Men died in the pursuit of better maps.
July 18, 2015 9:46 AM   Subscribe

"Inside the crates were maps, thousands of them. In the top right corner of each one, printed in red, was the Russian word секрет. Secret" -- Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers by Greg Miller, WIRED
posted by The Whelk (21 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Like the article says, those maps are gorgeous.

My mother's cousin went to Russia when I was a child and brought back some wonderful souvenirs for me--a Komsomol uniform, a Vostok Komandirskie watch with a portrait of Yuri Gagarin on the band, and a huge world map with the nearest medium-sized city spelled POAHOK. Nerdy lil me loved that map so much.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:21 AM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Related link on how WWI launched mapmaking at National Geographic.
posted by Brian B. at 10:59 AM on July 18, 2015

Damn, I would love to buy some large prints of these
posted by Venadium at 11:38 AM on July 18, 2015

You can! Omnimap, mentioned in the article, sells them.
posted by notyou at 11:43 AM on July 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

the Russian word секрет. Secret
This is almost entirely tangential, but there is a local company whose logo always makes me want to pronounce their name as "voptekh".
posted by Wolfdog at 12:09 PM on July 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

The maps are not only gorgeous, they're amazing in their presentation of relevant detail. As the article says:
Kent thinks the Soviets used the maps more broadly. “It’s almost like a repository of intelligence, a database where you can put everything you know about a place in the days before computers,” he says.

“They managed to turn so much information into something that’s so clear and well-presented,” Kent says. “There are layers of visual hierarchy. What is important stands out. What isn’t recedes. There’s a lot that modern cartographers could learn from the way these maps were made.”
This is pretty weird:
Davies and Kent have written a book about the Soviet military maps, but their publisher, the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, recently backed out, citing copyright concerns, Davies says.
Are the Russians threatening them, after all these years?
posted by languagehat at 1:01 PM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks for posting this. I've been seeing the San Francisco map pop up as a curiosity on Twitter, it's interesting to learn the larger context. That thing with Russian maps using a deliberately distorted projection for national security sounds so crazy. But map distortion is still a thing in China. Although that manipulation is fully reverse engineered and it's not entirely clear what the reason for it is.
posted by Nelson at 1:04 PM on July 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

These are wonderful as I appreciate the era this all occurred. While the big cities are interesting, I would have a far greater interest in seeing Russian maps of "small town America" to see just how extensive Soviet work and paranoia actually was. I greatly hope these will all become fully digitized.
posted by Muncle at 1:23 PM on July 18, 2015

There was some talk around the same time that our (Norwegian) harbour authorities had worse maps of their own turf than the Soviets had, and it turned out to be correct.

I was involved with a project regarding the unpleasantness in Afghanistan near the beginning of the century and used the Soviet maps as a base. They were very well made, and had a level of detail significantly higher than what was available in the West at the time (even classified sources). Being a Cold War kid, handling the Soviet maps was thrilling, actually. Getting hold of them a few years before would have been a major score for military intelligence.
posted by Harald74 at 1:32 PM on July 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

Are the Russians threatening them, after all these years?

The article mentions that the British government's Ordnance Survey organization claims that the Soviet military maps of Britain are derivative works of the copyrighted British maps (unlike U.S. Geological Survey maps which are public domain) so maybe that's the problem.
posted by XMLicious at 2:57 PM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yea. The UK government has the annoying habit of claiming copyright on their works. For example, Royal Mail owns the database that describes delivery points and postcodes, and until 2010, charged for access to it. They still charge for access if you want something other than the postal code descriptions.
posted by pwnguin at 3:14 PM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is as good as that Borges story about the dudes who end up mapping the world on a 1:1 scale.

"There are other puzzles too. The Soviets mapped a handful of American cities at a scale of 1:10,000. These are detailed street-level maps, but they don’t focus on places of obvious strategic importance. The list of known maps at this scale includes:

Pontiac, MI
Galveston, TX
Bristol, PA
Scranton, PA
Syracuse, NY
Towanda, and North Towanda, NY
Watertown, NY
Niagara Falls, NY"

Why? Why?

I saw the link to omnimaps, I can't figure it out. How do I get a map of say Alexandria, VA, or Avignon, France?
posted by TheTingTangTong at 6:30 PM on July 18, 2015

Those are the locations of the Roswell II sites, of course. The Soviet cartographers themselves didn't know why they were mapping there; only the highest levels of the military and Khrushchev knew what the Found Cosmonaut had brought back.
posted by XMLicious at 7:26 PM on July 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

At first glance, I read this as "Men died in the pursuit of better naps." Totally made sense to me.

Read it a second time. Maps?

Now I'm puzzled.
posted by NedKoppel at 8:34 PM on July 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

the Russian word секрет. Secret

What a bizarre word to be an identical cognate. That's kind of thrilling (and on-the-nose).
posted by psoas at 10:49 AM on July 20, 2015

It's not a cognate, they borrowed it from French just like we did. It's no weirder than the fact that the Russian word for electricity is электричество [elektrichestvo].
posted by languagehat at 11:23 AM on July 20, 2015

These maps are gorgeous. I too wish I could search the catalog - there was always a rumor growing up that my hometown had a (small) nuke/missle pointed at it because computer chips for the US military were made there. I'd love to see if I could get a Soviet map of it.
posted by maryr at 11:37 AM on July 20, 2015

FWIW, Towanda, NY appears to be right next to Niagra Falls. At the other end of Lake Ontario, Watertown, NY, appears to be right next to it the Fort Drum Army base/training area?. Syracuse is where I-90 from Towanda and I-81 from Watertown intersect. Scranton, PA, is further south on I-81 from there.

Pontiac, MI, along with Scranton and Syracuse could also be interesting as industrial towns, of course. Bristol, PA, sounds similar - it was only built up starting in the 50s, so it'd be a good study as suggested in the article. Galveston, TX is a big port city which seems interesting to me.

*shrug* I dunno, I like maps.
posted by maryr at 11:54 AM on July 20, 2015

> Towanda, NY

Tonawanda, please! (I had a girlfriend from North Tonawanda, so it's burned into my brain. Horrible place, or at least it was several decades ago.)
posted by languagehat at 11:57 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

TheTingTangTong: "I saw the link to omnimaps, I can't figure it out. How do I get a map of say Alexandria, VA, or Avignon, France?"

I couldn't find Soviet-produced maps of the USA at omnimaps, but Land Info seems to have them. Here's a link to a PDF list with pricing. Washington city for example is $580 for a basic scan, more for digital raster or vector options. East View has more affordable paper copies, for example Alexandria seems to be on Washington DC 3 with a digital raster map the same price.
posted by exogenous at 12:08 PM on July 20, 2015

Ha, my bad. TOWANDA~!
posted by maryr at 12:51 PM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

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