5 Reasons why Soviet Maps are Amazing by John Davies and Alexander J. Kent

To coincide with the release of their new book The Red Atlas John Davies and Alex Kent explain why the many thousands of maps secretly produced by the Soviet Union are so fascinating…

1. It’s the biggest cartographic story never told

Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of John Davies and Alexander Kent

Working in factories deep within the Soviet Union, thousands of highly-trained cartographers were mapping literally everywhere on the planet. They produced maps of foreign territory at several scales, including over two thousand detailed plans of towns and cities all around the world (mostly at 1:10,000 scale), such as London, Paris, New York, Tokyo and Sydney. Around 100 British towns and cities are known to exist – all with a street index and with strategically-important buildings colour-coded for ease of use. These once-secret maps only came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, where map shops in former Soviet republics like Latvia and Kazakhstan started offering them for sale. The image above is an extract from a plan of Washington, D.C. from 1975, which includes the Pentagon (numbered 73 and shown in green and classified as a military building) and the White House (numbered 18 and shown in purple as a government/administrative building).

2. The level of detail will amaze you

Chatham Dockyard. Image courtesy of John Davies and Alexander Kent

Soviet maps are incredibly detailed and include a wealth of information that does not appear on any published national topographic map series. They can tell you about the height of a bridge above water, its dimensions, load capacity, and the main construction material. They can tell you the width of a river, the direction of its flow, its depth, and whether it has a viscous bed. They can tell you the type of trees in a forest, their height, girth, and spacing. They can also tell you the name of a factory and what it produces. At each scale, Soviet topographic maps conform to a consistent specification, using a standard symbology, projection and grid. Above is an extract from the Soviet 1:10,000 plan of Chatham, Gillingham and Rochester from 1984. The Royal Navy Dockyard in shown in incredible detail with all the docks and basins numbered and labelled, yet the whole area is a ‘blank’ space on the contemporary Ordnance Survey map. The cartographers would have used satellite imagery as well as a host of other sources to compile all this information. If it was known, it went on the map.

3. They make you see the familiar in a new way

London. Image courtesy of John Davies and Alexander Kent

One of the first things people want to know is whether their house was mapped. If you live in a city, the chances are that it was – at least once. But nothing can prepare you for seeing your local neighbourhood on a Soviet map, especially with those familiar streets and place names in Cyrillic script. Soviet cartographers were mapping for a utopian future, when the world would be communist, and that included your street. The extract shown here is from the 1985 plan of London (1:25,000), which includes the river Thames, Whitehall, the Strand, Soho and Charing Cross station. As you might expect, not all the details are correct – the purple building numbered 263 is Her Majesty’s Theatre, which is recorded in the index as the ‘Home of Queen & Prime Minister’!

4. They are beautiful

Training Poster. Image courtesy of John Davies and Alexander Kent

Although the maps were produced to a standard specification, their cartographic style evolved throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. The city plans, especially, gradually incorporated more colours and sheets were printed in up to 10 colours. The effect of capturing intricate, local detail in such bold and vibrant colours constructs an aesthetic that echoes the characteristic visual culture of the Soviet Union and carries a spirit of revolution. The image above is a poster from the 1960s that was used to train cartographers in the portrayal of hydrographic features. Given that the maps were produced on paper, where all mapped detail had to be shown simultaneously and every symbol had to remain clear and legible, Soviet maps are also masterpieces of cartographic design.

5. They are still relevant

Galilee. Image courtesy of John Davies and Alexander Kent

Since many areas around the globe were mapped systematically at a scale of 1:200,000 or larger, Soviet maps present the best mapping available for some regions, particularly the more inaccessible places, or where detailed topographic maps are hard to find. After they first became available to the West in the 1990s, Soviet maps have been used for a whole range of purposes, from studying archaeological sites in Central Asia to understanding the impact of former UK military bases on the environment. The extract above is taken from a 1:200,000 scale topographic map from 1983 showing the Sea of Galilee.


The Red Atlas by John Davies & Alexander Kent is available now.

The Red Atlas £26.99

For more information and to view more maps, visit www.redatlasbook.com

Listen to John Davies & Alexander Kent talking about The Red Atlas at the 2018 Stanfords Travel Writers Festival.





Comments on article “5 Reasons why Soviet Maps are Amazing by John Davies and Alexander J. Kent”

  1. Really interesting article. Of course this is the mirror image of the American CIA both organisations producing world maps on enormous state budgets. Making maps is enormously expensive especially if you have to source the mapping information from first principle/independant sources from satellites by photographic means from space.Think of the effort required to retrieve photos dropped from a satellite into space to the ground, how would you find it? The most interesting contrast is with Google and Microsoft, two large commercial organisations with a different focus. Microsoft has even purchased an Austrian company that manufactures large format digital aerial cameras. The first stage in the processs of making maps from the air.

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