The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World

The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World

by John Davies

ISBN: 9780226389578

Publisher University Of Chicago Press

Published in History/Russia, History/World

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Sample Chapter


War and Peace

Wherever you are on the planet reading this book, the place is likely to have been mapped in detail by the Soviet Union. At least once. During the Second World War, Stalin ordered his military to conduct a world mapping program that was upheld by his successors throughout the Cold War. From their drawing offices around the USSR, thousands of Soviet cartographers were busy mapping the globe, from the pyramids to the Pentagon — and their tremendous legacy is only just coming to light.

Soviet maps are comprehensively detailed and include a wealth of information that goes beyond that of any published national topographic map series. They can tell you about the height of a bridge above water, its dimensions, load capacity, and the main construction material. They can tell you the width of a river, the direction of its flow, its depth, and whether it has a viscous bed. They can tell you the type of trees in a forest, as well as their height, girth, and spacing. They can also tell you the name of a factory and what it produces. At each scale, Soviet topographic maps conform to a consistent specification, using a standard symbology, projection, and grid.

Soviet maps are as chilling as they are amazing. Chilling because they have the power to unnerve us when we see the city where we live or the landscape of our childhood presented in unfamiliar colors, symbols, and, most of all, in an alien language — their bold Cyrillic place-names both arrest and fascinate our gaze. That these maps were created as part of a secret military program enhances their intrigue. What did they know? Was my street mapped? How did they do it? What did they get wrong? Our aim in writing this book is to answer some of these questions by bringing details of this unparalleled cartographic feat to light.

A Brief History of Soviet Mapping

From Tsar Alexander repelling Napoléon to Stalin facing Hitler, Russian leaders have depended on the maps produced by the Military Topographic Depot (and its successors) to plan their campaigns. These maps have also been essential for the economic development of the country. While the same may be true for other countries, the vast extent of continental Russia and the harshness of the terrain and weather led to the emergence of arguably the most talented pool of geodesists, topographers, surveyors, and cartographers the world has seen.

The first detailed map of the Russian Empire was produced by the St. Petersburg Map Depot in 1801. This was at the scale of 20 versts (21.3 km/13.25 miles) to the inch (1:840,000) and became known as the hundred-sheet map. The Russian Military Topographic Depot was founded in January 1812, five months before Napoléon and his Grande Armée crossed the river Neman during his ill-fated Russian campaign. By 1840 the 10-versts map (1:420,000) of much of European Russia was published. Illustrations of these and many other early Russian maps appear in Alexey Postnikov's Russia in Maps [28]. The focus on mapping European Russia, such as the Finnish and Polish territories, continued until the Second World War.

Modern topographic mapping of the Soviet Union began after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, with the first maps at 1:1,000,000 completed in 1918 using a new system of sheet lines based on the system proposed for Albrecht Penck's International Map of the World (IMW), which had been begun in 1913 (see fig. 2.10).

In 1919 Lenin's decree put all mapping activities and relevant control functions under the state's supervision. The year 1921 saw the introduction of a standard specification for military topographic maps at a range of scales (1:10,000, 1:25,000, 1:50,000, 1:100,000, 1:200,000, 1:500,000, 1:1,000,000) and the use of these sheet lines, with the first sheets of a metric series derived from photogrammetry (aerial photography) published in 1924. Maps at such a wide range of scales would be useful in supporting a full scope of activities, from planning regional strategies to reading local terrain and street-level detail.

The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the Pact of Steel) earlier in 1939 had divided eastern European states into zones of influence: Poland was to be divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union was to invade the Baltic states and Finland. This cooperation between Hitler and Stalin achieved political and economic aims: a trade pact, the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement, was signed in 1940, yet despite suspicion of Hitler's motives, Stalin did not consider Nazi Germany to pose an immediate threat at the time.

Following successive revisions, the specification of 1940 incorporated the inclusion of higher levels of topographic detail than present in the national mapping of other countries, including types of forest and the widths of roads. The mobilization of Soviet forces in response to Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, brought greater focus on the compilation of topographic material in support of military operations but also provided an opportunity to advance the longer-term Soviet objective of achieving global communism.

From the Second World War, foreign towns and cities were mapped at larger scales, generally 1:10,000 and 1:25,000. These secret map series were also produced to a comprehensive specification, which ensured that the typefaces, colors, symbology, and projection system in use would be standardized whatever and wherever the city or town mapped. Curiously, the sheets have no fixed size or format, allowing the cartographers to determine the best solution for covering the geographical shape and general extent of the town or city. The standard specification of the plans seems to have evolved in stages, each offering a more sophisticated representation of the urban landscape and, in particular, a more detailed classification of strategically important buildings. Earlier plans employed fewer colors (i.e. light brown, dark brown, blue, and green), with important buildings shown in dark brown overprinted with blue to make them appear black and therefore visually more prominent on the plan.

The introduction of further printing plates can be appreciated on the plan of Belfast in Northern Ireland, printed in 1964, which uses different shades of brown to distinguish between prominent buildings and neighborhoods (or blocks) that are more or less densely built-up (fig. 1.1). By the early 1970s,the range of color plates had increased to ten (i.e., light blue, dark blue, light green, dark green, light yellow, orange, purple, gray, brown, and black), which facilitated an extension of the symbology and allowed the three major categories of important buildings (i.e., military and communications, governmental and administrative, and military-industrial) to be printed using different color plates.

Printing such large-format plans in so many colors with near-perfect printregistration itself testifies to the skill of the printers in the military map printing factories across the former Soviet Union. The quality of printing reflects the level of training and the reliability of humidity-control equipment and the electricity supply at the time.

While national mapping was undoubtedly used among other types of information sources, the successful launch of the Soviet program of Zenit satellites in 1962 saw an increased reliance on reconnaissance imagery (fig. 1.2). Yet the plans, especially, include information that would have been virtually impossible to derive from remote sensing, such as the names of factories and the products manufactured there, and indications of the load capacity of bridges, for example. The maps also include disused railways and old streetcar and ferry routes as well as detailed depictions of the terrain. Seeing the landscape through the eyes of a Soviet cartographer — whatever resource could be potentially useful, whatever information could be found — was added. Each map is therefore a formidable inventory of geospatial information.

Interestingly, the IMW relied upon the collaboration of national governments, and as a mapping project it ultimately failed, with less than half of the planned 2,500 sheets produced. By contrast, the product of the Soviet military mapping program is likely to run into millions of different sheets; the 13,133 sheets to cover the USSR alone at the scale of 1:100,000 — ten times that of the IMW sheets — were completed by 1954.

Mapmaking involves choosing what to show and how to show it, and in contrast to the digital mapping available today, the paper map, as a static medium, requires every type of information to be shown simultaneously. Ensuring that all features are legible and clear involves tremendous skill in design and draftsmanship, particularly for detailed maps such as these. Yet these choices also reveal more about the values of the cartographers or, in this case, the state that produced them. The maps were used as an inventory of geospatial intelligence; each sheet is a rich topographic database that is a product of the laborious process of compiling material from a range of sources. Unlike any national topographic map series, they present a sum of past landscapes; they include traces of infrastructure that have long fallen into disuse. Very little, it would seem, was deemed insignificant or irrelevant to the Soviet eye.

Far from their original circumstances of production, what these maps offer today presents an altogether different resource. They offer a fascinating glimpse of the view from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Secrecy and fear have been replaced by discovery and fascination. Soviet maps demonstrate that the meaning of maps is never constant; there are always new ways in which a map can be used and can change the world.


Capturing the World — on Paper

Maps are instruments of power, and Stalin's decision to invest further in their ability to facilitate the running of the state has bequeathed to the world the legacy of an unmatched geospatial resource. Stalin decreed that the first priority for the Military and Civil State Topographic Services after the war was to complete the survey of the entire territory of the Soviet Union for the 1:100,000 topographic map. This was to be based on aerial photogrammetry but would still rely upon field geodetic control.

This enormous task was achieved by 1954, and the resulting 1:100,000 survey was then used to derive the smaller-scale 1:200,000 and 1:500,000 maps. None of these, however, were available to the public. Maps for ordinary citizens were based on a 1:2,500,000 map of the country and, as such, were inadequate for any detailed use. Moreover, random distortions and inaccuracies were tossed in for good measure. These official maps, the only ones available to the general public and primarily designed for tourists, were published by the GUGK (Central Administration for Geodesy and Cartography of the USSR Council of Ministers — [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) (see figs. 2.1 and 2.2). The GUGK was closely allied to the VTU (the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army — [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the sister military establishment.

In the 1970s, the need for detailed mapping for use by civil authorities led to the introduction of the so-called SK-63 Series, constructed on disparate systems of sheet lines and carrying no geodetic data but otherwise accurate. A further goal was reached in 1987 with the completion of the mapping of the whole Soviet Union at the scale of 1:25,000 (about 200,000 sheets).

The Global Project

But the mapping of the USSR is only a small part of the story. It is difficult to grasp the immensity of the Soviet military global mapping project: the VTU conducted a secret topographic mapping program at a high level of detail and coverage for almost the entire globe. The true extent of the Soviet cartographic enterprise has yet to emerge, but it is clear that this was the most comprehensive global topographic mapping project ever undertaken. The number of different maps produced is impossible to quantify, but one estimate [50] puts the figure at well in excess of one million.

The map series can be classified as follows:

• Topographic maps (topos):

– Military series (SK-42)

– Civil series (SK-63)

• City plans:

– Military series

– Civil series

• Special maps, such as 1:300,000 topographic maps, large-scale small-town plans, aeronavigation maps, and rectangular topographic maps


The map series are described more fully below. What they all share, however, is the most comprehensive system of symbology and annotation ever devised. All mapping relies on the establishment of, and adherence to, a standardized and uniform policy covering what is to be mapped, to what level of accuracy and detail, and how — through a "vocabulary" comprising hundreds of cartographic symbols — to show it.

The Soviet symbology and specifications, which evolved substantially over the period of the 1940s to the 1990s, were designed as a single all-embracing system, applicable worldwide, and adaptable for all scales and series of maps. They portray terrain and communications and identify cultural features in a standardized fashion to enable the map user to very quickly become familiarized with the landscape depicted.

Many hundreds of specific symbols were devised to differentiate in as much detail as possible the purpose and construction of individual buildings, the religion of places of worship, the type and density of vegetation and crops, and the nature of the terrain and coast. Appendix 5 presents a small sample of these symbols and annotations. Colors and hachuring are used to identify, for example, built-up areas where non-fireproof buildings predominate, or city blocks where the majority of buildings are high-rise multi-story structures. A hierarchy of about twenty classes of size and style of lettering of names is used to denote the size and status of towns and cities; similarly, navigable rivers are named in uppercase letters, non-navigable in lowercase.

Of particular interest to the cartographer and the potential map user were means of travel and "the going" (the ease of traversing the terrain). Railroads, roads, mountain passes, ferries, and bridges are indicated with as much detail as possible, as are forests and rivers that might impede progress. For this purpose, the distinct symbols and colors are supplemented by a convention of annotation, whereby important dimensions, characteristics, and numeric values are shown alongside.

The depiction of railroads is enhanced with information such as the number of tracks and whether or not electrified, and the position and importance of station buildings. For roads and tracks, the quality, number, and width of carriageways and surface material are shown together with the overall width of clearance. Similarly, the months when mountain passes are open and the dimensions and carrying capacity of ferries and bridges are annotated, as are the type of trees and their typical height, girth, and the clearance between them in forests, and also the speed of flow, depth, and bed of rivers. Of course, not all the specified information could be collected in every case; what is surprising is how much of this hard-to-obtain detail is shown on maps of non-USSR territory. This gathering of data is discussed in chapter 3.

The symbols, the colors, and the annotation conventions are minimally depicted in the marginalia of smaller-scale sheets (fig. 2.3) and generally not at all on the large-scale topos, but are defined in officers' guides [39] and cartographers' handbooks [40], the latter amounting to some 220 pages. A series of simplified colorful wall posters was produced for training purposes (figs 2.4 to 2.8). Some versions of the tables of symbols have been translated into English [1, 7, 9].

Excerpted from "The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World" by John Davies. Copyright © 2013 by John Davies. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

John Davies

John Davies

John Chea Davies is currently CEO of Global Alliance Solution, LLC on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. He attained his MBA from Colorado Technical University and is currently in a Ph.D. program. A 10 times Liberia National Chess Champion, John is also a rated Grand Master. In 2000 he meritted the nomination from the pit of a refugee life in Dakar, Senegal, to represent African refugees at the United Nations Millennium Conference in New York. Living in the United States with his wife of 30 years and their 10 children, John has now authored two other books to be released in the fall of 2015.

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