Russia’s Tibet File
Russia’s Tibet File: the unknown pages in the history of Tibet’s independence offers the reader a challenging new interpretation of Tibetan political history in the early years of the 20th century. Using evidence gleaned largely from Russian, Indian and British archival sources, author Dr. Nikolai S. Kuleshov puts forward a persuasive thesis and sheds new light on the relations between these political powers and Tibet.
Basing his study around the central figures of the time- His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama, the Buryat lama Agvan Dorjiev, Lord Curzon as viceroy of India and Sir Francis Young husband- the author documents the events and changing circumstances of Tibet’s political fortunes, and offers the reader a fascinating and innovative look behind the scenes of governmental policy and ambition.
With the collapse of the totalizing Leninist regime in Russia, the secretly-guarded national archives of the Soviet and Tsarist periods were declared open to the public. This marked not only a mile-stone in the quest for human freedom; it also proved to be a great boon for scholars, who had been denied access to such official documents for the past 75 years.
Dr. Nikolai Kuleshov celebrates his new-found academic freedom and full access to the Russian Foreign Policy Archives by de-bunking the ‘Great Game’ myths. Although one might not entirely agree with the retrospective determinism by which the author goes on to prove his ‘thesis’, especially in the introduction, there is no question that the materials he has unearthed from the Russian Foreign Policy Archives constitute a timely and significant contribution to our understanding of the Russian dimension of the ‘Great Game’ in Inner Asia at the turn of the century. For too long British views and their variations on the subject have dominated the field, mainly because serious scholars (from Alastair lamp to parshotam Mehra) did not have access to the Russian records, and worked primarily on the British archival sources.
Now, with the publication of this well-researched monograph, we have no excuse in not understanding the Russian side of the ‘Great Game’ that allegedly provoked Lord Curzon’s forward policy. Dr. Kuleshov’s findings throw new light on imperial Russia’s disguised diplomatic activities in and around Tibet, as well as on Agvan Dorjiev’s complex motives and intriguing roles. The book also sheds considerable light on the XIII Dalai Lama’s lonely struggle for Tibet’s freedom. It is interesting to note that his declaration of Tibet’s independence in 1912 and the subsequent Tibet-Mongolian treaty (1913) in which Dorjiev played a crucial role, are well reflected in the Russian archival materials used by our author.
These findings, however, are supposedly side benefits to the academic community, according to the author’s intentions. Dr. Kuleshov has a declared ‘thesis’ to ‘thesis’ to ‘prove’: that Tsarist Russia never entertained expansionist designs on Tibet; that Agvan Dorjiev was more an agent of the XIII Dalai Lama to the Tsar than a Russian spy in Tibet; and that Lord Curzon’s fear of a Russian threat to the Indian empire via Tibet was a case of monumental misperceptions.
Seen from such a perspective, Imperial Russia’s keen interest in and disguised involvement with Tibet at the turn of the century were supposedly for the sake of Buryat Buddhists, who followed Tibetan Buddhism and were loyal to the Dalai Lama. This might have been a reinforcing factor but probably not a critical variable, as far as the Tsarist state was concerned, it seems.
Indeed, the bulk of evidence presented in this monograph as a whole suggests that Imperial Russia’s interest in Tibet went beyond Buryats. It is true that, as a diplomatic practice, Russian state officials always maintained that Russia did not have any direct frontier or military interests in Tibet which seems to be true. But that does not mean Imperial Russia had no strategic interest in Tibet. Russian officials invariably couched their strategic interest in terms of what they called ‘moral interest’ by which they meant their concern for their Buryat subjects’ religious sentiments.
It appears that the imperial powers involved in the ‘Great Game’ justified their involvement in the strategic rivalry over power-vacuum areas such as Tibet by their legitimate interest’ claims in the area concerned. Thus, British India did so by its geographical proximity to Tibet; and Tsarist Russia through its Buryat connection. Russia’s strategic interest in Tibet becomes clear when we look at an old map of Asia: Tibet was the meeting-point of three rival empires; and because it was a near power-vacuum region, Tibet’s geostrategic location easily induced strategic rivalry among the neighboring powers for competitive strategic advantages.
On the surface and in comparison with the strategic interests of China and India in Tibet, those of Russia appear a little remote. However, we must keep in mind the following factors in order to appreciate Imperial Russia’s security concerns in Inner Asia: after the conquest of Islamic central Asia in the 19th century, the Russian empire touched br\orders close to Tibet. More specifically, Russia’s strategic interest in Tibet is, indirectly but effectively, connected with Russian concerns for the stability of their Buryat (lamaist) citizens and with their continued strategic interest in Mongolia. And the Dalai Lam was (and continues to be) a crucial key to Buddhist Central Asia. This is not a new argument; long ago Agvan Dorjiev eloquently presented Tibet’s case before the Tsar, arguing along similar lines, as this monograph shows. In short, Tibet at the turn of the century represented (and still does?) a classic security dilemma: the domination of Inner Asia by one neighboring power, creating insecurity for two other neighboring powers.
How else can e understand such weighty state behavior and action that Imperial Russia revealed in relation to Tibet? Agvan Dorgiev enjoyed full access to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Russian Ambassador Benckendorff in London negotiated with his British counterpart for three months in preparation for the 1907 Anglo-Russian convention on Tibet (That partly resolved the security dilemma through neutralization for 43 years). Russia opened a consulate in Calcutta, the main function of which seemed to have been to watch closely British India’s moves towards Tibet. And at the time of the tripartite Simla Agreement (1913-14), Russian Council General Nabokov showed his presence in Simla. All these rich details are presented by Dr. Kuleshov in his book, citing from Russian Foreign Policy Archival records in Moscow.
This not only a rich Russian contribution, in the post-Soviet era, to the complex history and intriguing politics of early 20th century Tibet; it is also love’s labor. The authors admiration for mtsan-nyid mkhanpo Agvan Dorjievs untiring diplomatic efforts to save the epicenter of his (Dorjiev’s) faith from encroachments is reflected in Nikolai Kuleshov’s determination to rehabilitate the Buryat lama as a major actor in Inner Asian history, and not a Russian spy. The author’s sympathetic concern for Russia’s Buryat Buddhist minority and respect for the present Dalai Lama (whom he met in 1991) reveal his Mahayana motivations to undertake the translation of his Russia Tibet into English.
Dr. Nikolai Kuleshov believes his rigorous re-examination of the past has certain relevance to the present status of Tibet. He writes that the present Tibetan fate “offends the highest human values- personal liberty and the right of nations to self-determination.” He argues that like in the former Soviet Union, “the problem of nationalities was solved in China not on the basis of free expression of the people’s will, but by means of force,” He pleads for self determination in the case of Tibet. He also sees another “immediate bond between the past and the present- between the Simla conference and the McMahan line on one hand, and the present Sino-Indian border/territorial dispute on the other.” Dr. Nikolai Kuleshov appeals to the Government of India to recognize the legality of Tibet’s independence in order to defend the legality of the McMahan Line.
Around 100 years ago, international relations in central Asia became the object of close attention by the world press. Public and scientific literature on this issue began to appear during this period; in the present time, that literature and the historical facts it contains are being re-examined.
New conceptions of this subject have been forwarded by this author in papers presented in England, India and Japan, at international conferences of orientalists, and in public discussion at the Royal Academy of the Arts (London, 1992); they were also the basis of discussions between His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama and myself when His Holiness visited Moscow in 1991. Further to His Holiness’ approval, Tibetans Have sponsored the translation of this manuscript into English for publication.
Russia’s Tibet file: the unknown pages in the history of Tibet’s independence is a simplified and condensed version of my detailed monograph Rossia i Tibet (Russia and Tibet), published in Russian in 1992.
I hope that this condensed work in the English language will be of value to many readers, and that the combination of documentation from the Russian Foreign Policy Archives and my own logical interpretation of events will provide a persuasive thesis.
I am grateful to my colleagues who have corrected the English text, and primarily to Dr. Alexander Berzin and Mr. John Bray who not only edited the manuscript but also overcame some of its shortcomings in the final preparation stages of publication.
The first 15 years of the 20th century were a particularly important- perhaps the most important- period in the history of Tibet and the neighboring states. However, international scholarship, in Russia and China as well as in the West, has tended to suffer from two main failings when discussing this period. Firstly, most authors have underestimated Tibet’s capacity to decide its own fate, and secondly they have depicted Russia as an aggressor against Tibet. The present study, which is based on an analysis of Russian, Indian and British archives as well as Chinese sources, challenges this version of history.
A rigorous examination of this period is particularly important because of the present condition of Tibet which has been incorporated into the Chinese state, while the Dalai Lama has led a substantial number of his fellow Tibetans into exile. Their fate offends the highest human values- personal liberty and the right of nations to self-determination.
The forces which led to Tibet’s present situation were set in motion as a result of the Chinese/Tibetan armed conflict at the beginning of the 20th century. This conflict was itself a consequence of a series of events initiated by two key actors: Agvan Dorjiev, a Buryat of Russian nationality who served as one of the 13TH Dalai Lama’s advisers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and Lord Curzon, the British viceroy of India. At the time observers naturally interpreted the collision of ‘Dorjiev versus Curzon’ in the light of the preconceptions and prejudices of contemporary politics. Those politics now belong to the past, but they still influence analysis by present-day scholars. It is time for an impartial re-assessment.
This study follows the principle that “the aim of scholarship is truth: the aim of polities is advantage”. At the beginning of the 20th century it was natural for political analysis of Tibet to try to prove the correctness of a particular state’s foreign policy. The result has been the creation of a number of stereotypes which do not correspond to historical truth. Partly as a result, Lord Curzon has been treated in detail in a number of publications while Agvan Dorjiev has been virtually consigned to oblivion. He is rarely mentioned today and, when he is discussed his image is often distorted.
Before discussing the role of individuals, it is important to review some broader themes in the history of Tibet. The critical point is that most historical analysis has tended to assign to Tibet a purely subordinate role, as though it were scarcely capable of influencing its own fate independently. For example, T.Grunfeld’s The Making of Modern Tibet (London, 1987) views Tibet as an object of manipulation by foreign states: one chapter in the book is entitled “Tibet as a pawn”. The source of such misconceptions cab be found in the early 20th century when Tibet first became prominent on the wider international scene, and the great powers were obliged to formulate their policies towards it.
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