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THE GREAT GAME: A Few Words on Our Relations with Russia: including some Remarks on a Recent Publication by Colonel De Lacy Evans, entitled “Designs of Russia”. By a Non-Alarmist.



Rare – the first great counter-argument to Colonel George de Lacy Evans’ ‘Designs of Russia’, widely considered to be the intellectual genesis of ‘The Great Game’, by the esteemed economist Thomas Tooke.

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In 1828, Russia was in a full-on expansive mode.  It was part of the allied coalition during the ongoing Greek War of Independence (1821-9), which decisively vanquished the Ottomans at the Battle of Navarino (1827), and additionally was routing the Turkish armies in the Danube and Eastern Anatolia during the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-9.  This came on the heels of a generation of Russian conquests in the Caucuses and Central Asia. 

Even though Britain was an ally of Russia during the Greek war, many people at Whitehall and in the military establishment were rattled by Russian expansionism.  These sentiments were coherently articulated for the first time by Lieutenant Colonel George de Lacy Evans in his On the Designs of Russia (London: John Murray, 1828).  This book painted an alarming picture of an emerging juggernaut of Russian aggression that would lead to the total collapse the Ottoman Empire and would expand ever deeper into the heart of Asia to threaten British India.  The message was clear: if Britain did not soon act with decisive force against Russia, her entire political and commercial agenda in Asia would be in existential danger.  Engagingly written by a seasoned combat veteran, the book caused a furore that approached hysteria in some circles.  It was used by the already converted to justify their hard-line stance against Russia, while it succeeded in convincing many ‘fence sitters’ to assume a Russophobic posture.  While Anglo-Russian tensions were nothing new (Russia made bold, yet empty threats against Britain during the Napoleonic Wars), Evans’ work is widely considered to be the intellectual genesis of ‘The Great Game’, or in Russian, ‘Турниры теней’ (Tournament of Shadows), a decades-long contest that dominated Anglo-Russian relations for the rest of the 19th Century. 

While much of the British establishment was captivated by Evans’ fear of Russia, including the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington (albeit, to a limited degree), not everyone was convinced.  Some figures who viewed themselves as cooler heads believed that while Russia certainly harboured expansionist ambitions, her designs were not a serious threat to Britain.  The call to arms against St. Petersburg was, in truth, nothing beyond ‘wagging the dog’.

The present pamphlet represents the first, and by far and away most intelligent and convincing, counter-argument against Evans’ opus.  A Few Words on Our Relations with Russia was anonymously penned by a “Non-Alarmist”, who was subsequently be revealed to be Thomas Tooke, a merchant, celebrated economist and free trade advocate. 

Tooke was born in Russia, the son of Reverend William Tooke, a famous historian of Russia.  While he eventually returned to London, becoming a wealthy and popular member of the establishment, he had previously lived and worked for some years in St. Petersburg and was an undisputed authority on Russia and British relations with the Czar’s court. 

Tooke, in the present work, presents a forceful argument against Evans’ ‘alarmism’.  Cleary and engagingly written, he applies a measured tone, quoting a wide variety of authoritative sources and statistics, to argue that while Russia certainly desired to expand its horizons, it was only a threat to its immediate neighbours.  Beset by internal problems, Russia dis not have the power or ambitions to ever seriously challenge Britain.  Rather, Tooke maintained that Russia could in fact be a useful commercial partner for Britain, should the relationship be tactfully managed.

Tooke proceeds to systematically addresses every major issue concerning the Russophobic posture then gaining ground in Whitehall.  He commences by examining the “semi-hostile” disposition towards Russia of the incumbent Wellington Ministry, and unfavourably contrasts that with the more reasoned stance of the previous Canning administration.  Importantly, Tooke takes square aim at the popular “balance of power” argument that states that Britain’s interests are in Asia are predicated upon Russia’s aggression being contained by a strong Ottoman Empire.  He essentially holds that while Russia can and will make gains against the Sublime Porte, it will never be able to run the table and assume an enduring dominance.  Rather it would become bogged down its conquests and would, furthermore, suffer from competition from Western and Central European powers who are growing in wealth and power at a much faster rate than Russia. 

The author warns of the “Peculiar evil of a war against Russia” which, even though Britain would be victories, would place a severe burden upon its military and finances, and would ravage it overseas trade; it simply would not be in Britain’s best interests.  Moreover, Tooke goes on to says that Russia’s military power has been grossly exaggerated; it is fit to battle the disorganized armies of decaying empires (i.e. the Ottomans) or semi-Medieval nations in Central Asia but is no match for a modern Western Power.  He also defends the morality of Russian society, and while conceding that many elements of its feudal regime are archaic, St. Petersburg possesses and increasingly enlightened liberal elite, people with whom Britain can do business. 

Finally, Tooke targets Evans’ most extreme (and to some, most frightening) argument: that Russia intends to, in due course, use its conquests in Central Asia as a base from which to attack British India.  Quite simply, he argues, Russia harbours no desire to ever invade India, and furthermore due to logistical and technical limitations, will never be able to do so.

The publication of the “Non-Alarmist’s” work sparked a furore in London.  Many authors attacked Tooke’s assertions, but without logically refuting his main points (See The United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine, 1829, Part I, pp. 443 – 451).  One gains the impression that Tooke’s arguments were well anchored in reason and fact, while the anti-Russian side was greatly motivated by a combination of jingoistic emotion and a desire to find a new cause to justify heavier funding for the imperial military establishment.  Tooke’s work was, in good part, responsible for causing Evans to pen On the Practicability of an Invasion of India (1829), which doubled down on his most flamboyant argument.

Tooke’s views were taken seriously, and they won over the more sober-minded politicians, as well as much of London’s business community.  However, throughout the 1830s, both the Britain and Russia engaged in mutual provocations, sending ‘scientific missions ever deeper into the heart of Asia, closer to each other’s domains.  Minor incidents of espionage were magnified into grand conspiracies as they travelled through the rumour mill.  It was not always clear how sincere was the belief in the Russian threat.  In the late 1830s, when British diplomats informed Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, that they could probably negotiate a mutually pleasing agreement with the Czar’s men to end the rivalry, he dissuaded them, for the Great Game kept the military establishment happy!

In any event, Whitehall and the British East India Company (which ruled India) eventually became so concerned about Russian interference in Persia and Afghanistan that they invaded the latter during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), which turned out to be one of the greatest disasters of British military history.  During the 1840s, the British expanded their control northwards in India, conquering the Sindh (1843) and the Punjab (1849), meanwhile the Russians expanded their control over the Kazakh Steppe.

What had hitherto been a cold war turned red hot during the Crimean War (1853-6), when Britain (and France) intervened to help the Ottomans defeat Russia, so preventing the collapse of the Sublime Porte.  Spy games and provocations continued throughout the 1860s, and reached a fever pitch in 1873, when Russia conquered the Khanate of Khiva, expanding its domains to the edges of Afghanistan (and uncomfortably close to India).  This caused Britain to successfully invade Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80), making the kingdom a client state and buffer against Russian.

During the 1880s and 1890s, both London and St. Petersburg lost interest in the Great Game; more pressing issues beckoned elsewhere.  By this time, it also became clear to everyone that, as Tooke predicted, Russia never had, and never would have, the ability to truly give Britain a run for its money.  Both empires came to solve their boundary disputes between Afghanistan and Russian Central Asia by gentlemanly agreement.  Eventually, a mutual fear of Germany caused them to sign the Anglo-Russian Entente (1907), so officially ending the Great Game.  After all that trouble one wonders whether it may have been better if Whitehall listened to Tooke, instead of Evans!

A Note on Rarity

The present work is today rare.  While we note 10 examples held by institutions worldwide (with COPAC citing 8 examples in the United Kingdom; plus, examples at the University of California Los Angeles and the National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg); we cannot trace any other examples as having appeared on the market during the last generation.

Thomas Tooke: Leading Economist and Authority on Anglo-Russian Affairs

Thomas Tooke (1774 – 1858) was one of the most prominent 19th Century British economists and historians of prices.  Born in Kronstadt, Russia, he was the son of Reverend William Tooke, the minister for the English factory in St. Petersburg and a leading historian of Russia; he was the author of Russia, or a compleat Historical Account of all the Nations which compose that Empire (London, 4 vols. 1780–1783); A View of the Russian Empire during the Reign of Catharine II and to the close of the present Century (3 vols. London, 1799); and History of Russia from the Foundation of the Monarchy by Rurik to the Accession of Catharine the Second (London, 2 vols, 1800).

Thomas Tooke was largely raised in Russia, spoke the language fluently and maintained high-level contacts there for the rest of his life.  He worked as a merchant specializing in Anglo-Russian trade, both in St. Petersburg and in London, becoming a partner at Stephen Thornton Brothers Co. and later as a principal of Asteel, Tooke, & Thornton.  He became fabulously wealthy and came to dedicate an increasing amount of this time to academic pursuits.  Beginning in 1819, he was regularly called to testify before both the House of Commons and the Lords on international trade and monetary policy.  He became one of Britain’s leading advocates of free trade and the interests of the mercantile community, as well as being a close friend and collaborator with the likes of David Riccardo, James Mill, Robert Malthus and Alexander Baring.  Critically, he was instrumental in the Bank of England’s decision to implement the gold standard in 1821, and his theories had an enduring influence upon the Bank and the Exchequer’s actions regarding monetary policy.

Tooke retired from commercial activities in 1836, to dedicate himself full-time to writing and debating economics.  He laboured for many years on his magnum opus, History of Prices and of the State of the Circulation during the Years 1793–1856 (6 vols., 1838–1857), a great classic of economic history, described as “a unique work, of which we can hardly overestimate the value.”  He also served as governor of the Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation and as chairman of the St. Katherine’s Dock Company, in addition to a member of various Royal Commissions and the Royal Society. 

References: OCLC: 562861057 (British Library and Bodleian examples); British Library: General Reference Collection T.1241.(10.); University of California Los Angeles: DA 47.65 F436. Cf. [For Background:] John Howes Gleason, The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain: A Study of the Interaction of Policy and Opinion (Cambridge, MA, 1950), esp. pp. 57 – 106.

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