View Full Version : Soviet military cartographers mapped the entire world

Triple C
23 Jul 15,, 07:36

The maps were accurate and extremely detailed, including individual buildings and width of roads in urban maps of western cities. Many secret facilities were identified; some maps provided tables for the range of audible sounds, seasonal weather patterns and trafficability of roads. This mapping operation mostly likely deployed a veritable army of spy-cartographers globally.

Triple C
23 Jul 15,, 09:27
Soviet military cartographers mapped all of Europe, most of Africa and large stretches of Asia and Northern America. The maps they produced, when compared to US geographical survey and UK ordnance maps, were more detailed. Those were tactical maps to fight with.

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.
A detail of a 1975 map showing the Pentagon. KENT LEE/EAST VIEW GEOSPATIAL
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.”

23 Jul 15,, 20:46
Absolutely fascinating article

24 Jul 15,, 14:44
if you think about the tremendous amount of man-hours, cost, time, and effort that went into this...the irony is that I think the US benefited more from it than the Russians did, both then and now.

24 Jul 15,, 15:17
if you think about the tremendous amount of man-hours, cost, time, and effort that went into this...

One thing that Communist countries were/are remarkably good at: Throwing masses of manpower, regardless of the cost or inefficiency, at problems they deemed worthy of solving.

Or maybe that's just true of any totalitarian or dictatorial form of government, not merely Communism?

24 Jul 15,, 15:44
It's reflective of what they consider cheap and expendable.

24 Jul 15,, 15:46
well, pretty much any low-tech society. if you don't have the capital but you have the manpower, you use the manpower.

but as the article points out, this mania for cartography is a very Soviet thing, extending the writ of the state everywhere. I'm not sure what the Soviets got out of going into building-sized cartographic fidelity of San Francisco, for instance.

25 Jul 15,, 13:40
1:50,000 would be considered strategic in most of Europe, not tactical.

22 Oct 15,, 15:01
"1:50,000 would be considered strategic in most of Europe, not tactical."

Largely concur. Don't know about "strategic" but, IIRC, our tactical maps provided by DMA were 1:25000 under nearly every circumstance.

22 Oct 15,, 19:31
This is priceless treasure. It was a snapshot of the world as it was in the 1970s, down to the building. Most important of all, these maps are on hard copy. One does not need a computer to study them. Future archeologists will benefit greatly from studying these maps.