The Open and Secret Diplomacy of Tsarist and Soviet Russia in Tibet: the Role of Agvan Dorzhiev (1912–1925)

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


The rivalry between Great Britain and Russia in the vastness of Asia, which historians, following the British cavalry officer Arthur Connolly, metaphorically call the Great Game, began in the early eighteenth century and continued until Britain handed power in India to the Indian National Congress. Some specialists are inclined to see differences in the motivations of the two main players in the game. It has been noted more than once that if expansion was an inseparable part of Russia’s imperial ambitions, Britain mainly pursued the goal of curtailing Russian ambitions in Asia. Very often Britain’s aggressive expansionist policy was dictated by the wish to strengthen her influence over territories adjacent to the British Empire in order to keep Russia from filling the power vacuum. Russia readily realized this peculiarity of British policy in Asia and used it toward her aims, with various degrees of effectiveness.
It is not surprising therefore that the rivalry between these two powers was named the Great Game: The character of the intrigue, in which diplomatic, intelligence, and military tools were deployed, cannot but thrill anyone who has ever investigated its details. For all that, however, very often the specialists pay only partial attention to the contributions of intermediary players. Based on hitherto unknown letters from the Thirteenth Dalai Lama , this paper considers how these players contributed to the Great Game by focusing on the activities of Agvan Dorzhiev (1854–1938), the chief intermediary in Russian-Tibetan dialogue.
In the middle of the last decade of the nineteenth century, suddenly and surprisingly for both sides, the Russo-British rivalry became focused on Tibet. This geographic shift in the Great Game did not happen accidentally, but was conditioned by a chain of events that in outward appearance were not mutually connected. In 1895, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who by that time had reached the age of maturity, was officially inaugurated as the head of state in Lhasa. For Tibet this event had special meaning, since it interrupted the protracted period of regency that was accompanied by corruption and substantial degradation of the state apparatus. The Dalai Lama Tubten Gyatso (1876–1933) survived an assassination attempt by parties loyal to the deposed regent. The subsequent arrest of the regent and his retinue meant a dramatic change in the young ruler’s circle. These events resulted in the unexpected rise of Ngawang Lozang, a monk from Gomang College of Drepung Monastery, who having won the high confidence of the theocratic head of state was becoming one of the most influential figures on the political Olympus of the Snowy Land.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAsiatic Russia: Imperial Power in Regional and International Contexts
EditorsTomohiko Uyama
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)978-0-415-61537-2
Publication statusPublished - 2011

Publication series

NameNew Horizons in Islamic Studies
ISSN (Print)978041561


  • Tibet, Russia, Buddhism, diplomacy, Agvan Dorzhiev


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