History of Cartography

Historical Topographic Maps

4109.2 - Rethinking Cold War Cartography: Destabilising the Ontology of Soviet Military City Plans

Tuesday, July 4
8:50 AM - 9:10 AM
Location: Harding

Throughout the Cold War, the military of the Soviet Union undertook a vast city mapping programme, producing detailed plans of over 2,000 cities in 130 countries. Despite the maps becoming commercially available over 20 years ago, the wealth of multi-scale standardised geospatial data they provide has remained largely untapped. Documentary records produced by the Soviet General Staff indicate that the plans were produced for ‘the execution of measures significant for the peoples’ economy and for defence’ (General Staff, 1978). Given that the coverage of the series extends well beyond the jurisdiction of the USSR and its allies, it has been speculated that these measures were envisaged to aid the spread of Soviet-style communism around the world and to support civil administration in the consequent regimes (Kent and Davies, 2013). Evidently, these administrations were only established in a fraction of the locations mapped in the series, before the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. It is therefore unlikely that the majority of Soviet plans of foreign cities were ever used for their intended purpose, if indeed they were used at all.

Rather than rendering the maps as redundant artefacts, this paper uses a post-representational perspective to argue that the plans can be, and have been, recontextualised in order to fulfil alternative, contemporary functions outside of the former USSR. More specifically, the potential use of the plans’ comprehensive topographic symbology to inform current standardised NATO city mapping – a scenario which would have been unimaginable to the maps’ originators – highlights that the ontology of the maps is not static but processual and dynamic. It is not suggested that this stance fully negates the position of critical cartographers; that the maps are inherently products of their social and political contexts. The city plans of the Soviet General Staff undoubtedly remain historically valuable as a vehicle for investigating the political and cultural discourses and perspectives east of the Iron Curtain throughout much of the 20th century. It is advocated here that these historical and contemporary readings of Soviet cartography can co-exist in different contexts, supported by the notion that maps are ‘always remade every time they are engaged with’ (Kitchin and Dodge, 2007: 335).

The paper begins with a brief overview of the extent and nature of the Soviet military city plan series. Informed by the maps’ technical production manuals, it explores how elements of the processes of their production shed light on the priorities of the cartographers behind the most comprehensive and standardised topographic mapping project ever undertaken. The scope of the series’ symbology is then outlined; unique in that it was designed to incorporate virtually all of the Earth’s urban landscapes and successfully visualise the diverse geographic features around the globe. It is hoped that this theoretical framework will facilitate new applications of Soviet cartography and, in doing so, realise the view that ‘maps are never fully formed and their work is never complete’ (Kitchin, 2014).

Martin Davis

University Instructor
Canterbury Christ Church University

Since being awarded a first class honours degree in Geography by Canterbury Christ Church University (UK) and receiving the Clutton’s Prize for Best Geographical Dissertation (2014), Martin has worked as an Instructor at the University, delivering teaching in Cartography, GIS and European Geography, alongside his on-going PhD research into Soviet military cartography. In 2015, Martin was awarded the British Cartographic Society’s Ian Mumford Award for excellence in original cartographic research. Martin is a member of the British Cartographic Society and is Reviews Editor and Editorial Assistant of The Cartographic Journal (UK).


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Alexander J. Kent

Reader in Cartography and Geographic Information Science
Canterbury Christ Church University

Alex is Reader in Cartography and Geographic Information Science at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is also the current President of the British Cartographic Society, Chair of the ICA Commission on Topographic Mapping, Editor of The Cartographic Journal, and is a committee member of UK Cartography, the Charles Close Society, and the Society of Cartographers. Prior to joining CCCU, Alex was Head of the Cartographic Unit at the University of Southampton and since graduating from Cambridge he has spent 17 years lecturing in the associated fields of cartography, GIS and remote sensing.


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Elri C. Liebenberg

University of South Africa

Elri Liebenberg was Professor and Head of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies of the University of South Africa. She has published widely on the history of cartography of Southern Africa, is the Regional Editor of the Cartographic Journal for Africa and an Assistant-Editor for the ICA International Journal of Cartography . She has been a member of the South African National Committee for the ICA since 1987, was a Vice-President of the ICA from 1999 to 2003, and was Chairperson of the ICA Commission on the History of Cartography from 2007 until 2015.


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4109.2 - Rethinking Cold War Cartography: Destabilising the Ontology of Soviet Military City Plans

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