Anyone old enough to have lived through those paranoid days of mutually assured destruction will find it a bit disturbing to see familiar hometown streets and landmarks labeled in Cyrillic script. The maps are a rare glimpse into the military machine on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The Soviet maps were just a casual hobby for Davies until he met David Watt, a map librarian for the British Ministry of Defence, in Watt, it turns out, had encountered Beldavs years earlier and done some investigations of his own.
He was stunned. Watt placed an order. Maps included details of a Royal Navy submarine-building shipyard and the carrying capacity of bridges. A few weeks later a package was waiting for him at the airport. Over the next few years, Watt pored over these maps and picked up others from various dealers. They had mapped nearly the entire world at three scales. The most detailed of these three sets of maps, at a scale of ,, consisted of regional maps. A single sheet might cover the New York metropolitan area, for example.
The Soviets made far more detailed maps of some parts of the world.
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They mapped all of Europe, nearly all of Asia, as well as large parts of North America and northern Africa at , and , scales, which show even more features and fine-grained topography. Another series of still more zoomed-in maps, at , scale, covers all of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as hundreds or perhaps thousands of foreign cities. At this scale, city streets and individual buildings are visible.
The Soviets produced hundreds of remarkably detailed , maps of foreign cities, mostly in Europe, and they may have mapped the entire USSR at this scale, which Watt estimated would take , sheets. All in all, Watt estimated that the Soviet military produced more than 1.
In he presented some of his research at a meeting of the Charles Close Society, a group devoted to the study of Ordnance Survey maps. Davies was in the audience. The two men spoke, and Watt encouraged Davies to study them more seriously. For Davies, the new friends and their shared interest came as a welcome distraction in an emotionally difficult time: His wife of nearly four decades was dying of cancer.
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In , Davies organized a research trip to Latvia. Not that the trip was all work—it coincided with the Latvian midsummer festival, an all-night affair involving folk songs and dancing, fueled by copious helpings of beer and wild boar sausage.
Caption: Caption: Soviet map of Berlin, Caption: Caption: Detail of the Soviet map of Berlin. The black-and-pink line is the Berlin Wall. Caption: Caption: A Soviet map of the Grozny region in Chechnya, including detailed text describing the terrain. Caption: Caption: A detailed shot of the Grozny region terrain. Caption: Caption: Soviet map of London, Caption: Caption: Detail of central London from the Soviet map. The details include dimensions and building materials of the bridges.
In post-war Russia, men died in the pursuit of better maps. Survey teams endured brutal conditions as they traversed Siberian wilderness and rugged mountains to establish networks of control points. The program involved tens of thousands of surveyors and topographers, and hundreds of cartographers. A surveyor himself, Postnikov writes that on a survey expedition to remote southern Yakutiya in the s he found a grim note scrawled on a tree trunk by one of his predecessors. I am left with a very sick junior surveyor on my hands. I have no transportation or means of subsistence.
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Given that temperatures in Yakutiya rarely rise above —4 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, Postnikov doubts they made it. It was after the death of Stalin in that the Soviet military, which had to that point focused its cartographic efforts on Soviet territory and nearby regions like the Balkans and Eastern Europe, started to take on global ambitions. Postnikov estimates that the military mapping program involved tens of thousands of surveyors and topographers, the people who go out into the field and gather data on relief and other features, and hundreds of cartographers who compiled these data to make the maps.
During the Cold War he served in a parallel civilian cartographic corps that made maps for engineers and planners. These maps were far better than the bogus ones produced for the proletariat, accurate enough to be used for building roads and other infrastructure, but stripped of any strategic details that could aid the enemy if they were captured. The civilian cartographers were well aware that the military was busily mapping foreign territories, Postnikov says.
How many maps did the military cartographers make? For San Diego, the Russians included sites of military interest, but also notes on transit, communications, and the height of buildings. The US military made maps during the Cold War too, of course, but the two superpowers had different mapping strategies that reflected their different military strengths, says Geoff Forbes, who served in the US Army as a Russian voice interceptor during the Cold War and is now director of mapping at Land Info , a Colorado company that stocks Soviet military maps.
As a result, he says, the US military rarely made maps more detailed than ,, and generally only did so for areas of special strategic interest. Maneuvering that army required large-scale maps, and lots of them, to cover smaller areas in more detail. A manual produced by the Russian Army, translated and published in by East View, a Minnesota company with a large inventory of Soviet maps, gives some insight into how the topographic maps could be used in planning or executing combat operations.
It includes tables on the range of audibility of various sounds a snapping twig can be heard up to 80 meters away; troop movements on foot, up to meters on a dirt road or meters on a highway; an idling tank, up to 1, meters; a rifle shot, up to 4, meters. Still more tables estimate the speed at which troops can move depending on the slope of the terrain, the width and condition of the roadway, and whether they are on foot, in trucks, or in tanks.
The maps themselves include copious text with detailed descriptions of the area they depict, 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. The lakes are usually not large; 0. The banks are low, gentle, and partially swamped.
The bottom is slimy and vicious [sic]. Some of lakes have salted or alkaline water. The description of San Diego , translated and published in English here for the first time, points out objects of obvious strategic interest—including a submarine base, a naval airbase, ammunition depots, factories that make aircraft and weapons—but also includes notes on public transportation, communications systems, and the height and architecture of buildings in various parts of town.
To make these maps of foreign territory, the Soviets started with official, publicly available maps from sources like the Ordnance Survey or the US Geological Survey. John Davies has found, for example, that elevation markers on maps of Britain often appear at exactly the same points and work out to be exact metric equivalents of the British units.
Because of such similarities, the Ordnance Survey has long maintained that the Soviet maps violate their copyright. The Soviets appear to have done the same thing with maps made by the US Geological Survey, but those maps are in the public domain, and anyone—including someone from the Soviet embassy—could have bought them easily. Nelson added that it seems logical that Soviet representatives would have acquired ,scale topographic maps from the US as they were printed, but he says he knows of no paper trail that could confirm that.
Many of these details, Davies argues, came from aerial or satellite reconnaissance the first Soviet spy satellite, Zenit, was launched into orbit in Other details, such as notes on the construction materials and conditions of roadways and bridges, seemingly had to come from agents on the ground or, according to one account from a Swedish counterintelligence officer, by picnicking Soviet diplomats with a preference for sites near objects of strategic interest.
Not that the Soviet maps are infallible. There are curious mistakes here and there: Earthworks for a new pipeline in Teesside in the UK are mistaken for a road under construction, a nonexistent subway line connects the Angel and Barbican stations in London.
The town of Alexandria appears correctly in northern Virginia, but a town of the same name also appears incorrectly outside of Baltimore. There are other puzzles too. The Soviets mapped a handful of American cities at a scale of , The list of known maps at this scale includes:. Economic rather than military objectives may have motivated the Soviets to map these cities in detail, suggests Steven Seegel, an expert on Russian political and intellectual history at the University of Northern Colorado. The Soviets admired US postwar economic prosperity and wanted to understand how it worked, Seegel says.
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