History of Soviet Central Asia reveals hotbed of treachery, intrigue

Setting the East Ablaze. Lenin's Dream of an Empire in Asia, by Peter Hopkirk. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co. 252 pp. $17.95. TO most Americans, Central Asia -- the area between the Caspian Sea and Lake Baikal -- is true terra incognita. On the map it appears as a vast blank space bordered on the south by the Himalayas and punctuated by exotic sounding cities along ancient caravan routes: Bokhara, Tashkent, and Kashgar. It seems unpromising ground for the setting of major historical events. Yet, as London Times journalist Peter Hopkirk shows, from 1918 to 1938 this region was the site of an ongoing secret conflict of epic proport ions. This undeclared series of wars ``had its roots in that earlier contest between the British and the Russians, the Great Game.'' Through much of the 19th century, the empire of the czars had attempted to destabilize India's northwest frontier, while the British occupied themselves with foiling such efforts. These shadowy feints and thrusts by secret agents and their native allies -- dubbed the ``Great Game'' by Rudyard Kipling in ``Kim'' -- came to an end with the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention. Scar cely a decade later they were renewed with a quantum leap in ferocity and a new ideology.

In 1918 the Bolsheviks were fighting for their lives against an array of White Russian and Allied forces. Mutual suspicion between the British in India and the Bolsheviks in Central Asia resulted in a resumption of Great Game intrigue. But it was the formation of the Comintern in March 1919 that gave a strategy and an ideological impetus to Bolshevik efforts. Comintern was to be the international revolutionary arm of the Communist movement, and its immediate priorities became the fomenting of unrest in British India and the winning of influence in Sun Yat-sen's Nationalist party in China. By ``setting the East ablaze'' with Marxism-Leninism, the capitalist nations would be deprived of their colonial empires, and the resulting economic dislocation would ripen them for revolution. Toward this end, tough, young revolutionaries like M. N. Roy and Michael Borodin were sent on missions to India and China, and the Red Army established a strong presence in Central Asia.

But Lenin was not the only one dreaming of a Central Asian empire, Hopkirk explains. There was ``the psychopathic White Russian General named Ungern-Sternberg,'' who ``boasted that he would plant `an avenue of gallows,' stretching all the way from Mongolia to Moscow.'' Emigr'e Turkish leader Enver Pasha and the Chinese warlord Ma Chung-yin sought at different times to establish their own Muslim empires in Asia. Ranged against these forces was a tiny coterie of daring British agents whose exploits make t hose of James Bond seem rather ordinary. By the late 1930s their mission was complete: Stalin was calling for ``popular fronts'' against fascism, and indigenous Central Asian movements had run their courses. British India was safe until World War II.

``Setting the East Ablaze'' brims with action: There are battles, massacres, duplicity, and treachery on a massive scale. Unfortunately, there are also defects in style that make the book fall somewhat short of its potential. In attempting to keep the abundant and often confusing activity intelligible, Hopkirk is forced to give precious little depth to the individuals involved. Still, ``Setting the East Ablaze'' is a valuable contribution to the all-too-meager scholarship on this period. Its deficiencie s as historical literature are forgivable, because they arise from trying to do too much, rather than not enough.

Charles Desnoyers teaches modern Chinese history at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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