Map symbols

Secret Soviet posters demystify map symbols

During the Cold War, the Soviet Army mapped the entire world. This secret program was one of the most ambitious mapping efforts ever undertaken, and it produced thousands, if not millions, of maps of every part of the planet. He also produced these smart training posters, which show in a very visual way how the symbols used on Soviet military maps corresponded to things in the real world.

The posters offer a glimpse of the remarkable range of symbols the Soviets used to create their maps. There are symbols differentiating between types of power plants, factories and stations, to name a few examples.

The posters, each about 2 feet by 3 feet, were discovered in a card store in Riga, Latvia, by John Davies, a British card enthusiast who has studied Soviet military maps for over a decade. The owner of the map shop had acquired the posters as well as a huge cache of military maps after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The posters appear in a new book, The Red Atlas, by Davies and Alexander Kent, geographer at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Kent thinks the posters were probably used to train cartographers. “They mapped the world using these symbols,” he says. “They created a vocabulary of symbols that would work anywhere.” The posters are a visual guide to this vocabulary, showing each symbol superimposed on a drawing of the real world thing it represents.

The designs are remarkably artistic. On the poster at the top of this article, for example, you can see shadows cast by rocks in the water and almost every stone on the bridges (this is even more evident in the close-up below). There are also details that would have strategic military value. In the detail below, the figures indicate that the lower deck is 121 meters long, 6 meters wide, has a clear height of 5 meters above the water and can carry a load of 15 tons. The beautifully drawn and idealized bridges with details that could be exploited in a military attack create an eerie juxtaposition, Kent says.

Kent and Davies believe that the Soviet mapping program served more than mere military purposes, acting as a pre-digital database of everything the Soviets knew about the world. The maps show that the Soviets were particularly interested in infrastructure such as power grids, manufacturing centers, and transportation networks, and the posters reflect this as well. Specific symbols indicate different types of factories and power plants. The symbols even distinguish between windmills and wind turbines, for example, and differentiate buildings from telephone and telegraph exchanges, radio and television stations.

Although the Soviets created a vocabulary of symbols that could be used to describe the entire world, many of these symbols don’t seem to appear on actual Soviet maps, Kent says. “Their ambition was to map everything,” he says. But in reality, they were limited by the information available, especially for places outside their own borders.

Many thanks to Martin Davis, graduate student of Canterbury Christ Church University, for translating some of the Russian text on the posters.

If you are interested in secret military maps, check out our previous articles on japanese military maps and cards declassified by the CIA.

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