The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

Setting the East Ablaze

The Cheka, Bailey learned later, had come to the conclusion that he must either have got clean away or been disposed of by the Germans who – with the war still on at that time – had good reason for wishing him out of the way. The evidence for the later, it seems, rested on the fact that he had disappeared without his toothbrush. This, the Bolsheviks felt, no Englishman would ever do. In fact, he happened to have two. (59)

Drawing on contemporary travelogues and memoirs, as in his earlier, longer (and better) book The Great Game, Peter Hopkirk has written a highly readable and amusing account of political intrigue in Central Asia in the early twentieth century. It is a drama about information (who could find out what, when) at a time when access to information was so limited that it translated almost directly to power. Beginning initially with the tale Lieut.-Col. Frederick Bailey1 – ‘discoverer’ of the Himalayan blue poppy and catcher of butterflies – traveling to Tashkent with the White Russian governor, Setting the East Ablaze moves on to consider the Soviet ‘threat’ to India, as well as ambitions to influence China, ending ultimately with WWII and Indian independence. Bloodthirsty Turkic nomads are not omitted.

The main problem – and the reason why The Great Game is a superior book – is that the material does not seem fully digested. The tone changes from chapter to chapter depending on whose memoirs Hopkirk draws on. Indeed, in some places, he seems to have only one or two highly biased sources to spin a narrative from, which entirely color how the story is related;2 this is nowhere really addressed.3 Not being particularly well informed about the period or the region, I cannot with justice comment further.

However – and this sums up my frustrations and delight in this book – I want to know what happened to the Irish governess, ‘the plucky Miss Houston’ who helped so many people escape from the Red Army. She made ‘her own dramatic escape into Persia’ (86) from Tashkent, but that is the last we hear of her, and there is no citation, so she is lost to history. Alas.

  1. Though by no means neglecting a colorful cast of characters from dozens of nationalities, including the dapper (and deadly) Enver Pasha and the sadistic, mad Baron Ungern-Sternberg. []
  2. Particularly in the stories of the aforementioned Enver Pasha & Baron Ungern-Sternber, as well as the Tungan leader Ma Chung-yin []
  3. A situation not helped by lack of information from Soviet archives and a legacy of misinformation on the ground. []


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