A military helicopter was on the ground when Russell Guy arrived at the helipad near Tallinn, Estonia, with a briefcase filled with $250,000 in cash. The place made him uncomfortable. It didn’t look like a military base, not exactly, but there were men who looked like soldiers standing around. With guns.
The year was 1989. The Soviet Union was falling apart, and some of its military officers were busy selling off the pieces. By the time Guy arrived at the helipad, most of the goods had already been off-loaded from the chopper and spirited away. The crates he’d come for were all that was left. As he pried the lid off one to inspect the goods, he got a powerful whiff of pine. It was a box inside a box, and the space in between was packed with juniper needles. Guy figured the guys who packed it were used to handling cargo that had to get past drug-sniffing dogs, but it wasn’t drugs he was there for.
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.
The maps were part of one of the most ambitious cartographic enterprises ever undertaken. During the Cold War, the Soviet military mapped the entire world, parts of it down to the level of individual buildings. The Soviet maps of US and European cities have details that aren’t on domestic maps made around the same time, things like the precise width of roads, the load-bearing capacity of bridges, and the types of factories. They’re the kinds of things that would come in handy if you’re planning a tank invasion. Or an occupation. Things that would be virtually impossible to find out without eyes on the ground.
Given the technology of the time, the Soviet maps are incredibly accurate. Even today, the US State Department uses them (among other sources) to place international boundary lines on official government maps.
Guy’s company, Omnimap, was one of the first to import Soviet military maps to the West. But he wasn’t alone. Like the military officials charged with guarding the maps, map dealers around the world saw an opportunity. Maps that were once so secret that an officer who lost one could be sent to prison (or worse) were bought by the ton and resold for a profit to governments, telecommunications companies, and others.
“I’m guessing we bought a million sheets,” Guy says. “Maybe more.”
University libraries at places like Stanford, Oxford, and the University of Texas in Austin have drawers stuffed with Cold War Soviet maps, acquired from Guy and other dealers, but the maps have languished in obscurity. Very few academics have seen them, let alone studied them. Whatever stories they have to tell are hidden in plain sight.
But one unlikely scholar, a retired British software developer named John Davies, has been working to change that. For the past 10 years he’s been investigating the Soviet maps, especially the ones of British and American cities. He’s had some help, from a military map librarian, a retired surgeon, and a young geographer, all of whom discovered the maps independently. They’ve been trying to piece together how they were made and how, exactly, they were intended to be used. The maps are still a taboo topic in Russia today, so it’s impossible to know for sure, but what they’re finding suggests that the Soviet military maps were far more than an invasion plan. Rather, they were a framework for organizing much of what the Soviets knew about the world, almost like a mashup of Google Maps and Wikipedia, built from paper....MORE
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