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Hot geospatial intelligence from a Cold War: the Soviet military mapping of towns and cities.


During the Cold War, the Military Topographic Directorate of the Soviet Army General Staff conducted a secret topographic mapping program at a high level of detail and coverage around the globe. Although the true extent of the Soviet cartographic enterprise is yet to emerge, the increasing availability of map sheets (typically from commercial vendors within former Soviet republics and satellite states) suggests that this was probably the most comprehensive global topographic mapping project ever undertaken. It is impossible to determine exact coverage without access to original production records or cataloges, however, 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, provide sufficient evidence of its general scope (Watt 2005; Cruickshank 2007, 2010).

Sheet numbering is based on the alphanumeric system adopted by the International Map of the World (IMW), in which the globe is divided into equal-sized zones based upon latitude and longitude. Each zone is further subdivided so that the position of a sheet--at the full range of scales--can be deduced. The maps at each scale were produced to a standard specification and used Cyrillic script, ensuring a high level of consistency across the whole project and around the globe. Users of these maps would have found this standardization particularly helpful, especially as the symbology adopted by different national mapping organizations varies considerably (Kent and Vujakovic 2009). Indeed, the availability of topographic mapping at such a wide range of scales would have been useful in supporting a full range of military activities, from devising regional strategies to reading the "going" (traversability) of terrain for directing land forces.

In addition to the global topographic mapping program mentioned above, a secret cartographic initiative has also come to light--the production of street plans of towns and cities around the world at larger scales, such as 1:25,000, 1:15,000, 1:10,000, and 1:5,000. Examples within Europe include Warsaw, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tirana, Paris, and London (over 90 towns and cities are known to have been mapped in the British Isles alone), together with many others lying further afield, such as New York, Los Angeles, Dakar, and Luanda. A substantial quantity of military plans were recovered from an abandoned Soviet Army depot in Cesis, Latvia by a local map seller, who advertised this newly acquired stock at the 16th International Cartographic Conference held in Koln, Germany, in 1993. Seizing the opportunity, many Western map dealers quickly began to source their own supplies and followed suit. Although their discovery was soon mentioned in relevant cartographic studies (e.g., Collier et al. 1996) and they have since attracted greater focus (e.g., Davies 2005a, 2005b; Watt 2005; Lee 2009), Soviet military plans have received very little attention from the academic community. This is surprising, considering the gulf between their original circumstances of production and their widespread availability today, but even more so in terms of their historical value as a testament to the level of cartographic achievement that was attained during the Cold War.

This paper aims to provide a general introduction to the Soviet military town and city plans that were produced from the end of the Second World War until the early 1990s. By drawing upon examples from around the globe, it attempts to make some common observations regarding their overall appearance and stylistic evolution. Aspects of their content are examined in comparison with contemporary sources in order to address the questions of how and why the plans were made. Finally, the paper explores the possible strategic value of these Soviet military town and city plans given their historical and political context.

Style and content

General characteristics

One uniting characteristic of the Soviet town and city plans, whether they were made during the closing stages of the Second World War or in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, is the high level of original topographic detail they include. It is clear that the Soviet plans are not simply geometric manipulations of locally produced material--they were created afresh, with many examples (e.g., Utrecht, The Netherlands and Oxford, England) exhibiting a contour interval of just 2.5 meters. Annotated enlargements of Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, by comparison, routinely formed part of the German Planheft dossiers compiled during the Second World War--military-geographical assessments of countries or regions, which also included photographs of objects that were regarded as strategically significant.

The Soviet approach was far more radical. Under the heading "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" (General Staff), which usually appears at the top of the plans and the word "CEKPETHO" (secret) in the top-right-hand corner, each plan was produced to a comprehensive style specification. This incorporated a standard set of symbols, typefaces, and colors, using a common projection (Gauss Kruger, divided into zones 3[degrees] wide), ellipsoid (Krassovsky 1940), datum (Pulkovo 1942), and rectangular grid. Toponyms (including street names, both on the map and as a separate alphabetical and grid-indexed list) are given in Cyrillic script. These conventions ensured a level of consistency whatever and wherever the town or city mapped. Strategic objects are identified and highlighted, and also named and arranged alphabetically in a list that can be cross-referenced with the plan (this compilation would have relied upon the availability of the final object list before it was set on the plan). Another regular feature is the "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" (description); a written commentary on the town or city that includes relevant information such as its population, soils and terrain, and significant industries, together with practicalities such as its places of shelter, healthcare facilities, and noting whether local rivers freeze during the winter.

With considerable variation in size and format, the production specification allowed a large degree of flexibility. The makers of the plans therefore determined the best solution for coveting the shape and extent of each town or city at the required scale. Where more than one sheet was necessary to cover the necessary geographical extent, such as the plan of New York which comprises eight sheets, the area within the neatline (i.e., the mapped surface) was designed as a single, coherent whole--each of the sheet's margins could be cut away to form a composite. The title of the plan, where extending to more than one sheet, would therefore appear uninterrupted and centered across the plan. Accompanying the title (usually directly below) is the alphanumeric reference of the corresponding 1:100,000 topographic map sheet.

The overall cartographic style and detailed symbology of the plans seems to have evolved in stages, each offering a more sophisticated representation of the urban landscape, and, in particular, a more detailed classification of strategically important buildings. The earliest Soviet military plans to become available, such as that of Sari, Iran (printed in 1944) (Figure 1), employed fewer colors (i.e., light brown, dark brown, light blue, dark blue, and green), with important buildings represented using a cross-hatch pattern in dark brown overprinted with blue to make them appear more prominently.

The introduction of further printing plates can be seen on the plan of Baden, Switzerland (1950) (Figure 2), which uses red for buildings constructed from stone, yellow for wooden buildings, a light tan to represent the general urban area, light green for vegetation, dark brown for lettering and linework, and light and dark blue for showing hydrology. The method of highlighting important buildings is retained, i.e., overprinting a cross-hatch pattern. By the time the plan of Belfast was produced, in 1964, different shades of brown were in use to distinguish between prominent buildings and neighborhoods (or blocks) that are more or less densely built-up (Figure 3).

By the early 1970s, the range of color plates had increased to ten (i.e., light blue, dark blue, light green, dark green, light yellow, orange, purple, gray, brown, and black), which facilitated an extension of the symbology and allowed three major categories of important building (i.e., military and communications; governmental and administrative; and military-industrial) to be shown (Figure 4). This color scheme is used on most of the Soviet plans that have become available since 1993, i.e., those produced during the 1970s and 1980s, and the scheme remained in use into the 1990s. Together, these methods provided an effective visual summary of the urban character of the town or city and its surroundings, and it was therefore possible, at a glance, to see the number and location of strategic features within the town or city. The black military-industrial objects, such as railway stations and factories, for example, immediately stand out. Typically, the numbering of strategic objects begins with the airport, if present (usually depicted in green), due to the alphabetical listing rather than its having any particular strategic significance.

Compilation and production

The date and factory of production of each plan are provided in a unique code that is embedded within the outer border, usually at the bottom right. As earlier codes were more explicit by prefixing the various elements with abbreviations, it is possible to identify the sheet series, job number, month, year, and factory due to the level of consistency--both geographically and historically (Figure 5a and b).

It is likely that the compilation of material leading to the production of such detailed plans of foreign towns and cities would not necessarily have included a full range of up-to-date sources. Where cartographic source material is indicated, typically, such information comprises the scale and year of the source map, placed in the bottom right-hand corner of the plan. Indigenous topographic mapping was routinely evaluated by the Soviet military (Cruickshank 2008) and would have been undoubtedly used among other types of sources to inform some of the content of the plans, but the successful launch of the first Zenit satellites by the Soviet Union from 1962 (Norris 2008) saw an increased reliance on reconnaissance imagery. Hence, there are fewer references to cartographic sources on the Soviet plans from the 1970s as this topographic mapping satellite program developed.

The compilation of source material probably involved bringing together a fragmented collection of old and new maps, street atlases, trade directories, and, where available, recent imagery. Over the fifty-year period of production of the plans described here, some patterns emerge, as well as evidence of considerable disparity in the currency of the information used. Some Soviet plans, such as the 1975 plan of Manchester, England, depict urban developments which were not yet shown on the latest topographic mapping (suggesting that imagery was used), whilst others, such as the 1972 plan of Leeds, England, fail to provide an up-to-date picture (suggesting that the only source data available were old maps or out-of-date imagery). One particular cartographic source that was used in compiling the Soviet plans of British towns and cities was the OS County Series at six-inches-to-the-mile (1:10,560), published with various revisions between the 1930s and 1950s. These OS maps show an array of spot heights in feet and almost all the Soviet plans include height values in the same locations but converted to meters, to one decimal place. Subsequent British maps omit many of the spot heights or show different values, while metric OS maps show heights as whole numbers.

Street names sometimes provide clues to the data sources that were used. In many cases, street names are missing in areas of new housing or industrial developments, suggesting that their layout was plotted from images before the street names were known. Where streets are named, which was the usual practice, the names appear to have been derived from local street atlases. Local names, however, provided other causes of confusion for the compliers. One problem was distinguishing between toponyms (i.e., place names) and topographic descriptions (i.e., functions), which sometimes resulted in the latter denoting the former, such as "Lorry Park" on the 1989 plan of Cambridge, England. Another issue for the producers of the Soviet plans to overcome was the transliteration of place names into Cyrillic to give an approximate local pronunciation. For example, the plan of Leicester, England is entitled "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" and that of Dijon, France is headed "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]".

The later Soviet plans have extensive, but generally incomplete, details of the ownership and product of factories. These are classified as "objects of military-industrial interest", which are colored black, identified and numbered on the plan, and listed in an accompanying schedule. Two further categories of strategic object are classified as "governmental and administrative" (colored purple) and "military and communications" (colored green). The former includes local and central government and other official premises such as police stations, town halls, and university buildings. The latter includes post offices, airports, and hospitals, as well as barracks, and other military establishments. For all three categories, many of the items are not identified on state topographic maps and the information is likely to have been derived from freely available trade directories and local guidebooks, or even first-hand observations (which is difficult to prove). For example, the construction material, length, width, clearance, and carrying capacity of bridges are sometimes indicated, where known (Figure 6), and it is unlikely that these data could have been gleaned remotely, whether from imagery or indigenous sources.

The inclusion of precise hydrographic data presents something of an enigma. Many rivers, estuaries, ports, and harbors included on the Soviet plans have detailed depiction of depths, channels, and sandbanks. Only in very few cases do these resemble the information given on official charts. One method of acquiring these data would be ship-based survey, but this is unlikely to have been possible in all the estuaries and ports around the world and certainly to a consistently high level of detail.

Strategic value

The time, effort, and resources required to produce each Soviet military plan raises inevitable questions about their intended use, especially at a time when MAD (mutually assured destruction) from nuclear weapons was considered to be a real possibility. Moreover, the resemblance of any town or city to its depiction on the plan after a nuclear strike would have been so negligible as to render such information useless. One alternative military scenario was the Soviet "blitzkrieg" ground invasion of Western Europe, intended to overpower NATO defenses and secure enough ground in enough time to dissuade the United States from using nuclear weapons in fear of Soviet retaliation (MccGuire 1987). If the important objects on the Soviet plans are taken to be strategic targets (for example, the highlighting of military, communications, governmental, administrative, and military-industrial sites), it is possible to see how this information could support a military campaign. Moreover, the combination of a rectangular projection that preserves beatings on the plans with indexed grids would certainly facilitate targeting by artillery. As Psarev (2005, 49) mentions, with regard to Russian military mapping:

"City plans are created for the territories of cities, major rail hubs, naval bases, and other important populated places and their surroundings. They are designed for detailed study of cities and their approaches and for orientation, performance of accurate measurements, and calculations in the organization and conduct of combat [...]."

Enemy military installations, however, are not the main theme of these plans. It is likely that other, perhaps more secret, plans were made showing the locations of military sites (such as missile silos and military communications hubs) that would have been targeted in a counterforce strike against NATO. The omission of tactical military targets supports the view that the Soviet plans could have been intended for civil administration after a successful coup, rather than exclusively for planning a military assault.

As products of a military cartographic tradition, the Soviet plans of towns and cities serve one purpose--the compilation and presentation of the best geospatial intelligence in the clearest way, regardless of their eventual use. To this end, the global extent of their reach and the wealth of detail they represent would have provided support for a variety of operations.


The free availability of Soviet military plans of towns and cities of around the world for the first time in 1993 has provided a special insight into the cartographic proficiency of a former superpower. At the very least, the Soviet plans offer a very different view of a familiar landscape. As topographic inventories, each provides both a palimpsest and a fleeting glimpse of what Soviet occupation could have meant. It is hoped that this paper will stimulate further cartographic research into Soviet military mapping, the true extent of which is yet to emerge.


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Cruickshank, J. L. 2008. "Views from Moscow." Sheetlines 82: 37-49.

Cruickshank, J. L. 2010. "How Big a Map Does It Take to Build Socialism?" Sheetlines 89: 5-12.

Davies, J. 2005a. "Uncle Joe Knew Where You Lived: The Story of Soviet Mapping of Britain (Part I)." Sheetlines 72: 26-38.

Davies, J. 2005b. "Uncle Joe Knew Where You Lived: The Story of Soviet Mapping of Britain (Part II)." Sheetlines 73: 6-20.

Kent, A. J., and P. Vujakovic. 2009. "Stylistic Diversity in European State 1:50,000 Topographic Maps." The Cartographic Journal 46 (3): 179-213.

Lee, K. 2009. "Chile's Strategic Cities: The Unknown Soviet Military Mapping Program of Major Chilean Urban Centers." Revista Cartographica 85:161-180.

MccGuire, M. 1987. Military Objectives in Soviet Foreign Policy. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Norris, P. 2008. Spies in the Sky: Surveillance Satellites in War and Peace. Chichester: Praxis.

Psarev, A. A. 2005. Russian Military Mapping. Translated by P. Gallagher. Minneapolis, MN: East View Cartographic.

Watt, D. 2005. "Soviet Military Mapping." Sheetlines 74: 9-12.

Alexander J. Kent (a) * and John M. Davies (b)

(a) Department of Geographical and Life Sciences, Canterbury Christ Church University, North Holmes Road, Canterbury, Kent, UK; (b) 16 Charteris Road, Woodford Green, London, UK

(Received 18 February 2013; accepted 17 April 2013)

* Corresponding author. Email:

This article was originally published with errors. This version has been corrected. Please see Erraatum (
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Author:Kent, Alexander J.; Davies, John M.
Publication:Cartography and Geographic Information Science
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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