Unpacking Soviet Military Maps

Greg Miller’s article for Wired on Soviet Cold War maps pointed out that there hasn’t been a lot of study of Soviet military cartography. Much of what there has been, though, written by the people he interviewed in his article, can be found online at the website of Sheetlines, the official journal of the Charles Close Society of the Study of Ordnance Survey Maps.

Since so much of the information associated with the maps is still classified, those studying them have had essentially to reverse engineer the process by which they were made, using what appears on the maps themselves to try and figure out how and why they were made. Comparing the Soviet maps of the United Kingdom with the official UK government maps, those of the Ordnance Survey, shows enough differences to suggest that the Soviet maps aren’t mere copies. Instead, they seem mostly based on independent measurements – probably from satellite photography. A big exception is spot heights and contours, which come from the six-inch OS “County” series that was completed before the First World War, and which would already have been out of date in many places by the start of the Cold War.

The Soviet maps used the Gauss–Krüger projection, a transverse Mercator projection very similar to NATO’s preferred Universal Transverse Mercator (there’s a not-bad description from Natural Resources Canada’s website). As components in a grander global mapping scheme, they were numbered and subdivided according to the system created for the 1:1 million scale International Map of the World (IMW). There’s some irony in that, since the IMW originated in the late nineteenth century as gesture of international friendship. Planned at meetings of the International Geographic Congress, the IMW rejected the parochialism of national maps that divided the world along national boundaries. Instead, the IMW’s sheets cut straight through border’s to create a global map beholden to no one nation (for a online overview map at the University of Texas at Austin, click here).

That, like so many things in twentieth-century history, turned out to be more useful to military forces than to the internationalists who envisioned it. During both the First and Second World War, IMW maps turned out to be useful planning tools. By the end of the Second World War, all the major powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, the US, UK, and the Soviet Union) had their own 1:1 million scale maps based on the IMW grid. After the war, the US and UK continued their mapping on the IMW plan under the aegis of the US Army Map Service and the British Geographic Section of the General Staff as the AMS 1301/GSGS 4646 series. So, clearly, did the Soviets, who made it the basis for their main series of military maps.

The most interesting discoveries, though, come from a translation of their 1959 Military Topography textbook. Its discussions of foreign maps are filled with useful tidbits about how the Soviets saw their own mapping work. The book proudly compares the rational Soviet system with the mapping of “capitalistic states,” where maps exist at numerous scales and where sheets often have arbitrary borders (as opposed to coinciding with meridians or parallels) or even, shockingly, overlap one another. (This was, incidentally, a serious problem when trying to work with an area that didn’t divide nicely along such lines. According to John L. Cruickshank, who translated the passage, “all Warsaw-Pact officers were trained to produce combined sheets by ‘cutting and sticking’ up to nine separate sheets together.” Yikes.)

Military Topography also proudly notes that English maps only use 68% of the symbols appearing on Soviet maps, with the Americans and French doing even worse at 66% and 62% respectively. The French in particular are singled out for the laissez faire apathy of marking all types of forests with a single symbol, “without subdivision by species of trees.”

But does any of this get us closer to understanding why the Soviets prepared their maps the ways they did? Clearly, Soviet mapping was a major enterprise, and one that was under tight central control (surprise, surprise). It took its orientation towards universal coverage seriously, avoiding messy concession towards what its users might need in a particular situation. And it was entirely aware that it was loading its maps with more detail than comparable creators elsewhere, which supports Alex Kent’s “database” theory of map creation.

Source Note: Aside from the articles in Sheetlines, Alex Kent and John Davies have a useful article on Soviet military maps in vol. 40, no. 3 of Cartography and Geographic Information Science. Information on the International Map of the World comes from a history that appeared in vol. 50, no. 2 of Canadian Geographer.

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