The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk
This was a fascinating and insightful book recommended to me by BK, the master historian. The Great Game was a term popularized by Kipling in his novel Kim to describe the intrigue, exploration, political and military machinations of Tsarist Russia and Imperialist England during the 19th century.
At the beginning of the 1800s, Victorian Britian was in it's ascendancy with the prime jewel being the East India Company dominated Indian subcontinent.
The vast swath of land stretching from the Black Sea, across the Caucasus, the Caspian, the deserts of Central Asia and into Tibet was virtually unknown to anyone outside those regions. In St. Petersburg, the Tsar was expanding his empire ever southward and slowly conquering the mountainous tribesmen of the Caucasus and the Khanates of the Central Asian deserts. This caused considerable consternation in England where the Russophobes cried out that these were only the preliminary moves in Russia's desire to eventually annex India through Persia and/or Afghanistan.
This book chronicles the moves and countermoves of the two powers as their governments at home swung back and forth between sucessive governing parties and rulers. The author chronicles both the larger political picture as well as the incredible tales of the explorers and armies who moved throughout the region. The imperialist imperative was so manifest during these years that almost all of the traditional rulers and groups (Persians, Turkomen, Afghans, etc.) were basically looked upon as pawns to be bribed, bullied or conquered by the superpowers.
The stories of the explorers, both Russian and British, who roamed and mapped Central Asia are among the most exciting part of the book. These men crossed the vast deserts, ploughed through snowy mountain passes and wandered among incredible ancient cites (e.g. Bukhara, Khiva, Merv and Tashkent) often in disguise or under imminent threat of death.
This is a great book for gaining additional perspective on contemporary events and I highly recommend reading it.