The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 28, 2003

The dark road from Moscow to Lhasa
Parshotam Mehra

Soviet Russia and Tibet: The Debacle of Secret Diplomacy, 1918-1930s
by Alexandre Andreyev. Brill Leiden. Pages XXI + 433. Price not stated.

IN the long and chequered annals of Tibet, India to the south and China to the west have played—and indeed continue to play—significant roles. Expectedly, both have contributed a great deal to the texture of Tibetan life—the Chinese, more demonstrative, in food and dress and to a degree in the organisation of government; the Indians, deeper and more inward-looking, in matters of religion, moral ideas, literary models.

To say all this is not to unsay that other countries in Asia have not impacted the land of the lama, much less left it untouched. Both the Japanese and Russia have contributed to no small degree. The Russian contacts go far back into the 18th century; the Japanese, more recent, relate principally to the first half of the 20th. Alexandre Andreyev’s impressive tome deals mainly with the Soviet interlude over a couple of decades.

The body of his work falls into half a dozen slots starting with ‘The Bolsheviks enter the scene’ to winding up with "The final efforts to win Tibet over. In between are Moscow’s first encounter (1921-2), the Borisov Mission (1923-5), the Chapchaev Mission (1926-8) and Nicholas Roerich’s intriguing ‘Embassy’ (1927).


The introductory chapter sets the tone and goes back to the 18th century, if not a little earlier, when Russia’s bonds with the "Land of Joo (the Buddha)," as Tibet was known, were established through its own Trans-Baikal Buddhist communities, the Buryats and the Kalmyks. Towards the closing decade of the century, however, Tibet decided to shut its doors, especially in the wake of the Gurkha war (1791-2). And when some chinks appeared almost a 100 years later, there had been a sea change in the Central Asian landscape. For while the Ch’ing control tightened, the British in India were steadily feeling their way across the Himalayas. Their "sinister" designs, all too evident in the conclusion of the Anglo-Chinese Convention on Sikkim (1890) and the then seemingly impending establishment of a British protectorate over Tibet. While it unnerved the lamas no end, the Russians too felt far from comfortable with powerful factions at the Tsar’s court determined to establish their influence "over all of Inner Asia right through to the Himalayas".

The British response was the Younghusband expedition (1904), its raison d’etre Curzon’s seeming helplessness to thwart the activities of the Russian Buryat Agvan Dorjief, who had the ear of the Tsar, and at the same time had inched his way into the inner counsels of the young, and ambitious, 13th Dalai Lama. Since the latter proved singularly unresponsive to British overtures, it was decided to dispatch an armed expedition to Lhasa. Meanwhile, thanks to its stunning defeat at the hands of Japan (1904-5) and growing restlessness at home, the Tsarist government washed its hands of Tibet and its ruler. The end result was the Anglo-Russian convention (1907) which brought the crucial half a century and more of the Great Game to a halt.

Tsarist Russia’s subsequent debacle in the war against Germany and the October (1917) Revolution do not concern us except for the fact that the Soviets, who now enter the scene, were not averse to reestablishing their country’s earlier ties with the master of the Potala. The first head of the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, the staunch Marxist and Anglophobe Georgyi Chicherin, was deeply involved in the exercise for "a small secret reconnaissance expedition" to Tibet, which after a great deal of behind-the-scene messaging arrived in the Tibetan capital in April 1922 for a three-week sojourn. Two full-scale missions, those of Sergei Borisov and Klamyk Chapehaev, followed. And then, a US-funded, Soviet-backed "mysterious" expedition led by the eminent Russian emigre painter Nikolai Roerich, which was to prove singularly abortive.

The conclusions are along predictable lines. Both the Tsarist and Soviet regimes sought friendly relations with Tibet and its Dalai Lama and tried to "use" the traditional Russian Buddhist connection with Lhasa for their political ends. While the Tsarist regime was both "vacillating and wary," the Soviets were more "active, purposeful and coherent".

Andreyev’s massive work is a delight to behold; his meticulous, detailed research may well be the envy of the most sophisticated scholar. Not only has he used hitherto inaccessible Soviet sources, but also juxtaposed these with contemporary archives in the PRO in London. His dogged persistence in knocking on tightly shut doors until they yielded ground to his patience and skill, is worth emulating.