a bit of history - the great game, a small segment

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mazeno
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a bit of history - the great game, a small segment

Post by mazeno »

recently i quite deep delve the asian episodes of one of the big players of the "great game" (the nineteenth-century power struggle for dominance in central asia and india - russian empire vs. british empire) - jan prosper witkiewicz (in english documents known as vitkovitch or vickovitch).

nota bene i'm surprised that hollywood (also not mentioning the polish cinema) hasn't yet produced anything based on his life - although the fact, now it is time to produce (e.g.) political-correct shits or stupid sitcoms. on the basis of witkiewicz's live (quite short, because he died 31 years old) several "oscar-winning" movies could be created. but i just made a short digression, and now stay on topic.

for the better start - some (english) words on witkiewicz you can find here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/jan_prosper_witkiewicz
some information is incorrect (as usuall in wiki), but the article simply describes the character.

i have read a few positions/books (in polish, some of them several times for comparing the facts described in others) where witkiewicz plays the main role (lees often) or is one of the episodic characters (most often). one of the books is "the great game" by peter hopkirk, known to many, i suppose.

so, after many reviewing the stories of witkiewicz i quite (quite, but not much) corrected my opinion about hopkirk for his inaccuracies in "the great game" - even though he was not a historian, just an (outstanding) journalist, he was considered a great expert in the subject, so imo he should be much more careful and exact in his writing.

i do not want to accuse hopkirk of "malice" in misrepresenting the facts (e.g. the idealization of alexander burnes, described below), rather i think it's carelessness in browsing through the sources (in the bibliography, hopkirk hasn't even mentioned the sources linked below, though he had been surveing the "india office library and records"). and as i recall above, the author is not a historian, but hopkirk is considered a specialist in the great game era (and generally central asia, among his books on this subject are also "on the secret service east of constantinople", "quest for kim", "trespassers on the roof of the world","setting the east ablaze", "foreign devils on the silk route "), and "the great game" aspires to be a historic book (in spite of some lacks, e.g. the persons index).
so - noblesse oblige.

background:

hopkirk dedicates witkiewicz chapter 13 (or even a bit more) ("mysterious witkiewicz"). mostly he describes witkiewicz's activity in persia and afghanistan, especially his mission in kabul. witkiewicz has leaded to the collapse of the talks between alexander burnes (envoy of the governor-general of india, george eden aka lord auckland) and the amir of afghanistan, dost mohammed khan. the long-term result of this british diplomatic defeat was the first anglo-afghan war, and quite a drastic change in policies of two great empires (before, positioned rather "friendly" - the war against napoleon, holy alliance, etc., or just "neutral") - russian and british. what happened next, personally i call "the cold war of 19th century". of course - the great game didn't start at this time - it had started long before, when russians firts had thought about the invasion of india (historians estimate the date in 1813, after the gulistan treaty, ending 4th russian-persian war). but from this epizode in kabul the great game rapidly growed and soon came into the apogee.

witkiewicz, under the full power of deputies (he carried the letters of tsar to dost mohammed) given to him by count karl nesselrode, the minister of foreign affairs of russia (incidentally german by origin), and count ivan simonicz (simonitch), the russian envoy in tehran (subordinate to nesselrode), as well as in the context of the intelligence instructions (gathering economic, military, geographical, etc. infos), he officially acted on behalf of the tsar, but - what in those days was normal because of lack of technical possibilities of rapid contact with the "boss" (the same way burnes was operating) - partly got custom actions on their own. you know - instructions are instructions, these official and these secret too, but in politics/diplomacy/espionage there are situations that require sudden reaction, most often not included in the instructions.

in the same way witkiewicz - as a pole (as a young man, 15, he had been sentenced to death for plotting against russia, then pardoned and pressed to join the russian army as a "tommy atkins" soldier with no possibility of promotion) - as long as a romantic-era young man, (probably) was about to stir the two empires and thereby to weaken the russian in power (and shifting the russians from polish territory to the east).
of course, nesselrode couldn't know it, although he could suspect, bearing witkiewicz as a subordinate anti-russian pole "troublemaker". i also take into account (what surprisingly none of the authors writing about the theme has taken!) the interests of germans - as i refered above, nesselrode was a german in origin.

thus - witkiewicz in a longer perspective did not fail (conflict between the empires), though it costed him his sudden and tragic death after returning (he was urgently recalled from asia) to st. petersburg.

there are three versions of his death (was found shooted in head, in a room of "paris" hotel in st. petersburg).

official: suicide.
it is hard to find anyone (with an interest in the subject) to believe in suicide - the evidences "against" are clear (in the same room was found dead his faithful servant and friend dmitri, a kyrgyz; a farewell letter was found - witnesses who knew witkiewicz - also family - described it not written by his hand; full cartridge, no bullet fired - sic! - in the bertran type revolver in his hand, etc.).

according to another theory: britons killed him in st. petersburg (in revenge for their defeat in kabul) - which does not make sense, firstly, given that they could do it more easily and quietly and without any evidence or even suspicion trace, in asia (especially since witkiewicz - after his mission in kabul - took also part in fighting in south-west afghanistan).

third: the russians have punished him for "samowolka" (no-licence) diplomatic, as a result of which russia became involved the "cold war" against the british crown.

here i add my own theory, less "legendary" - i think nesselrode's agents executed witkiewicz. why? in the general confusion after a rapid, categorical and acute diplomatic note of brits and in subsequent search of the scapegoat by russians - he wanted to protect his own ass (from the room where witkiewicz was found, all his papers and reports relating to the mission in kabul disappeared - it also speaks against version of being killed by britons, because they had intercept and copied most important witkiewicz's documents earlier in afganistan, as described below). and in the last years nesselrode was getting from the tsar the courses of expansionary politics in this part of asia (though rather secret and not very aggressive, although russians much earlier - even with napoleon - were preparing strictly to invade in the direction of india, but death of tsar alexander finally redrawed the plans), and after changes in policy direction, including the troubles of russia in the black sea basin, particularly in the bosphorus and the caucasus, he had suddenly to turn his politics on its head - and it was too late, because witkiewicz had "browled" too much. so witkiewicz has to disappear, what literally happenned at the end - his body was anonymously burried in an unknown place on st. petersburg volkovo cemetery, there is no reference of his death in the official documents ("the scales of most important events in empire" published by emperors 3rd branch office stricte for emperor's eyes, "the extracts" of "the scales..." treating just about suicides), and after 1864 all the papers, including memories written by his two sisters, letters and books possesed by his family disappeared (confiscated in tomsk by russian secret police in order of tomsk general governor).

and now hopkirk:
he writes witkiewicz reached kabul on the christmas eve of 1837 - according quoted (captured by burnes, see below) witkiewicz's reports to his superior count simonicz, he got there 12/19/1837. and then, on dec 22nd, alexander burnes - pay attention - sent his own reports to the secretary of general governor of india, william h. macnaghten, among others attaching copies of following:
- letters from dost mohammed to the tsar of russia (sent from kabul to st. petersburg in 1836 by hussein ali messenger), this letter was brought back by witkiewicz as proof that he acts on behalf of the tsar,
- letters from the ruler of persia shah mohammad kajar to dost mohammed (witkiewicz was the messenger "on the way"),
- letters of count simonicz to dost mohammed.
hopkirk writes that burnes got the letters from the hands of amir, who supposedly asked to verify its authenticity - i find it doubtful, because among the three intercepted letters surely was his (the amir's) own letter (witkiewicz had to give it to amir back).

by hopkirk, burnes in his honesty had merely confirmed the authenticity and returned the letters back to the amir, not copying their content and not sending copies to india. but the reports denies it (the reports of burnes himself and captured reports of witkiewicz - in short parts misunderstood by the translator and the rewriter, as you can see).

some of the related documents are included in the "correspondence relating to persia and afghanistan" published in london in 1839.
link here:
http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=m ... =1up;seq=1
pages 472 et seq (name witkiewicz turned as vickovitch). part of the less important reports can also be found on earlier pages of the document.

and as a consequence - heavily weighed brits' reaction on the incident in kabul.
in effect the russian ambassador in london was called in on the carpet, and the russians had to retreat from persia - count simonicz with his army took part in the siege of herat by the persians, formally as an observer, in fact, as the military force - as a result of the city of herat was ceded, and the russians expelled the borders of persia.
the "cold war" was spreading.

finally, witkiewicz (if really acted for the detriment of russians) could triumph.

btw - witkiewicz was called "batyr" by the central asian nomads. in east turkish languages it means "hero", "warrior", "brave".
above, i recalled only one small aspect of his life - which is worth a movie, isn't it?
Last edited by mazeno on Wed Jan 20, 2016 2:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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steven
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Re: a bit of history - the great game, a small segment

Post by steven »

A lot to take in here, mazeno. I can't really dispute your claims whether you are right or Hopkirk is, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt :-) Hopkirk is writing for English people, consulting English sources and looking for English heroes, and the Russians (or other Eastern nations) get decidely less attention in his books.

It is sad that there are no famous films about the Great Game, there are plenty of characters and stories to make something of.
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mazeno
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Re: a bit of history - the great game, a small segment

Post by mazeno »

i'm aware of - anyway despite of hopkirk's mistakes, he is a great author and i really find a lot of pleasure reading his books.

according to the movies:
http://tournamentofshadowsfilm.com/
but i haven't seen the movie - i even don't know if the second part is already finnished.
for me (taking into account my knowledge in the theme) in the trailer grabczewski (grombchevsky) is described almost as a monster ;) and younghusband almost as an angel ;)
basing on this broad 12-minutes long trailer i see this movie as hard-jumping out of the real history - but it doesn't matter, it is not a document, but a fine hollywood-style story placed on great locations (meaning in time and in the area).
so i suppose i could watch the movie with the great pleasure.

as i said above - i know grabczewski's history very well and have red a lot on him.
personally i don't like grabczewski as a russian spy, especially he was polish in origin - beacuse i'm a pole, privately i treate him as a traitor; in this case i'm on the side of the britons (more the russian are weak, more poland - that time under russian annexy - is in power).

but i admire grabczewski as a central asian explorer writing about the pamirs, karakorum, kashgar and kunlun - basing his own military and geographic reports he wrote an extensive great 3-volumines work titled "travelling in central asia 1885-1890" ("kashgar", "across the pamirs and hindukush to the sources of indus river", "in the deserts of raskem and tibet"), describing the region, peoples, customs and habits (and of course - local politics) very deeply, attentively and completely. i could say - his "travelling..." is one of the best guides to the area i've ever read, even now, after over hundred years (of course ignoring the main changes). unfortunately - published only in polish (first in 1925).
his politics is one side, his heritage is the other.
as in many cases of that times.
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Re: a bit of history - the great game, a small segment

Post by steven »

mazeno wrote:his politics is one side, his heritage is the other. As in many cases of that times.
Indeed! Or in any time, really. Nice to learn something of this unknown figure. A side-effect of the problem that we all have to communicate in English with one another. If Polish would be the world's lingua franca, he would be well known and much debated. Alas, we are stuck with the British "heroes".
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