MapCarte 324/365: 1:25,000 City plan of London by the Military Topographic Directorate of the Soviet Army, 1985

MapCarte324_sovietlondonIt’s not always the case that those closest to the geography are those that either make or use the maps. Plenty of examples of covert mapping operations litter history, particularly military history. During the Cold War, the Military Topographic Directorate of the Soviet Army General Staff conducted a secret global topographic mapping program on a vast scale. The true extent is yet to emerge, but the availability of global and regional map indexes together with map sheets at 1:15,000,000, 1:2,500,000, 1:1,000,000, 1:500,000, and 1:200,000 scales, with further territories (including areas within the British Isles) covered at 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 scales, suggests that this was probably the most comprehensive and systematic cartographic project ever undertaken.

In addition, the production of thousands of street plans of towns and cities around the world at large scales, such as 1:25,000, 1:15,000, 1:10,000, and 1:5,000, have come to light since the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991. These include Paris, Berlin, Helsinki, Dublin, Vienna, New York, Los Angeles, Dakar, Luanda, and Cairo, and many others around the globe, all produced to standard specifications and using a variety of source material, including satellite imagery.

MapCarte324_sovietlondon_detailOver 90 towns and cities were mapped in the British Isles, including London, which is shown here. The plan comprises four sheets, which join together once the inner margins have been cut away. The astonishing level of detail includes the identification of strategically important buildings and their classification according to their use (e.g. military buildings shown in green, governmental and communications in purple, and military industrial as black). This extract lies at the centre of the four sheets and includes the Houses of Parliament (bottom left, in purple) and several of the city’s railway stations (in black). At a distance the maps might appear similar to the sort of standard topographic sheet you’d expect but the typographic detail makes plain the authorship.

The sources used to compile the detailed hydrography and the construction material of bridges and their height above water (which can be found on many of these plans) remain unknown and it is not unlikely that direct observation played a role. That so much geographical detail was mapped at a time when the obliteration of many of these cities seemed a real possibility is the paradox of the programme’s amazing legacy. Designed for a very specific purpose.

Executed with considerable expertise and care in the look, feel and accuracy of the finished product. Not bad for a map created on foreign soil without anyone’s knowledge.