The Red Atlas

July 28, 2018

61SEUp0waVL._AC_US218_For anyone who, like me, is fascinated by maps and atlases, and cartography in general, this book is utterly fascinating. In short, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the full extent of its in-depth cartography has been revealed: astonishingly detailed maps of many countries, often with far more detail than official maps made by those countries themselves. Maps are often very large-scale, with specific buildings labelled, width and construction of roads, railways and bridges noted, and lots more. All of this in a well-produced volume, copiously illustrated with examples, and a carefully-written text analysing the history and development of Soviet cartography.

Much of the mapping was highly secret and reserved for military use only; bowdlerised versions of maps of the Soviet Union itself were made available for civilian use where necessary. This is no surprise: all countries do this, including the UK, whose official Ordnance Survey maps have blank spaces where strategic military assets are located, as proved by comparison with Soviet mapping in this very book. It’s the extent, the detail that astonishes about the Soviet enterprise.

This huge enterprise got me thinking, and my conclusion is surely blindingly obvious: the Cyrillic alphabet. Think about it. When the Nazis invaded Poland – to take one example – they used Polish maps from the country’s Army Geographical Institute, often overprinted in German with the legend ‘only for service use’. And that’s all they needed to do, for whatever country they invaded, except the Soviet Union. For if a map and its legend is in the Roman alphabet, then the place names are instantly legible, and all you need is a translation of the legend.

This doesn’t work if you’re a Russian: all those maps, all those place names are in an alien alphabet; if you tried to overprint everything on a Western map, you’d have an illegible piece of paper. So you start from scratch, using all available Western maps and your spy network and aerial and satellite photography and you re-create all those maps, in the Cyrillic alphabet, with names phonetically transliterated so that your one day invading or occupying troops know where they are… a colossal enterprise but achievable with the resources of the state behind it. And you do it properly, thoroughly. Surely the US military have done something similar with mapping of Russia.

A wonderful book. And perhaps I got rather more from looking at the gorgeous maps than the average Western reader in that, although I cannot understand Russian, I can ‘read’ i.e. transliterate it.


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