A Soviet map of London, labeled in Russian.
A Soviet map of London Courtesy of John Davies/The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World

These intricate, curious maps were supposed to be destroyed. The ones that remain reveal a fascinating portrait of how the U.S.S.R. monitored the world.

English retiree John Davies has been smitten with maps his whole life. “I was drawing maps of my house as a toddler,” he said. Though his career in software didn’t allow regular forays into cartography, he would visit map shops on his travels.

On a business trip to Riga, Latvia’s capital, in the early 2000s, he hit the mother lode. Davies happened upon a shop that held bundles of Cold War-era maps of British cities, created by the Soviet military. The maps were so detailed that they included such elements as the products factories made and bridges’ load-bearing capacity. “I was just amazed,” Davies said.  

Each time Davies went to Riga, he would bring back another armload of the maps. And it turned out the Soviet military hadn’t just made maps of British cities: Davies discovered similarly intricate maps of U.S. cities, as well as areas across the globe. He and Alexander Kent, a professor of cartography at Canterbury Christ Church University, worked together to figure out how the maps were made. Their research can be found in a new book, The Red Atlas.

Davies and Kent’s work almost wasn’t possible. The Russian maps were supposed to be destroyed after the fall of the Soviet Union, but some officers, seeing an opportunity for profit, sold them. They have never been officially declassified. “Russians won’t talk about them,” said Davies. “The people who created them will hold their secrets to the grave.”

A Soviet map of downtown Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of John Davies/The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World)

Davies and Kent pored over the maps, especially of British and U.S. cities, and compared them with local maps. “The closer we studied them, the more we could decrypt,” Davies said. They noticed, for instance, an altitude marker on one Russian map that also appeared on a local map—but not on other local maps that came before or after it. As a result, Davies and Kent knew they’d found the exact map the Russians used to create their own. “It’s like a fingerprint,” Davies said. “This was what gave us so much joy—the thrill of the chase.”

Errors in the Soviet maps also revealed their sources of information. On a map of Doncaster, England, the cartographers had labeled some housing estates “Roman Pottery Kilns,” which Davies said “made no sense.” But then Davies and Kent discovered a British survey from the early 20th century that showed archaeological sites in the area—with Roman pottery kilns.

A Soviet map of New York City. (Courtesy of John Davies/The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World)

It’s clear that some elements of the maps came from aerial surveillance. On one map, the cartographers had mistaken a gas pipeline for a road. “We can be almost positive that those who made the map had looked at a satellite image,” said Davies. “The excavation of the pipeline must have resembled a road from the air.”

While Davies and Kent found information that could only have come from spies on the ground—a bridge in Miami, for example, has information that only an eyewitness could have provided—there were fewer of these instances than shows like The Americans might suggest. “There were probably not a lot of people going around with notebooks,” said Davies. “There was, after all, plenty in the public domain—maps, but also street directories, tourist guides, railway timetables, and the like.”

A Soviet map of Berlin, with the Berlin Wall highlighted in purple. (Courtesy of John Davies/The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World)

Davies and Kent call the Russian maps the Wikipedia of their day—a repository of knowledge, rather than a means of plotting invasions or bombings. Davies believes the maps were produced on the assumption that Communism would prevail—and that the Soviet Union would one day be in charge. “The maps would have been pointless if the cities were bombed,” he said. “It’s more about power gained from knowledge.”

The meticulous mapping of small, less strategic cities like Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Galveston, Texas, support this view, as does the fact that the cartographers added new details without deleting more historic data. Some maps show, for instance, where ferries took cars from one side of an estuary to another, despite bridges or tunnels having been built since, leaving the ferries to fall into disuse. “They didn’t let go of information,” Davies said.

Davies hopes that The Red Atlas will spur cartographers, historians, military experts, and map devotees like himself to take the story further by making new discoveries. “I’m waiting with bated breath to hear what they find,” he said.

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