The Red Atlas

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.

Deciphering the Soviet maps is more than a matter of reading Cyrillic. Soviet maps were standardized, with consistent and highly specific use of symbols and labels that would not necessarily be obvious to the casual map reader. Because these maps had no casual readers: they were secret maps for official use only. You needed to be trained to create or use these maps; the handbook was 220 pages,1 and there were a number of training posters. Without that training, it would not be immediately obvious that, for example, an underlined town name meant that the nearby train station shared the name,2 or that navigable rivers were labelled in uppercase.

The level of detail required by those standards made compiling information in western countries something of a challenge. The extent to which the Soviet maps were copied from existing western sources, based on satellite reconnaissance or derived from on-the-ground observation and surveillance is something The Red Atlas delves into in some detail.

If The Red Atlas suffers from being too anglocentric—too focused on Soviet maps of the United States and Great Britain—it may be because the authors spent time comparing and contrasting the Soviet maps with their USGS and Ordnance Survey counterparts. On the one hand, the Soviet maps so resembled the Ordnance Survey’s work that the OS moved to block their use in the United Kingdom.3 On the other hand, there are differences, even outright errors, that come from the Soviets’ attempts to reconcile different sources (places that no longer existed, but appeared on older maps), linguistic or cultural confusion and misunderstanding, and differences in emphasis on the part of Soviet mapmakers (who assigned greater importance to railways and heavy industry than western mapmakers would).

And there is clear evidence that the Soviets did do their own mapmaking, such as military installations left blank on OS maps or under-detailed by the USGS mapped in intricate detail on the Soviet maps. There are also, here and there, attempts to include data that were standard on Soviet maps that did not normally appear on an OS Explorer or USGS quad map—notably bridge information (length, width, clearance, carrying capacity, what it’s built of), river flow direction and speed, and the width, in metres, of roads. That data could only come from on-the-ground surveying. As the authors speculate, these data suggest maps intended for administrative use rather than to support a military invasion.

The Red Atlas is a truly handsome book, filled with dozens of examples of Soviet mapmaking. For someone interested in the Cold War and spycraft, it’d make a hell of a gift this season. But as you have probably figured out by now, this is not, despite its name, a true atlas. We are given examples of Soviet cartography. Lots and lots of examples. The point of the book is to puzzle out, based on the too-fragmetary evidence in our hands, what Soviet cartography looked like, and how it (likely) was made. What we get is tantalizing. It isn’t enough. But, barring a sea change in Russia, it’s all we’re likely to get for some time.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Previously: Soviet Topo Maps; Old Russian MapsSoviet Spies Map the WorldSoviet Mapping UpdateSoviet-Era Topo Maps of Russian CitiesSoviet Spy Maps, Redux.

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  1. Davies and Kent, The Red Atlas, p. 13.
  2. Davies and Kent, The Red Atlas, p. 83.
  3. Davies and Kent, The Red Atlas, p. 133.