The dissolution of the Soviet Union freed one of the greatest cartography efforts in human history.
By Zach Mortice
A map of Vilnius, Lithuania, produced in Russia at the tail end of the Soviet era, details the speed of the Neris River’s flow (1.8 miles per hour), its depth and width, and that it had a sandy riverbed. In addition, it reveals the dimensions of a nearby bridge, what it’s made of (concrete), and how much it can carry (55 tons). Across the Cold War divide, on Western shores, Soviet cartographers still had a grasp of some of the minutiae that made up its sworn rival’s infrastructure. A 1980 map of San Francisco points out that the Oakland Bay Bridge is constructed of metal and rises between 171 and 213 feet above the water. One of perhaps a million maps made by the Soviets to secretly and conclusively chart the surface of the earth, it’s a relic from what might be the largest and most ambitious cartography effort in history.
Though much of this story’s origins and methods are shrouded in secrecy, British authors and map enthusiasts John Davies and Alexander Kent have found a way to break open these mysteries with a beautiful and brief cartographic volume. Their book, The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World (University of Chicago Press, 2017), focuses on how these maps were assembled in covert and overt ways, and how Davies and Kent decoded them, relentlessly tracing them back to their source documents.
The maps offer an absurdly expansive range of icons and symbols: “The most comprehensive system of symbology and annotation ever devised,” the authors write. And the scope of representation here is intensely landscape based. In addition to the depth, width, and flow of rivers, there are icons to indicate endless littoral landforms (from broad beaches to sheer cliffs) and the types of trees in forests—their height, girth, spacing, and species. The mapmakers were tracking the crops planted, the soil types they grow in, and the minerals that exist beneath the surface. There are all manner of topographical distinctions, including the seasonal availability of mountain passes. It may well be the most robust cartographic icon language for landscapes ever invented.
Infrastructure is a primary concern for these maps, so divisions between national and regional rail systems are drawn carefully, the dredge depths of harbors plotted, and the gauge of railway tracks cataloged. Not all of these elements are present everywhere. They’re much less common in U.S. and United Kingdom maps, suggesting that where they do occur, a spy likely preceded them.
This description of the land outside Cambridge, England, makes it clear the ultimate goal of these maps: “When wet, the clay becomes waterlogged, and severely impedes off-road movement and mechanized transport.” When capitalism made its final and inevitable swoon, the Soviets wanted to know where it would be safe for their tanks to tread.
The maps were first produced under Stalin during World War II, though most were created between the 1950s and the 1990s. Much of their information was gathered from public sources: the U.S. Geological Survey in the United States, and Ordnance Survey maps in the UK. But their unique combination of public maps with spy satellite images and on-the-ground intelligence yielded works of exceptional quality—so much so that these maps were used by the U.S military during their invasion of Afghanistan.
Davies first came across these maps at a shop in Latvia in the early 2000s. He learned that the dissolution of the Soviet Union destabilized the military bureaus that created and maintained them, opening them up to collectors, hobbyists, and cartographers such as Kent. Now Davies owns about 1,000 such maps, and has digitized many on the book’s website.
Extensive city maps offer a surreal block-by-block take on the familiar: your street, your train station, your neighborhood park, rendered in Cyrillic script and blocky red diagrams that hint at Soviet Constructivism. The sheer array of function on offer is reinforced by unified aesthetics that mark these maps as an artifact from an alternative and never-realized history of worldwide Soviet supremacy.
John Davies took some time to chat with LAM about how this assumed future began with maps.
These maps are exquisite examples of design. Did you get a sense that this quality was arrived at accidentally and purely out of utilitarian function, or that there was an interest in incorporating a specific aesthetic sensibility?
I don’t think they would have approached it from that angle. If you think about the project as encompassing the entire world, and think about the range of topography and features (cultural and physical) you would need, from different types of places of worship to different types of vegetation, what was devised was an amazingly elaborate system of symbology. Symbols were devised and standardized that could represent any kind of topology, any kind of feature.
Quite apart from the cartographic [function] is the sheer beauty of these maps as artifact. They’re on really nice quality paper, large sheets of a meter and a half by a meter, 10- or 12-color printing. They’re beautiful works of art. They’re a joy just to look at.
In the book, you posit these maps as an administrative and military tool that might help the Soviets conquer and rule Western territory. But the amount of granular landscape information in these maps (like the types of trees in a forest, or what’s being mined out of the earth) indicates a more specific focus on natural resources.
Absolutely. They collected and recorded everything they possibly could that was there. And whether it was the buildings and the use of the buildings and the industries, whether it was facilities such as railways or utilities, or whether it was natural resources—timbers and minerals and so on—the important thing was that as much information as could be was recorded on the maps, because it’s all going to be useful information. It’s all going to be what you need to know when you’re responsible for this landscape and terrain. It’s kind of like a summary. We called it a “Wikipedia.”
A huge amount of the analysis of these maps comes from comparing them to other maps, and using that to figure out where the Soviet maps were compiled from. Did you do all of this manually by yourselves, or had anyone else made these comparisons and arrived at some of these conclusions before?
That’s what we did. When I started looking at them, I realized that to make sense of them you have to compare them to native mapping [of their era]. You might look for discrepancies or anomalies, but they’re quite limited in what you can happen to spot. So what you need to do is find the latest native mapping, local mapping, of that time. The first question you would look at is: Is the Soviet map as up to date as the local map, or is it, in fact, more up to date? Quite often the Russian maps showed new developments not yet appearing on the latest local maps, so immediately you know the local map wasn’t the only source of information. That tells us that presumably satellite imagery or people on the ground [were used].
And then, of course, there’s all the information that never appears on maps, such as whether a railway is electrified or not, or what is the production in a particular factory, or what is the carrying capacity of a bridge. So there’s all kinds of information that had to come from other sources. It got more and more fascinating when you’d look at a feature or a piece of information and you couldn’t trace it back. And that was why we called the book a detective story. It was like forensic science.