During the second half of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union’s military and civilian cartographers created topographical maps of the entire world of a very high standard of quality and accuracy. How they did so, and why, remains in large part a mystery, one that John Davies and Alexander J. Kent’s new book, The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World (University of Chicago Press, October) fails to solve completely.
The Red Atlas is not the definitive history of those Soviet mapping efforts because so much about those efforts remains a secret. The only reason we know about them is because, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, so many physical copies of those once-highly secret maps fell into the hands of map collectors. The Red Atlas talks about that: for more than a decade, Davies and Kent have been studying those maps. (I’ve been following their work. See the links at the bottom of this post for my earlier posts on the subject.) What they know about the Soviet mapping efforts—sources, methods, their reason for doing it—is extrapolated from the final product of those effort: the maps. The Red Atlas is above all else an exercise in cartographic forensics.
But for some unexplained reason interest in Soviet maps has had a bit of a resurgence lately. Elliot Carter writes about the Soviet maps of Washington, D.C., and their myriad little errors at Architect of the Capitaland Washingtonian magazine. No doubt they’ll come in handy with the new administration. And the deployment of the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov through the English Channel in October gave rise to this short piece on Soviet maps of the U.K. The maps are also featured in the British Library’s current map exhibition: they’re the lede in this News.com.au article about the exhibition.
As is often the case with disputed boundaries, what online maps show depends on who they’re showing it to. So when it comes to Crimea, which annexation by Russia two years ago many countries refuse to recognize (not least of which Ukraine!), Google Maps shows Crimea as Russian territory to Russian users, as Ukrainian territory to Ukrainian users, and disputed territory to everyone else. As the Washington Post reports, that didn’t stop Google from getting in trouble with Russia last month, when Google changed Crimean names in all versions of Google Maps to conform with a 2015 Ukrainian law that removed Soviet names from Ukrainian territory. Russian Crimean politicians called it “Russophobic” and “topographical cretinism,” according to the Post; by last Friday, though, the name changes had apparently been reverted. [WMS]