Much later, when already living in the West, I found out that all maps in the Soviet Union carried deliberate errors, purposeful paranoia-driven deviations to mislead Western spies. Maps, apart from giving joy to both real-life and vicarious travellers, could also be powerful weapons. To quote the authors of The Red Atlas, ‘Maps are instruments of power’.
There were few (if any) mistakes – deliberate or other – in the Soviet cartographers’ military maps of the West, as proved convincingly by the 350-plus extracts reproduced here. To me, they brought back memories of the lessons in Military Tactics at my 1970s Soviet university at which we – for some obscure reason – used the extremely well-produced maps of the area of West Germany around the town of Fünfhausen.
Indeed, Soviet Cold War maps of the West – products of the 40-year global topographic mapping programme initiated by Stalin (from 1950 to 1990) – were truly spectacular, both technologically and artistically. At the recent Maps of the 20th Century exhibition in the British Library, it gave me creeps to look at the large 1980s map of Brighton as a possible nuclear strike target, showing and describing in its super-detailed legend, every single dwelling, warehouse and workshop in that unsuspecting British city. Same with the maps reproduced here: it feels sinister to see the familiar British, American, French or German toponyms, rendered in Russian, as if the places in question have been already occupied by the Soviet Army.
Despite the unmistakably military purposes behind those maps, their sheer quality was such that they continued to be of use even after the collapse of communism. According to The Red Atlas, some post-communist states of Europe derived symbology for their new maps from the established Soviet specifications.
For anyone interested in maps, this book is a sheer delight. It also carries huge educational and historical value by introducing the inner workings of the Soviet military topography – a little-known and rather fascinating side of the Cold War in its own right.
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