The Red Atlas
John Davies, Alexander J. Kent
Nearly thirty years after the end of the Cold War, its legacy and the accompanying Russian-American tension continues to loom large. Russia’s access to detailed information on the United States and its allies may not seem so shocking in this day of data clouds and leaks, but long before we had satellite imagery of any neighborhood at a finger’s reach, the amount the Soviet government knew about your family’s city, street, and even your home would astonish you. Revealing how this was possible, The Red Atlas is the never-before-told story of the most comprehensive mapping endeavor in history and the surprising maps that resulted. From 1950 to 1990, the Soviet Army conducted a global topographic mapping program, creating large-scale maps for much of the world that included a diversity of detail that would have supported a full range of military planning. For big cities like New York, DC, and London to towns like Pontiac, MI and Galveston, TX, the Soviets gathered enough information to create street-level maps.
What they chose to include on these maps can seem obvious like locations of factories and ports, or more surprising, such as building heights, road widths, and bridge capacities. Some of the detail suggests early satellite technology, while other specifics, like detailed depictions of depths and channels around rivers and harbors, could only have been gained by actual Soviet feet on the ground. The Red Atlas includes over 350 extracts from these incredible Cold War maps, exploring their provenance and cartographic techniques as well as what they can tell us about their makers and the Soviet initiatives that were going on all around us. A fantastic historical document of an era that sometimes seems less distant, The Red Atlas offers an uncanny view of the world through the eyes of Soviet strategists and spies.
“The Red Atlas is an amazing book, especially if you’ve ever pondered the power of satellite imagery as a surveillance tool. Military mapping has two modes: mapping one’s own territory so you can better defend it, and mapping an opponent’s territory so you can attack or take control. Focusing on the latter, The Red Atlas shows the impressive and frightening detail of maps of Western Europe and North American prepared by Soviet cartographers during the Cold War. Overhead imaging with satellites and high-resolution cameras provided the basic geographic canvass and ground intelligence–spies, tourists, and maps sold freely by commercial firms and government surveys–filled in local details such as street names, the height and width of railway overpasses, and the load capacity of bridges. Map collector John Davies collaborated with academic cartographer Alex Kent to tell the story of how the USSR systematically mapped the West’s cities, ports, highways, railways, and military targets, and how these maps fell into the hands of map dealers following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their examination of selected examples from Britain and the United States also highlights errors that are revealing in some cases and puzzling in others. The Red Atlas belongs in the collection of every map enthusiast and military historian–carefully researched, well-written, and exquisitely designed and printed, it’s perhaps the only recent map history that can be called a real eye-opener.” –Mark Monmonier, author of How to Lie with Maps
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