become a signature of communist and leftist urban planning.

Finally, I’d like to share Erbossyn Meldybekov’s 2007 series “Mt. Communism” (“Пик Коммунизма”), made out of discarded and beat-up basins and saucepans. “Mt. Communism” was really the name given to the highest peak in the Pamirs, located in Northeastern Tajikistan. It now called by its old name Ismoil Somoni. I don’t think Meldybekov’s piece needs much more explanation.

"Mt. Communism" (2007) by Erbossyn Meldibekov


Professor Martha B. Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

As if to prove my point, soon after publishing my recent rant about the frequent talk of “the New Great Game” and “the New Silk Road” in relation to Central Asian politics and economics, both metaphors were misused in relatively high-profile contexts. Secretary of State Clinton has been whizzing through Central Asia (but noticeably not Kazakhstan) this week and employing the idea of the “New Silk Road” to great effect in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (as reported here). Meanwhile, The Jamestown Foundation began advertising for its upcoming conference “Central Asia, Afghanistan and the New Silk Road: Political, Economic and Security Challenges.”

At the same time all this was happening, I also read the below passage in Steve Levine’s 2007 thriller of a history The Oil and the Glory about control over the Caspian’s hydrocarbon resources: “Some compared the events that would follow [in the late 1990s] with the Great Game between imperial Britain and Russian of the nineteenth century–only with an expanded cast. [Strobe] Talbott believed that the United States could not be successful in a Great Game strategy… yet there was no mistaking that conditions were ripening for a twentieth-century struggle for influence and possessions in traditional Great Game territory. This time, the United States, Britain and Turkey would be pitted against Russia and Iran.”

Frustrated as I am by the use of these phrases, I was gratified when, sitting in on a lecture by the doyen of American Central Asian scholars, Martha B. Olcott of the Carnegie Institute, she discarded out of hand the idea of a contemporary Great Game. Despite recent noise from Putin about a new “Eurasian Union” that would look suspiciously like a reconstituted USSR (more about which in a future post) and despite Hillary’s presence in the region to boost confidence before the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Olcott argued that if one looks at the percentages of national and military budgets spent on Central Asia (excluding Afghanistan), it is clear that neither Russia nor the US is pursuing any real long-term strategy in this region.

But then she went one step too far and lost me. Olcott went on to discount Chinese strategic interest and investment in the region. Olcott argued in effect that while China was expanding trade in this region and gaining control of what resources it could, China – like the USA and Russia – was not investing (either financially or in terms of manpower) in Central Asia at a level commensurate with a country pursuing a national strategy. She instead pointed to the South China Sea as an example of a region in which China is genuinely expressing state interests and changing the balance of power.

While I don’t dispute that things are heating up in the South China Sea, I do not think this excludes China from simultaneously pursuing its interests in Central Asia, albeit with a different approach. While Russia, the US and even India are competing for rights to extend overt military presences into Central Asia in the form of bases, China’s military has stayed far away. Instead, China’s major businesses (many of them either state-owned or state-supported, and therefore state-directed) have been reaching into eastern Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). I hear almost daily about how China’s oil and gas concerns now control – either through ownership or as the primary buyer, wielding monopsony-like influence – Kazakhstan’s vast hydrocarbon reserves. Similarly, Kazakhs are very afraid that Chinese companies have been secretly buying up or taking out long-term leases on Kazakh farmland. One oft-repeated line sums it up: “There are so many of them, so few of us, and we have so much land.”

A friend of a friend who works in the Almaty mayor’s office told of another way China’s influence is expanding here. Evidently the mayor’s office receives lists of foreigners coming to Almaty Oblast with all their personal information. My acquaintance said that it used to be that the Chinese coming here were in their 40s and 50s and had wives and families back in China to whom they would return after doing work here. Now, he says, the Chinese who come are all men under the age of 30 and many of them marry here and stay. It is not common for Kazakhs to assert that this is a trend actively pursued and encouraged by the Chinese government as a tool of state policy, as crazy as that sounds.

Map of Qing Dynasty China in 1820. The dashed red line in the west represents China's current borders.

But the conspiracy theorists are not without evidence. Supposedly, although I cannot find it, China’s state think-tank – the NDRC – not long ago published a report claiming that China should regain its borders as of the Qing Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1739-95/99) reigned over one of China’s most rapid periods of expansion: the country in fact shrank in the subsequent century. As the map below shows, China’s Qing Dynasty borders extend through most of present-day Kyrgyzstan and all the way through the Zhetysu region of Kazakhstan – in which one finds Almaty.

This is not to say that I genuinely believe China will militarily invade Kazakhstan, but this is not really what Kazakhs fear either. They are more afraid of being economically and demographically subsumed into a Greater China. And while I am also dubious that this is a foreign policy strategy actively pursued by President Hu and the mainstream of the Chinese government, there is plenty of evidence that there are hardline nationalists throughout the bureaucracy who could provide more passive forms of support to a market- and demographics-driven expansion of a concentration of Chinese people.

Therefore, although I chafe at the use of phrases like “the New Great Game,” I do not go so far as Olcott to assert that countries are not pursuing potentially conflicting state policies in this region, that, to use a Mandarin phraseology, may one day require the contradictions to be resolved. There are certainly games being played out here, I just don’t know yet how “great” they are.

A famous cartoon from the British magazine Punch about the Great Game

Sorry to be delaying further posts about my trip to Uzbekistan. I’m waiting to be able to include my pictures, which means waiting for Shannon to return to Almaty. I borrowed her camera but not the cable to connect it to my computer. In the meantime I’d like to share with you a question that’s been lodged in the back of my mind for some time now.

A huge volume of the post-Soviet literature about Central Asia, if not actually the greater part of scholarship, employs one or both of two metaphors to characterize the geo-political and economic situation in the region and its prospects. According to these metaphors, Kazakhstan and the four other post-Soviet Republics are either caught in the midst of the “New Great Game” or are part of a “New Silk Road.” Politicians, journalists and academics, unable to resist the poetry of history supposedly repeating itself, incorporate these metaphors into their analysis of contemporary Central Asia, presumably to suggest precedent for one or another international political and/or economic configuration or prognosis. But (and here’s my question) which is it?

This question’s importance resides in the potential for these metaphors to guide policymaking, and the two metaphors each suggest dramatically divergent options. Rhetorically, the “New Great Game” casts Russia, China and the US as the belligerents in a contest for resources (supposedly) reminiscent of the 19th-century Anglo-Russian confrontation in Central Asia. In this original Great Game, the two imperial powers launched spies at each other to fight battles of wit and intrigue in the High Pamirs. Although Britain the Russia did not come to armed conflict in this region, Great Game historians generally assert the real threat, at the time, of this contingency – and contemporary uses of the metaphor also insinuate the possibility of violence.

In contrast, the “New Silk Road” imagery celebrates the recrudescence of the historical trade routes between the Far and Middle East that passed through Central Asia, particularly modern Uzbekistan. For centuries, the Silk Road was the pathway for goods and ideas to migrate across the continent, and it is no coincidence that the heyday of this region – and the growth of Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand as cities of legendary culture and wealth – coincides with the vitality of transcontinental trade. The Central Asian Republics would, for obvious reasons, like to position themselves in the middle of a reconstituted Silk Road bridging East and West geographically, intellectually and in terms of the transport of goods, since that would be a source of import and transshipment tax revenue.

I consider this question of sufficient significance that I almost wrote my MPhil thesis on the subject; then I thought about turning it into a paper while on my Fulbright; finally, I’m addressing it in a blog post. The reason for this demotion, if you will, is not that I think the question has lost relevance, but because I think, first, that both of the metaphors are inaccurate, and therefore the implicit dichotomy between conflict and cooperation, war and trade, is spurious; second, and corollary to the first, I think that neither metaphor captures the reality of the situation.

With regards to the assertion that the metaphors are poor, one need only look to basic history. The Great Game was neither about control of Central Asia, nor did it take place in “Central Asia” as defined by the five post-Soviet Republics. Rather, most of the “action” took place in Afghanistan and the Himalayas as the British attempted to halt the perceived Imperial Russian advances towards British India, the colonial crown jewel (more about which here). The British never desired to dislodge the Russians from their Imperial holdings. Seen in this light, the Great Game was not about control of Central Asian resources, but it was about access, in this case Russian access to India (although some scholars question whether Russia did in fact have designs on India).

Moreover, as much as the Silk Road transmitted goods and ideas, it (although “road” really should be plural) also served to transmit violence, disease and xenophobia. It should come as no surprise that Genghis Khan’s army and rumors of “the Mongol hordes” or “yellow peril” traveled although roughly the same routes; it is likely so did the bubonic plague. And both before and after the Mongol invasion, many competing dynasties and peoples killed each other for the sake of controlling the roads to Russia, Iran, India and China. Therefore, rhetoric about the “New Silk Road” patently overemphasizes a selective historical narrative.

But all is not lost. A fuller historic appreciation of the Great Game and the Silk Road points to one aspect in which these two phenomena were similar: both represent, at their core, the importance and value of the ability to control access across Central Asia as an asset in itself. At its best, the Silk Road suggests the potential benefits of such access, and the Great Game demonstrates why and how competing forces may desire to guard against or limit such access.

This emphasis on access, more than the previous metaphors, speaks to the contemporary situation. The US wants northern access into Afghanistan; the Chinese want lateral access across Central Asia to oil and gas resources in the Caspian and, even more significantly, in Iran; Russians want to regain and maintain control of their pipelines pumping hydrocarbons from Turkmenistan in the south all the way to Moscow and Berlin. And everyone wants to limit the dominant northward-bound trade in heroine out of Afghanistan and into Russia.

However, this emphasis shares a further problem with the original two metaphors. In none of these interpretations are Central Asian countries afforded any agency. As much as the value of the Central Asian Republics is a function of their location, they are not any longer – at least since 1991 – simply areas of land over which other empires fight for conflicting rights of passage. Kazakhstan, since 2008 the world’s largest uranium producer, in particular will have greater leverage in the future to define and project its own interests. Once this is demonstrated to be the case, both the Great Game and Silk Road metaphors will cease to have any marginal utility and should be abandoned.

Sometimes history repeats itself, but it does not necessarily do so. Toying with old and misused metaphors only muddies the waters and makes the reality of things harder to grasp.