A Soviet map of San Francisco.
Before we were gifted the almost infinitely scalable maps that now live in our pockets, the only people who really knew the lay of the land were the military – and few militaries mapped the globe like the U.S.S.R.’s. Once closely guarded secrets, the Soviet military's millions of highly detailed, exhaustively produced maps of Europe and the United States have recently spilt out into public view with the release of The Red Atlas, a book by British map collector John Davies and New Zealand geographer Alexander Kent.
The maps, which scale up to 1:50000 in detail, were cobbled together from a range of official sources as well as agents on the ground. Beyond the detailed street and building details, they include helpful miscellaneous information, such as San Diego’s public transport system, tidbits about the architectural styles of different buildings and the load-bearing capacity of the city’s bridges. This information sometimes surpassed anything the spied-on country had produced (or perhaps even knew) about itself.
A Soviet map of San Diego’s naval facilities on the left, with an American one on the right.
During the Cold War, Russia needed detailed maps of the U.S. due to its military’s reliance on ground warfare, specifically tanks. (By contrast, America was more focussed on its air force capabilities, and could function with broader brushstroke maps of its potential conquests). The more detail in the map, the more exhaustive its creation. It’s estimated these maps took tens of thousands of Russian topographers and surveyors to put together, each of them beavering around in the capital cities of the U.S. in secret.
The Soviet's map of Washington, D.C. even includes small pools of water in the forest along the C&O canal.
Reflecting their military purpose, the maps came with companion tables that detail the distances at which sounds and sights can be perceived. A rifle shot can be heard from 4000 metres away, but snapping a twig has an 80-metre sonic radius. Don’t light up a durry at night: that’s visible from 1000 metres.
A Soviet map of London, in wide-scale and in detail, from 1985.
The end result is what writer Greg Miller describes as “a mashup of Google Maps and Wikipedia, built from paper”. For more information, and more glorious maps, check out his incredibly detailed 6000-word article on the subject over at Wired.