Hopkirk, Peter. Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia.
Peter Hopkirk continues the skillful combination of informal narrative and historiography found in The Great Game with Setting the East Ablaze, an in-depth look at what he calls the end of struggle for empire among European powers in Central Asia. Unlike his previous work, which was the multi-faceted story of Russian and British intrigues with and against the fierce tribes of the harsh lands between the northern borders of British India and the southern borders of the rapidly expanding Russian Empire under the Tsars, Setting the East Ablaze is primarily the story of British and Soviet intrigues against each other. Although the peoples of Central Asia also have a significant part to play in this real-life tale of derring-do, they are the supporting cast who add life, meaning, and color. They also pay the heaviest price of all of the groups involved in the “game”.
Hopkirk begins with the mid-1918 journey of Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Bailey from Chinese Turkestan into Russian Central Asia. He believes that the diplomatic mission of Lt. Col. Bailey’s party was doomed from the start due to the sudden worsening of British-Soviet relations following the execution of Tsar Nicholas and his family and the desecration of their bodies. He also believes that if the conditions in Russian Central Asia under the new Bolshevik regime were fully understood in London or Calcutta Bailey and other British agents would have rightly been kept clear of the whole affair. As it was they ran headlong into a growing bloodbath that they were extremely lucky to escape with their lives.
Hopkirk draws on the accounts of various European witnesses to Bolshevik tactics in places like Tashkent, where he draws heavily from the memoirs of Danish Captain A.H. Brun, who had been dispatched to the region to protect the interests of the mainly Austrian and Hungarian prisoners of war held there. Through the offices of Captain Brun, Hopkirk paints a compelling portrait of the chaos and horror of the Russian Civil War and the means the Bolsheviks were willing to use to secure power. Although Brun arrived in Tashkent to a seemingly peace atmosphere, “Everything appeared orderly enough in the still dawn of Central Asia. Turtle-doves fluttered over the low roof-tops. Neat rows of silver-limbed poplars lined the wide streets of the model, colonial-built capital.” The illusions of tranquility were quickly shattered with Muslim demonstrations for the release of political prisoners and a messy battle between the Bolsheviks and the native population, followed by the declaration of an autonomous Muslim government of Turkestan that would have an elected assembly with one-third of the representatives being non-Muslims. The Bolsheviks quickly responded to crush their opposition, based in Kokand, making use of many former-POWs. Hopkirk declines to describe much of the actual battle and massacre, though the details he provides are horrifying enough: in an orgy of rape, murder, and plunder the Bolshevik troops killed between five and fourteen thousand defenseless townspeople and burned homes and mosques. According to the Danish officer, A.H. Brun, “I was told that very one of the members of the Kokand expedition had become a rich man, 10,000 to 20,000 roubles being an average share, and 200,000 a man nothing surprising.” Hopkirk is quick to point out that many of the POWs joined the Red Army not out of belief in Communism or out of blood thirst, but to simply gain access to needed medicines, food and supplies, which were almost unheard of in the prisoner of war camps.
The Bolsheviks were not the only party guilty of atrocities and excess in the towns and on the battlefields of Central Asia. When the Bolsheviks marched on Bokhara, several hundred Russians living in the town were massacred by rampaging mobs seeking vengeance in the only manner available to them. The worst perpetrator of violence in the bloody period was most certainly Baron Roman Nicolaus Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, who fought all comers in an attempt to recreate a Mongol-Russian Empire based on his vision of a “Greater Mongolia”. Ungern-Sternberg was generally acknowledged a complete madman. A shining example of his madness comes from Dmitri Alioshin, a White Russian officer who claimed that while reviewing new recruits Ungern-Sternberg would examine each and decree one of three fates: service in the army, back to civilian life, or death. According to Hopkirk, hundreds were killed in this manner. This was hardly the worst of the atrocities committed by Ungern-Strenberg and his men. On one occasion, two rail cars full of Jews ran afoul of the Baron and were lynched. On another, after the capture of Urga, young women were raped to death by squadrons of cavalry and a baker’s boy was baked alive in an oven
Amongst the depictions of chaos and horror, Hopkirk inserts an insightful discussion of political tensions between the Soviets, Great Britain, and India. The Russian Revolution destroyed the fragile detente between Britain and Russia regarding Central Asia, as the Soviets coveted India for multiple reasons. These reasons included gathering India’s economic resources for Soviet Russia and, failing that, depriving Britain of them. Hopkirk bases this on Lenin’s belief that, “England is our greatest enemy. It is in India that we must strike them hardest.” Combined with the failure of Communism to make significant headway against the governments of Europe, this led Lenin to push for greater Comintern emphasis on Asia, saying, “The East will help us conquer the West.” One of the more interesting stratagem’s Comintern tried was the “Army of God”, an attempt by Grigori Zinoviev to unite Muslims to march against the British “oppressors” in India. Further Comintern plans against India included the creation of a military academy in Afghanistan.
Luckily for the British, diligent Intelligence gathering uncovered the identities of Comintern’s chief agents and their plans, even intercepting and reading almost all of their mail and cable messages. This allowed them to completely disrupt planned actions and insurgencies in India, and provided fodder for the hawks in England. In May of 1923, Britain sent an ultimatum to Lenin’s government insisted that all Soviet agents operating against British interests be removed from Britain and India. The Soviets were predictably unimpressed, and their response indicated that they believed the British to be guilty of operating in their sphere of influence against Soviet interests. They did finally agree to not support or provide funds to any organization “whose aim it is to spread discontent or foment rebellion in any other part of the British Empire.” The real result was for the Bolsheviks to operate under the auspices of the Comintern, not their government, for the uses of deniability.
In an effort to hide future attempts at destabilizing British India, the Bolsheviks moved their area of operations from Persian and Afghanistan north to China. The hope was that by helping the Chinese Communists, headed by Sun Yat-Sen, the Bolsheviks would gain a secure base of operations to launch insurgencies and invasions of India. Simultaneously, British Communist agents working for Comintern were sent into India to surreptitiously build a Communist Party structure hidden behind a labor organization called the Workers and Peasants Party. Despite the Bolsheviks best efforts at secrecy, British Intelligence quickly learned of their activities in China. Hopkirk presents convincing evidence of this in the form of excerpts of reports from the Political Department of the India Office and the British Legate in Peking. According to the Political Department, “There is evidence … that the Bolsheviks are arranging gradually to consolidate a position in the outlying portions of the Chinese Republic which border on India, from which, presumably, they hope to maintain a constant ‘direct attack’ in due course.” In September 1925, the British Legation notified London that the Bolsheviks were infiltrating Chinese Turkestan to attack India from the north.
A final bit of color that Hopkirk adds revolves around British internal political turmoil, particularly during the mid-1920s as Labour and Tory governments pursue conflicting foreign policy goals regarding the Soviets and Bolshevik expansion. One extreme example of this is the hysteria by British conservatives upon the election of Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. MacDonald granted diplomatic recognition to the Soviet government. This and other moves caused a large rift to develop between MacDonald and British security organizations, which Hopkirk claims resulted in MacDonald’s defeat in less than a year as PM.
Setting the East Ablaze is an enjoyable combination of story-telling that brings the many well-known characters and events involved in the Soviet-British incarnation of the Great Game between World Wars to life. Although there are some distinctive side-trips into events that do not strictly concern the rivalry between the two Empires, such as the escapades of the “Bloody Baron” Ungern-Sternberg and Enver Pasha in their attempts to create their own empires at the cost of the Communists, there is nothing that does not fit into the overall scheme of the work, and both episodes serve to demonstrate that there were other actors on the stage that had an impact in the struggle for Central Asia.
There are only two small flaws in an otherwise excellent work: the bibliography and index. The bibliography is restricted to an alphabetical listing of sources, with no references to where the items are referenced in the text, and no accompanying notes. This leaves it to the reader to investigate each source to find potential additional information in an almost blind manner. The index is like the indexes in other Hopkirk works: it primarily lists individuals and locations, perhaps a specific location or battle. Cross-referenced subject areas that would allow easy direct access to a topic are notably absent. Both issues are small and easily overlooked. Any student of history wanting more than a dry recitation of the events concerning the British and Russian struggle in Central Asia will find that Setting the East Ablaze adds the missing textures to the discussion that brings history to life.