Soviet Cartography’s Secret Mission? (Possibly, but Probably Not)

Wired has an interesting and well-illustrated (or is it well-mapped?) article called “Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers.” Written by Greg Miller, the article discusses both the Soviet Union’s gargantuan, top secret mapping projects, as well the odd history of their percolation to the west at the end of the Cold War and their use since.

While maps for civilian use were deliberately distorted to destroy their cartographic value, the Soviets mapped almost the entire world at 1:200,000 scale, most of Europe, Asia, North America, and northern Africa at 1:50,000 scale, and all of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at 1:25,000 scale. (One person Miller interviews says that 1:50,000 is “globally considered among the military to be the tactical scale for ground forces,” which means the Soviets had mapped all of the Soviet Union, including vast swathes of Siberia, to a more detailed level than was needed for most military operations.) Maps of some US cities were done down to 1:10,000 scale, at which point one is seeing individual buildings in cities like Syracuse, NY. In at least some cases, the Soviets seemed to have information from on the ground that made the maps more accurate than unclassified local maps from the same era. Some times they seemed to have made amateur mistakes of interpretation.

Since the Cold War ended, these super-detailed maps have proved useful in all sorts of places. They’ve been used for mapping out cell networks, and to draw international boundaries on the US government’s own official maps. And Miller’s article also talks about the strangeness of purchasing and discussing these maps, given a continued reticence in the former Soviet Union to say much about them.

The fact that the Soviet military seemed to have over-mapped a lot of areas suggests a system with plenty of resources, quotas to fill, and little or no desire to challenge the assumptions about whether or not the work was worth it: so basically a typical Soviet  industrial operation. They also seem to have piled a lot of non-spatial information on to the maps, including “everything from the materials and conditions of the roads to the diameter and spacing of the trees in a forest to the typical weather at different times of year.”

Geographer Alex Kent has a really interesting theory about this, suggesting that over-mapping and over-detailing (my words, not his) were a way of conveniently storing and organizing information that didn’t necessarily need to be mapped. Kent says “It’s almost like a repository of intelligence, a database where you can put everything you know about a place in the days before computers … There are layers of visual hierarchy. What is important stands out. What isn’t recedes. There’s a lot that modern cartographers could learn from the way these maps were made.”

It’s an argument that makes a lot of sense, since it parallels developments on the other side of the Iron Curtain. During the Second World War, the western Allies found themselves with broad and urgent requirements for all sorts of geographic information about potential theaters of war. In the UK, the Inter-Service Topographic Department (ISTD) created Inter-Service Information Series (ISIS) reports; in the US, they were Joint Army Navy Intelligence Studies (JANIS).

The shift from Second World War to Cold War meant the requirement never really went away, just moved east. As a result, both the US and the UK maintained general surveys of useful information for possible areas of conflict. In the US, the project was known as the National Intelligence Survey (NIS), and the desired scope was the entire world (with a priority focus on the Soviet bloc). An interagency effort led by the CIA, each area survey contained information on a country or region’s military geography, transportation, telecommunications, sociology, politics, economics, science, and armed forces. There were maps too, though only at 1:100,000 scale.

Depending on your age, you may even have used the results of the program. In 1962, the CIA started produced a classified annual update called the Basic Intelligence Factbook. Thirteen years later, that became available in unclassified form as the CIA World Factbook. It went online in 1997, and for kids of my generation it was an easy go-to source for the kind of basic facts that made a book report or a model UN briefing.

It’s quite plausible that the Soviet detailed mapped was a way of arranging a lot of the same types of information included in a factbook-like resource. On the other hand, no matter how well designed those maps were, they can’t have been a good solution in the long run. Large-format four-color maps are a pain to print, a pain to store, and a pain to ship. You couldn’t have transmitted the information over a phone line, machine to machine, like you could send statistics once computers were available. Instead, you would have been stuck pushing paper. Of course, those problems don’t mean that wasn’t what the Soviets were doing. After all, they made plenty of poor technological decisions.


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