South Ferry, Liberty Island, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, and Jersey City on a Soviet-era map dating back to 1982. Image via Wired
With its final days almost 25 years passed (though historians disagree on the exact date), the Cold War-era tension between the United States and the former Soviet Union has passed into faded memory for those who were alive to witness it, and remain completely alien to everyone else. Never before had two superpowers capable of destroying the world with their masses of weapons been so close to pulling the trigger. Students as young as kindergarteners in school were trained to hide under their desks at the hint of attack. Nowadays, we fear lone gunmen instead of nuclear bombs, but the shape of the world during the Cold War was always hard to see, even now.
The Soviet mapmakers who created upwards of 1.1 million maps of the world, sometimes in street-level detail, held a different view. Wired recently published a collection of the found maps dating back to the 1980s. Apart from the unsettling detail with which some of these maps depict civilian areas of New York, Washington, D.C., and many more areas of military interest, they portray world power seeking the Google Maps-level perspective on the entire world almost 30 years early. What they intended to use this information for, one need only guess at.
Detail of Washington, D.C., including a depiction of The Pentagon.
Comparison of a map of Tallinn available to tourists (left) and a far more detailed top secret map (right).
The story of how these incredibly detailed maps came to be is quite muddled. The entire operation, which involved thousands of surveyors placed around the world relaying information and measurements back to cartographers is almost absurd given the scale and detail of these maps. Wired‘s full exposition examines some interesting details, like how the regularly-distributed maps of the Soviet Union were made intentionally vague and some even incorrect to thwart invasion should they end up in the wrong hands, or how some military bases and research facilities in American and British cities did not appear on American and British maps until years after depicted in the Soviet maps.
John Davies, a retired British software developer, has been researching the maps with a close group of colleagues for ten years. He notes to Wired that the Soviet maps of American cities, though rich in detail that would be useful for the Soviets’ ground-based military, also include things like factories, police stations, and transportation hubs. He said of the surprising amount of non-military detail: “If it’s an invasion map, you wouldn’t show the bus stations. It’s a map for when you’re in charge.”
The media has not characterized relations between the United States and Russia as hostile for quite some time, but the maps are perhaps a reminder of how seriously each took the other as a threat. American maps, relying instead on the American military’s air-based strength, were never as detailed, sought information and tactical advantage in the same way. It was a smart move, judging from just how closely the other side was watching.
Next, see an artist’s representation of New York City if it had been invaded by WWII-era Germany. Get in touch with the author @jinwoochong.