Outsiders Do Their Best: Soviet Mapping
By Zuzanna Wasiluk
The U.S.S.R. military undertook a secret global mapping program that endeavored to create maps of areas around the world. These maps were incredibly detailed yet the cartographers in the Soviet program made mistakes.
The U.S.S.R. military undertook a secret global mapping program during the twentieth century. Some of the greatest talent in the field of geography endeavored to create hundreds of thousands of maps of areas, from cities to small towns. This effort started with Stalin during World War II and continued through the Cold War by his successors. Cartographers included a spravka with each map, an essay of 2,000 to 3,500 words describing the city’s geography and geology, the ethnicity of its citizens, climate conditions, public transportation, and industry. These essays display remarkable attention to detail for the multitude of places being mapped under this program’s initiative. American pilots invading Afghanistan in late 2001 even relied on Soviet-era military maps because they were more detailed than other maps of the area. Despite the attention to detail, mapping various towns and cities from other countries is a difficult task and as a result, the cartographers in the Soviet program made mistakes. They convey the significant impact locals have in shaping their environment.
Soviet cartographers involved with the program were culturally predisposed to believe maps available to the public were falsified since military maps of their own environment were unavailable for public access. Coming from a culture with this natural assumption caused a cartographer mapping a city to compile a packet of resources which included official state maps, atlases, aerial imagery, guidebooks, and personal reports from military personnel. Each map is the result of laborious data collection for accuracy and reliability which called attention far beyond just the present infrastructure. Soviet cartographers approached any kind of available material as a piece to their puzzle. As a result, a map user became very familiar with the geography and cultural features of a region from this meticulous process on the part of the Soviets, who even included phonetic spelling of regions in Cyrillic.
The mistakes made by Soviet cartographers would be understandable to any local of the region as the Soviets were immersing themselves in the region’s geography and culture for a short period of time. When mapping Huddersfield, a town in England known for its role in the Industrial Revolution, cartographers included an important building as object number twenty-three labeled “Institute of Technology” which is unexpected for a small town. Unbeknownst to them, the Soviets labeled the Mechanics’ Institute as the “Institute of Technology,” a mistake significant to any local eye. The Mechanics’ Institute was founded in the mid-nineteenth century for the benefit of workers, providing an alternative to drinking after work at a pub. Soviets were unable to recognize the cultural significance of this institute within the context of the environment. Locals appreciate this landmark for the betterment of the working man because they understand the underlying political, cultural, and economic causes in history that motivated the community to create this educational establishment. These mistakes weren’t confined to the United Kingdom, there are a number of small errors in maps produced of cities from other countries.
The cultural misunderstandings in Soviet maps are amusing because Soviet cartographers were removed from the cultures they were writing about, proving that locals interact with their environment in a way only they understand. When mapping London, Soviet cartographers labeled Her Majesty’s Theatre, one of the theaters in London’s West End, in the index as “Residence of the Queen and Prime Minister.” Any Londoner, regardless of their affluence, would know Her Majesty’s Theatre as a venue with a variety of entertainment to enjoy. Describing the theater with deep-pocketed sponsors as the Residence of the Queen and Prime Minister is humorous in how far it lands from the truth.
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Regarding public transportation and roads, Soviet cartographers had particular trouble without local knowledge. Having only aerial imagery and previous maps, cartographers had inconsistent success with portraying transportation. Any local that utilized public transportation or the roads would’ve noticed a number of these errors by having personally interacted with the transport links of their environment, including its many complexities that are understood through increased exposure.
The detail present in the maps created by Soviet cartographers as part of a mapping program is still impressive in the twenty-first century. Soviet cartographers made a valiant effort in understanding different geographic regions and the way they’ve been shaped by human interaction. The incredibly detailed maps as well as the written materials, such as the spravka, are still valuable today despite the disadvantages they had as outsiders to the environment.
The book I read about this historic program was a general overview of the program’s history, the maps, information about the cartographers, and other pieces of important background. I told my mentor about the thoughts I had regarding the maps and the program that weren’t focused on in the book to which she suggested I write an article. I gathered evidence from the book and began to make my own argument, adding to the author in a meaningful way.
Zuzanna Wasiluk grew up in Greenpoint and had multitudes of pets in her early childhood. However, she’s been reduced to two kittens at the moment, Cricket and Felix. She attends high school in Brooklyn, NY, and a Polish school in Greenpoint to connect to her roots. She enjoys creative writing and painting as personal hobbies and joined Girls Write Now to develop as a writer in a more comprehensive direction in an inclusive environment.