The Great Game in Tibet

From the archives of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, comes a fascinating story of the early-twentieth-century Great Game between Imperial Russia and the British Empire, as the two sides intrigue and maneuver for geopolitical advantage in the mysterious mountain kingdom of Tibet. 


His Imperial Majesty’s Minister of the Court, Baron Fredericks, was clearly irritated. Only at the last moment was he informed that the program for visits to the Tsar for January 14th, 1904, had to be changed, since the Russian Army’s General Staff requested Nicholas II to immediately receive two Don Cossacks on a secret mission to Tibet for a “confidential audience.” The Tsar agreed, and Baron Fredericks had no other option but to relay to the organizers of the Tsar’s hunt in the Ropsha pheasant preserve that His Majesty could not arrive today and would delay the hunt for several days, about which would be additionally reported.

Discontentedly furrowing his brow, Fredericks snapped at his adjutant, “I hope you told His Majesty’s guests that they must arrive to the audience in their parade uniform?”

“I told them,” the adjutant answered with a stumble, “but they prefer civilian clothes to not attract attention to themselves. Moreover since they are…Kalmyks.”

Ethnographic photo of Kalmyk men.
Ethnographic photo of Kalmyk men.

The secret audience took place. In his diary on that day, the Tsar noted:

January 14th, 1904… We got up a bit earlier. In the morning I read much; two times I ran around the garden with the children. After briefings I received ten senators. I put on my Prussian uniform and went with Alexei and Misha to breakfast with the German embassy on the occasion of Wilhelm’s birthday. At 3:00 I received two Don Kalmyks – officer Ulanov and Lama Ulyanov, who are going to Tibet…[i]

The threat of conflict with England over the Tibet question was what made the Tsar change his plans.

Russia had already long conducted an active foreign policy in the Far East. This also concerned Tibet, over which hung the danger of English invasion. At this time, Russia had begun arranging ties with the Tibetan government. A stream of Russian pilgrims to this country increased. In 1901 a delegation from Lhasa, headed by one of the Dalai Lama’s inner circle, arrived in St. Petersburg.

A German newspaper that was published in Shanghai at the time, Der Ostasiatische Lloyd, wrote:

From the time of the assertion of Russian dominance in Central Asia, thousands of Buddhist pilgrims, flowing into Lhasa, have spread the charm of the Russian name in Asia through their stories of Russia’s might, and in such a way, consciously or unintentionally, have facilitated the expansion of Russian influence.[ii]

Relations with Tibet were limited by its remoteness from Russia and mainly the lack of well-reconnoitered access routes to the country. The Tsar’s government, therefore, devoted great attention to the study of regions bordering Tibet as well as the territory of that land itself. This was important not only to maintain regular communications with it, but also to clearly conceive the degree of probability of using those routes for moving English forces into Xinjiang, up to the borders of Central Asia.

There were several expeditions organized into these regions. They acted under the aegis of the Russian Imperial Geographical Society, including four under the leadership of Przewalsky, and also expeditions under the direction of Roborovsky and Kozlov.

Other than expeditions, other ways of acquiring intelligence information on the situation in Tibet were used. The newspaper Novoe Vremya, published at that time in St. Petersburg, wrote that in 1898 and 1899, the well-known specialist in the area of Tibetan medicine, Dr. Badmaev[iii], spent time in Lhasa, travelling in the clothing of a lama. Along with this, hints were made that he was carrying out a secret assignment there.

In 1902 the decision was made to send a special intelligence group to Tibet in the guise of Buddhist monks, which was to be headed by Senior Lieutenant N.E. Ulanov, a Kalmyk by nationality, who had mastered the Tibetan language well and knew Buddhist customs and rites. Before that Ulanov had been an officer in one of the Don Cossack regiments. In 1901 he was brought in to work as a translator with the Tibetan government delegation that was in Petersburg at the time.

Siberian Cossacks in Omsk, by S. Sovichko.
Siberian Cossacks in Omsk, by S. Sovichko.

In 1902 Ulanov was seconded to the Main Directorate of Cossack Forces and enrolled as an extern at the General Staff Academy.

Training for the operation continued for two years. Ulanov paid special attention to studying topography, communications, astronomy, and other disciplines which could be useful to him during the upcoming mission.

Sending an intelligence group to Tibet was dictated by quite important causes. England was conducting an aggressive policy in relation to Tibet. From 1888 to 1889, London carried out several military expeditions, while in 1904, using a favorable setting (the Russo-Japanese War), it initiated an open armed intervention. The Tibetans showed stubborn resistance. The forces, however, were uneven, and the English would occupy Lhasa.

The Dalai Lama was forced to flee the country to Mongolia, and it was there he settled in one of the major Buddhist monasteries. He established communications with the Russian government, simultaneously also maintaining contacts with the Chinese authorities, to whom Tibet was formally subordinated.

Russian diplomacy applied great efforts to hinder England’s establishment of total control over Tibet. Petersburg’s position was that Tibet, under China’s supreme authority, should preserve its famous autonomy. Such a resolution of the matter answered to Russia’s national interests.

After the Dalai Lama’s departure, though, events unfolded in an unfavorable direction for Russia. Later, in September of 1904, England signed a treaty – according to which China almost completely lost its dominion over Tibet – with Tibetan officials who had no authority to do so.

At the same time, the struggle against the English did not abate. Tibetan higher clerics also maneuvered and behaved unpredictably. The Dalai Lama, as well, didn’t know what to do.

In this environment the Russian government made the decision to accelerate the dispatch of the intelligence group to Tibet and analyze in detail what was occurring.

War Minister Adjutant-General Kuropatkin devoted great attention to the preparations of the expedition. To keep the operation secret, it was decided to cashier Ulanov into retirement so that unnecessary speculation didn’t arise in various military chancelleries. The Tsar was periodically briefed on the course of the work.

In January of 1904, the following report was sent to the Tsar:

On January 3rd, it was favorable to Your Imperial Majesty to allowing for the detachment, quite secret, of Senior Lieutenant Ulanov, seconded to the Main Directorate of Cossack Forces of the Suvorov-Ryminsky First Don Cossack Regiment, for the collection of information on this country for a period of approximately one year in the company of Staff Chaplain Dambe Ulyanov, of the Potapovskaya village of the Don Army, and translator-constable Lidja Sharapov of the same village.

For the maintenance of secrecy of this detachment, it would be assumed, according to previous examples, to cashier Senior Lieutenant Ulanov into retirement under the rubric of “domestic circumstances” with the condition of acceptance into military service upon completion of the trip, and with credit for time spent therein as active service with the preservation of all rights.

The expenditures called for by this journey, amounting to 13,480 rubles, would be shifted over to the Chancellery of the War Ministry’s reserve funds.

Along with that, Senior Lieutenant Ulanov should have made available for his and his companions’ armament, as well as for gifts, five Cossack-model rifles and eight tri-linear revolvers with a proper quantity of rounds.

We solicit, shall it please Your Imperial Majesty to sanction what has been outlined?

Adjutant-General Kuropatkin.[iv]

The Tsar’s sanction was received. This circumstance indicates the great importance that was accorded within the government to the upcoming intelligence operation. Yet another document, signed by the war minister, attests to this:

Tomorrow on January 14th, at the Winter Palace the Emperor will receive at 3 in the afternoon, in a manner wholly secret, Senior Lieutenant Ulanov and Lama Ulyanov, who are being sent to Tibet. The aforementioned individuals have already been informed of this.

I request to make this known to the Expedition of Ceremonial Affairs with the denotation of the private character of the reception, and that they ask that measures be taken so that information on this meeting did not reach the newspapers…

Adjutant-General Kuropatkin. January 13th, 1904.[v]

The group set out from Petersburg in January of 1904, and until September it was in Central Asia, where preparations for the journey were made. Importance was allotted to drawing up the documents with which the travelers would continue on their way to Tibet. According to excerpts of data in the case files, the members of the group posed as residents of the Chinese province Xinjiang, and correspondingly they should have had documents on hand that native residents would possess. Great assistance in preparations for the expedition was rendered by the Russian consulate in Kuldja, Xinjiang, where the group arrived in October. It was here that another four men were added to the team – experienced guides and caravan leaders from among the locals.

From Kuldja the group first moved along roads leading deep into Chinese territory. They had a small caravan, approximately ten camels. The members of the group were dressed as Buddhist monks, and by their external characteristics they couldn’t be distinguished from normal pilgrims going to the holy places.

Yet on the way, the unforeseen happened. Two men immediately fell sick: the leader of the intelligence group himself, Ulanov, and constable Sharapov. The disease was some sort of unusual one, about which no one in these parts had heard, and the local doctors were unable to heal them. All hope was on the robust constitutions of the Cossacks. Sharapov began to gradually get better, but Ulanov’s health didn’t improve. A few days later he died, and the group was left without its chief.

Leaving the group and caravan in their place, Ulyanov, as the deputy leader, headed out to Kuldja, where he reported in the Russian representation on what transpired, and received sanction for continuing the route. From that point the group followed under his leadership, which had its advantages: Ulyanov was a religious Buddhist chaplain in the Cossack forces, understood the Buddhist religion in all its subtleties, and could naturally and believably play the role of a well-born pilgrim. But he didn’t have the experience and military training of Ulanov, who had brilliantly finished military school and the General Staff Academy.

By the end of December, the group had reached the Tsaidam Kalymks, who lived in the Chemen Mountains at the northeastern end of the Tibetan Plateau. To move further was impossible; the mountain passes were blocked by snow, while the frosts and blizzards had begun. The group wintered with the Kalmyks until March 20th and then again went on its way. At the crossing of the Tibetan border there was an encounter with the Tanguts, a warlike nomadic tribe. If they met Russian expeditions with hostility, constantly a concern with their bold raids, the “pilgrims” were received with great honor. In his report Ulyanov wrote:

They took me as a lord (gegen), thanks to which we didn’t have any raids, but to the contrary, during our passing through their horde, men and women came toward me with their children to bow, and I received and blessed them. We again continued our route.[vi]

The group arrived in Lhasa sometime around May 20th. The “pilgrims” were met with much honor, with Ulyanov received as a Great Khubilgen or gegen, a senior representative of the Buddhist clergy. To venerate him there began to arrive both local residents and foreign pilgrims. However, Ulyanov started to avoid receiving believers, devoting his first days to venerating the local khubilgens, gegens, and other saints.

Potala Palace in Lhasa. Photo by Antoine Taveneaux.
Potala Palace in Lhasa. Photo by Antoine Taveneaux.

The suspicion which had arisen at first was replaced by trust toward them by Lhasa’s Buddhist circles. Soon the local lamas were convinced that they had met in Ulyanov a great adept of Buddha’s teaching. During his training for the Tibet assignment, Ulyanov had written an treatise in Tibetan on one of the controversial matters of Buddha’s doctrines, a question over which there had been no agreement among Buddhist authorities. He spoke before the local khubilgens during his visits to them, discussing this treatise, and in doing so he completely removed any suspicions in relation to his mission in Tibet. He began to be treated as a great adept of Buddha’s teaching and a major Buddhist religious figure.

However, despite that, English agent networks from among the Nepalese at first kept the group under tight observation. But with some time they became sure they were dealing with a religious authority and ceased their surveillance.

Having completed his first obligatory veneration of the saints, Ulyanov went to be received by Goldan Tiva-Rambuche, who was ruling the country in the Dalai Lama’s absence. From the information point of view, the visit was extremely important, since it gave him the opportunity to acquire first-hand information on the situation in the country.

At the reception Rambuche told him that after the population’s anti-English actions had taken place, the English had left Lhasa, but he feared that they could return again. In his words, the British understood perfectly well that the people couldn’t extend any serious resistance, and that they were contained more by the probable reaction of other nations. Rambuche also expressed the opinion that the population’s attitude to the Dalai Lama hadn’t changed, with Tibetans continuing to consider him their spiritual leader. He indicated that he was impatiently awaiting the Dalai Lama’s return, but the situation in Tibet itself remained dangerous because of the English military threat.

The group spent three months in Lhasa. In that time Ulyanov met with Rambuche and other high dignitaries of the court more than once, and he studied in detail not only the situation in the capital, but also in other regions of the country through conversations with arriving pilgrims and caravan leaders.

Ulyanov and the group members devoted much attention to learning about the population’s way of life. There was an attempt to seriously take up the study of Tibetan medicine, for which an occasion, even if quite distressing, presented itself. Two to three weeks after the arrival in Lhasa, one night Constable Sharapov somehow fell out of the window of the third floor of the building where they were living. He was brought in critical condition into the house and a local healer was sent for. The doctor established several breaks in the leg and pelvis and damage to the spinal column. It would seem that there was hope for Sharapov to move. The healer said, though, that he would have him on his feet in two months. And indeed, after the specified time, the Cossack began to recover. In two months he had fully healed and was in shape to travel. Ulyanov’s attempt to find out the secrets of Tibetan medicine didn’t meet success. The healer didn’t disclose any secrets to him, saying that in conjunction with local customs, they would be passed by inheritance to one of his children.

A prayer room at Drepung Monastery, Tibet. Photo by Antoine Taveneaux.
A prayer room at Drepung Monastery, Tibet. Photo by Antoine Taveneaux.

Completing all of its business, on August 15th the group went on its return route. They couldn’t idle any longer, since winter could catch them on the way and their return could be delayed for several months.

The group returned to Petersburg on March 17th, 1906. The information they brought received a high evaluation and played a serious role in Russia’s development of policy on the Tibetan question. During his trip Ulyanov kept a travel journal, where he jotted notes on events, observations, and other information. So that third parties couldn’t read it, he wrote in the diary in Kalmyk.

Ulyanov’s information on the situation in Tibet evoked particular interest in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the War Ministry. At that time Russian diplomacy was conducting delicate work with the goal of stopping English expansion into Tibet and creating the conditions for strengthening Russian positions in China.

The question of the timing of the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet was accorded rather important status in the diplomatic maneuvers undertaken in that period. Contact with him was constantly maintained. His deputy, D.L. Khambo Dorzhiev, often came to Petersburg.

In March of 1906, after the return on the intelligence group, the decision on the expediency of the Dalai Lama’s departure to Tibet, or at least to one of the monasteries in the Chinese regions bordering Tibet. This information was conveyed to the Dalai Lama. Since the journey was long and hazardous, he requested that his escort of Buryat Cossacks be strengthened. Agreement was given. However, the matter was so delicate from every point of view that the request for the escort was discussed more than once by the minister of foreign affairs and war minister with the Tsar himself. There was the fear that the Chinese authorities would take the presence of a large escort as distrust towards them and could suspect the existence of some sort of special plans for the resolution of the Tibetan question.

As a result of the negotiations with the Dalai Lama, they were able to agree that the escort would stay at its regular strength and accompany him only up to the border with Tibet.

Simultaneously, the Dalai Lama raised the issue of sending two scientific expeditions to Lhasa, which would, in the case of necessity, harbor him and help him reach a safe place. Aside from that, he also proposed to deploy a Cossack unit of Buryats in civilian clothing for communication with Russian representatives and rendering – if necessary – armed support to the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Later, though, St. Petersburg had to decline this undertaken. In the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs it was thought that “all governments interested in the affairs of this country would approach it with extreme attention, and therefore it was in no way possible to expect that they could hide a circumstance like the presence of foreign, especially Russian, expeditions from their vigilance. The arrival of Russian officers in Lhasa would doubtless be discovered and serve as the basis for heightened intrigues by agents of other powers, since no one would recognize the scientific authority of the former, and their participation in the expedition would only serve as an excuse to suspect Russia of all types of hidden objectives.”[vii]

In view of this, the presence of Russian representatives in the Dalai Lama’s retinue was to be kept to a minimum. The Tibetan ruler’s request to send a Russian official representative was given a negative answer. Petersburg agreed only to include one man under the guise of a Buddhist monk – a Buryat Cossack sergeant, Dilykhov.

Russia applied great efforts toward the normalization of the situation in Tibet and conducted active negotiations with China and England, seeking the quickest restoration of the Dalai Lama’s authority in the country.

The Dalai Lama’s departure occurred in December of 1906. At first he settled in Chinese territory at the monastery Gumbut, near Sin-In and not far from the Tibetan border, and then crossed over to Lhasa.

The Russian government’s well-coordinated diplomatic steps allowed St. Petersburg to reach the Anglo-Russian Agreement in 1907, by which England recognized Tibet as a part of China and was obligated to maintain relations with it through China.

In such a manner the threat of English aggression was removed, China restored its control over Tibet, and within the country were re-established normal conditions for rule. Russian foreign intelligence, which supplied the government with needed information in the most difficult circumstances, played an important role in this affair.


[i] Дневник императора Николая II. — М.: «Полистар», 1991. — С. 135.

[ii] Der Ostasiatische Lloyd. — 1901. — №.5.

[iii] Новое время. — 1900. — 17 окт.

[iv] РГВИА, ф.447, д.77, с.29—30.

[v] Там же, с.27.

[vi] Там же, с.88.

[vii] РГВИА, ф.2000, оп.1, д.1091, с.14.


Work Translated: Очерки истории российской внешней разведки: В 6-ти тт. 0-95 — Т.1: От древнейших времен до 1917 года. — М.:Между- нар. отношения, 1995.

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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