Even today the US State Department uses the incredibly accurate Soviet military maps to place international boundary lines on official government maps
Originally appeared at Wired.com
A military helicopter was on the ground when Russell Guy arrived at the helipad near Tallinn, Estonia, with a briefcase filled with $250,000 in cash. The place made him uncomfortable. It didn’t look like a military base, not exactly, but there were men who looked like soldiers standing around. With guns.
The year was 1989. The Soviet Union was falling apart, and some of its military officers were busy selling off the pieces. By the time Guy arrived at the helipad, most of the goods had already been off-loaded from the chopper and spirited away. The crates he’d come for were all that was left. As he pried the lid off one to inspect the goods, he got a powerful whiff of pine. It was a box inside a box, and the space in between was packed with juniper needles. Guy figured the guys who packed it were used to handling cargo that had to get past drug-sniffing dogs, but it wasn’t drugs he was there for.
The Soviet Military secretly mapped the entire world, but few outsiders have seen the maps—until now.
Inside the crates were maps, thousands of them. In the top right corner of each one, printed in red, was the Russian word секрет. Secret.
The maps were part of one of the most ambitious cartographic enterprises ever undertaken. During the Cold War, the Soviet military mapped the entire world, parts of it down to the level of individual buildings. The Soviet maps of US and European cities have details that aren’t on domestic maps made around the same time, things like the precise width of roads, the load-bearing capacity of bridges, and the types of factories. They’re the kinds of things that would come in handy if you’re planning a tank invasion. Or an occupation. Things that would be virtually impossible to find out without eyes on the ground.
Given the technology of the time, the Soviet maps are incredibly accurate. Even today, the US State Department uses them (among other sources) to place international boundary lines on official government maps.
uy’s company, Omnimap, was one of the first to import Soviet military maps to the West. But he wasn’t alone. Like the military officials charged with guarding the maps, map dealers around the world saw an opportunity. Maps that were once so secret that an officer who lost one could be sent to prison (or worse) were bought by the ton and resold for a profit to governments, telecommunications companies, and others.
“I’m guessing we bought a million sheets,” Guy says. “Maybe more.”
University libraries at places like Stanford, Oxford, and the University of Texas in Austin have drawers stuffed with Cold War Soviet maps, acquired from Guy and other dealers, but the maps have languished in obscurity. Very few academics have seen them, let alone studied them. Whatever stories they have to tell are hidden in plain sight.
But one unlikely scholar, a retired British software developer named John Davies, has been working to change that. For the past 10 years he’s been investigating the Soviet maps, especially the ones of British and American cities. He’s had some help, from a military map librarian, a retired surgeon, and a young geographer, all of whom discovered the maps independently. They’ve been trying to piece together how they were made and how, exactly, they were intended to be used. The maps are still a taboo topic in Russia today, so it’s impossible to know for sure, but what they’re finding suggests that the Soviet military maps were far more than an invasion plan. Rather, they were a framework for organizing much of what the Soviets knew about the world, almost like a mashup of Google Maps and Wikipedia, built from paper.
1980 Soviet map of San Francisco, California. Kent Lee/East View Geospatial
Davies has probably spent more time studying the Soviet maps than anyone else. An energetic widower in his early 70s, he has hundreds of paper maps and thousands of digital copies at his house in northeast London, and he maintains a comprehensive website about them.
“I was one of those kids who at 4 is drawing maps of the house and garden,” he told me when we spoke for the first time, last year. “Anywhere I go I just hoover up all the maps I can find.”
It was on a consulting trip to Latvia in the early 2000s that he stumbled on a trove of Soviet maps in a shop near the center of the capital city, Riga. Davies struck up a friendship with one of the owners, a tall, athletic man named Aivars Beldavs, and bought an armload of Soviet maps from him every time he was in town.
Back home he’d compare the Soviet maps to the maps made around the same time by the Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency, and other British government sources. He soon spotted some intriguing discrepancies.
Caption: A detail from a 1980 map of San Francisco showing the east end of Golden Gate Park
Soviet and American maps compared
A Soviet map of Oakland and Alameda compared with the US Geological Survey map of West Oakland from 1981 (revised from 1959)
In Chatham, a river town in the far southeast, a Soviet map from 1984 showed the dockyards where the Royal Navy built submarines during the Cold War—a region occupied by blank space on contemporary British maps. The Soviet map of Chatham also includes the dimensions, carrying capacity, clearance, and even the construction materials of bridges over the River Medway. In Cambridge, Soviet maps from the ’80s include a scientific research center that didn’t appear on Ordnance Survey maps till years later. Davies started compiling lists of these differences, and on his trips to Latvia, he started asking Beldavs more questions.
Beldavs, it turns out, had served in the Soviet Army in the mid-’80s, and he used the secret military maps in training exercises in East Germany. A signature was required before a map could be checked out for an exercise, and the army made sure every last one got returned. “Even if it gets destroyed, you need to bring back the pieces,” Beldavs says.
A few years after he got out of the army, Beldavs helped start the map shop, Jana Seta, which sold maps mainly to tourists and hikers. As he tells it, officers at the military cartographic factories in Latvia were instructed to destroy or recycle all the maps as the Soviet Union dissolved in the early ’90s. “But some clever officers found our company,” he says. An offer was made, a deal was struck, and Beldavs estimates the shop acquired enough maps to fill 13 rail cars. At first they didn’t have enough space to store them all. One time, some local kids tried to set fire to a pallet load of maps they’d left outside. But the vast majority of them survived unscathed.
Soviet maps stacked up in Aivars Beldavs’ map shop in Latvia
“These maps were very interesting for the local people,” Beldavs says. “We suddenly had very detailed maps like nothing we had before.”
Indeed, not all maps were created equal in the USSR. While the military maps were extremely accurate, the maps available to ordinary citizens were next to useless. In a remarkable 2002 paper in a cartographic journal, the eminent Russian cartographer and historian of science, Alexey Postnikov, explains why this was so. “Large-scale maps for ordinary consumers had to be compiled using the 1:2,500,000 map of the Soviet Union, with the relevant parts enlarged to the needed scale,” he wrote. That’s like taking a road map of Texas and using a photocopier to enlarge the region around Dallas. You can blow it up all you want, but the street-level details you need to find your way around the city will never be there.
Worse, the maps for the masses were deliberately distorted with a special projection that introduced random variations. “The main goal was to crush the contents of maps so it would be impossible to recreate the real geography of a place from the map,” Postnikov tells me. Well-known landmarks like rivers and towns were depicted, but the coordinates, directions, and distances were all off, making them useless for navigation or military planning, should they fall into enemy hands. The cartographer who devised this devious scheme was awarded the State Prize by Stalin.
While the newly available Soviet military maps had practical value for people inside the former republics, for Davies they brought back a bit of Cold War chill. 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 2004. Watt, it turns out, had encountered Beldavs years earlier and done some investigations of his own. At a cartography conference in Cologne, Germany, in 1993, Watt had picked up a pamphlet from Beldavs’ shop advertising Soviet military topographic maps and city plans. He was stunned.
“If they really were Soviet military city plans, then these were items which four years before were so highly classified that even squaddies in the Red Army were not allowed to see them,” he later recalled. Watt placed an order.
A few weeks later a package was waiting for him at the airport. Inside were the maps he’d ordered—and a bunch more Beldavs had thrown in. Over the next few years, Watt pored over these maps and picked up others from various dealers. The scope of the Soviet military’s cartographic mission began to dawn on him.
They had mapped nearly the entire world at three scales. The most detailed of these three sets of maps, at a scale of 1:200,000, consisted of regional maps. A single sheet might cover the New York metropolitan area, for example.
But they didn’t stop there. The Soviets made far more detailed maps of some parts of the world. They mapped all of Europe, nearly all of Asia, as well as large parts of North America and northern Africa at 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 scales, which show even more features and fine-grained topography. Another series of still more zoomed-in maps, at 1:25,000 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.
And even that wasn’t the end of it. The Soviets produced hundreds of remarkably detailed 1:10,000 maps of foreign cities, mostly in Europe, and they may have mapped the entire USSR at this scale, which Watt estimated would take 440,000 sheets.
All in all, Watt estimated that the Soviet military produced more than 1.1 million different maps.
In 2004 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.
Around the same time, Watt and Davies met two other men who’d also become intrigued by the Soviet maps: John Cruickshank, a retired surgeon from Leeds, and Alex Kent, a geography graduate student at Canterbury Christ Church University. “It really all snowballed from there,” Watt says. “The four of us got together as a kind of private study group.”
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. In 2006, Davies organized a research trip to Latvia. The group spent several days in Riga, poring over Soviet military maps at Beldavs’ shop and visiting a cartographic factory that had made civilian maps during the Soviet era. 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. “It was an absolute hoot,” Watt recalls.
Soviet map of London, 1985
Detail of central London from the 1985 Soviet map
It’s easy now, in an age when anybody can whip out a smartphone and call up a street map or high-res satellite image of any point on Earth with a few taps, to forget how hard it once was to come by geospatial knowledge.
In post-war Russia, men died in the pursuit of better maps. After World War II, Stalin ordered a complete survey of the Soviet Union. Though aerial photography had reduced the need for fieldwork by then, it didn’t eliminate it entirely, according to the 2002 paper by Alexey Postnikov, the Russian cartographer. 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 1960s he found a grim note scrawled on a tree trunk by one of his predecessors. It’s dated November 20, 1948. “All my reindeer have perished,” it begins. “The food stores became bears’ prey. I am left with a very sick junior surveyor on my hands. I have no transportation or means of subsistence.” The stranded surveyor says he will attempt to force his way to the River Gynym, a sparsely populated area at least 200 kilometers away. 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 1953 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.
Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, saw fertile ground for the spread of communism in a world in which former European colonies were quickly gaining their independence, says Nick Baron, a historian at the University of Nottingham. “Khrushchev was exhilarated by the prospect of winning over these newly liberated countries in Africa, South Asia, and so on,” Baron says. “It was around that time that the military first began to undertake foreign mapping, including sending their own cartographers abroad to conduct their own surveys in many of these developing countries.”
A detail of a 1975 map showing the Pentagon
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. “We knew each other personally, and we knew about their main task.”
How many maps did the military cartographers make? “Millions and millions,” is what Postnikov says when I ask, but he quickly adds: “It’s absolutely impossible to say, for me, at least.”
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. “The US military’s air superiority made mapping at medium scales adequate for most areas of the globe,” Forbes says. As a result, he says, the US military rarely made maps more detailed than 1:250,000, and generally only did so for areas of special strategic interest. “The Soviets, on the other hand, were the global leaders in tank technology,” Forbes says. After suffering horrific losses during the Nazi ground invasion in WWII, the Soviets had built up the world’s most powerful army. Maneuvering that army required large-scale maps, and lots of them, to cover smaller areas in more detail. “One to 50,000 scale is globally considered among the military to be the tactical scale for ground forces,” Forbes says. “These maps were created so that if and when the Soviet military was on the ground in any given place, they would have the info they needed to get from point A to point B.”
A manual produced by the Russian Army, translated and published in 2005 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 300 meters on a dirt road or 600 meters on a highway; an idling tank, up to 1,000 meters; a rifle shot, up to 4,000 meters).
A tourist map (left) of Tallinn produced for the 1980 Olympics is short on detail and accuracy compared to a Soviet military map of the same area made in 1976
Other tables give the distances for visual objects (a lit cigarette can be visible up to 8,000 meters away at night, but you’d have to get within 100 meters to make out details of a soldier’s weaponry in daylight). 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 map for Altan Emel, a remote region of China near the border of Mongolia and Russia, includes these details, according to a translation on Omnimap’s website:
The lakes are usually not large; 0.5-2 km2(maximum up to 7 km2), with the depth up to 1 meter. The banks are low, gentle, and partially swamped. The bottom is slimy and vicious [sic]. Some of lakes have salted or alkaline water.
It goes on (and on) from there.
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.
“When I joined the USGS in 1976, I heard the then commonly-told story about a representative from the Soviet embassy in Washington obtaining the initial copy of the paper-print National Atlas, prepared by the USGS in cooperation with a number of other agencies, when it was offered for public sale in 1970,” USGS geologist and historian Clifford Nelson told me in an email. Nelson added that it seems logical that Soviet representatives would have acquired 1:24,000-scale topographic maps from the US as they were printed, but he says he knows of no paper trail that could confirm that.
Despite the Ordnance Survey’s copyright claim, Davies argues that the Soviet maps aren’t mere copies. In many places, they show new construction—roads, bridges, housing developments, and other features that don’t appear on contemporary Ordnance Survey maps. Many of these details, Davies argues, came from aerial or satellite reconnaissance (the first Soviet spy satellite, Zenit, was launched into orbit in 1962). 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).
Unlike the 1984 US Geological Survey map of Chicago’s lakefront, the 1982 Soviet map shows individual buildings in the city and structures on Navy Pier
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. Defunct railways and ferry routes persist on editions of the Soviet maps for years after they’ve been discontinued.
There are other puzzles too. The Soviets mapped a handful of American cities at a scale of 1:10,000. These are detailed street-level maps, but they don’t focus on places of obvious strategic importance. The list of known maps at this scale includes:
Tonawanda, and North Tonawanda, NY
Niagara Falls, NY
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.
“These cities might have been on their radar for their reputation for heavy industry, shipping, or logistics,” Seegel says. Pontiac had a General Motors plant, for instance, and Galveston was a major port. Scranton had a huge coal mine. Other towns were close to hydropower plants. “There was an obsession in the Soviet era over power grids and infrastructure” that went beyond their military implications, Seegel says.
John Davies has found scores of features on the Soviet maps that don’t seem to have immediate military relevance, things like factories, police stations, and transportation hubs. “If it’s an invasion map, you wouldn’t show the bus stations,” Davies says. “It’s a map for when you’re in charge.”
That’s probably true, but there may be even more to it than that, says Alex Kent, who’s now a senior lecturer in geography at Canterbury Christ Church University. Kent thinks the Soviets used the maps more broadly. “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,” he says.
“They managed to turn so much information into something that’s so clear and well-presented,” Kent says. “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.”
Aesthetically, the maps are striking, if not beautiful. The cartographers who made them took tremendous pride in their work, down to the last details, says Kent Lee, the CEO of EastView Geospatial, a Minnesota company that was once Russell Guy’s main competition in the Soviet map import business and now claims to have the largest collection of Soviet military maps outside of Russia. “Cartographic culture is to Russia as wine culture is to France,” Lee says.
A close-up of part of the Soviet map of New York City from 1982, with Lower Manhattan in the upper right corner. The details include dimensions and building materials of the bridges
Russell Guy doesn’t sell many Soviet maps these days. But for a while there in the ’90s, he says, business was booming. Telecommunications companies bought them up as they were building cell phone networks across Africa or Asia. If you’re building cell phone towers, Guy explains, you need to know the terrain, and the Soviet topographic maps were often the best source available in less developed parts of the world. He says he could tell which countries were soliciting bids at any given time because as soon as one company ordered a set of Soviet topo maps, three or four others would call up to order the same thing.
Telecom companies used to buy Soviet maps when they were building cell networks in Asia and Africa.
The US government was another big buyer. Intelligence analysts used the Soviet maps in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, says Ray Milefsky, a former geographer and geospatial analyst at the US military’s Defense Mapping Agency (now called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency). Milefsky later moved to the State Department, where he specialized in determining where international boundaries should be drawn on official government maps. The Soviet maps were—and continue to be—one of the best sources, says Milefsky, who retired in 2013. The boundary lines on the Soviet maps are so accurate because the cartographers went back to the original treaties and reconciled the landmarks mentioned there with survey reports and boundary markers on the ground. “When we first got them it was a gold mine, especially for aligning the boundaries of the former Soviet republics,” Milefsky says.
But with the proliferation of satellite mapping in recent years, the Soviet maps aren’t selling like they used to, Guy and other dealers say. Once in a while a telecom or avionics company will order a set. Sometimes an adventure travel company will buy a few. Geologists and other academics sometimes use them. A team of archaeologists recently used the Soviet maps to study the destruction of prehistoric earthen mounds by encroaching agriculture in Central Asia.
Even so, military maps are still a touchy topic in Russia. As recently as 2012, a former military topographic officer was sentenced to 12 years in prison for allegedly leaking classified maps to the West.
Map scholars, from left: Alexander Kent, Martin Davis, John Davies, David Watt, and John Cruickshank
John Davies and Alex Kent gave a presentation of their research at an international cartography meeting in Moscow in 2011, hoping to meet Russian cartographers or scholars who knew about the maps or perhaps had even worked on them. They thought maybe someone might come up after their talk or approach them at happy hour. No one did.
“The silence was quite disconcerting,” Kent says. “This was a subject you just don’t talk about.”
Davies and Kent have written a book about the Soviet military maps, but their publisher, the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, recently backed out, citing copyright concerns, Davies says.
For Guy, the maps are a reminder of a time when a map dealer from a small company in North Carolina got a tiny taste of the 007 lifestyle. He and other dealers who brought the maps to the West still have vivid memories of clandestine meetings in dark Moscow bars, being trailed by KGB agents (who else could it be?), and worrying about who was listening in on their phone calls. They still dodge questions about their old military connections. They don’t want to stir up trouble. Even now, the paranoia is hard to shake.