Cartography: Soviet Union Edition

 The Soviet Union was well known for falsifying everything from economic figures, to the existence of the gulags, to the events of Chernobyl. But one of the Soviet Unions biggest deceptions was in their cartography. In an effort to deceive their enemies, the USSR created a state of cartography that painted a completely inaccurate face of their country. Known as cartographic propaganda, the Soviet Union was known to produce maps that showed “an elliptical highway around Moscow [is shown] either as a perfect circle or as a square with rounded corners.

The Central Intelligence Agency knew this and accordingly created their own series of internal maps to fill this critical void. It is often said that these maps were more accurate than anything that was available for general consumption in the USSR. CIA geographers stated in 1988 that rivers and railroads depicted in Soviet maps were known to be off by much as six miles. While this would make it seem like Soviet cartographers were wasting their skills by creating deceptive maps, this is actually the opposite.

For military purposes the Soviet Union was a major player in the geographic world. They wanted to have every corner of the Earth mapped in a variety of scales so that would never be in a position where they did not have a reference map. They were so successfully that prior to digital mapping, many of these maps were the most accurate maps in underdeveloped areas of the world. Additionally, a number of different cartographers believe the Soviet cartography is among some of the most graphically ornate and eye pleasing that has ever been created.

It is strange that for a county that is/was so often demonized, that they made a meaningful contribution to the field of cartography.  The juxtaposition of eye pleasing graphics and the accuracy provides and interesting comparison. What is also interesting to note is that this is not an isolated incident. Many countries, including the United States, participated in cartographic propaganda to deceive enemies. Next week we will look at an example of one of these maps.


  1. Kokila Shankar says:

    Wow, this is a really interesting post. I also didn’t know that cartographic propaganda existed and was a widely used military tactic. How were these false maps spread to other countries to deceive them? If the CIA made accurate maps of the Soviet Union, couldn’t other countries have done the same thing, thereby not believing the maps made by the Soviet cartographers? And if other countries used this type of propaganda, did the Soviet Union also make accurate maps of enemy countries, especially since their goal was to map every part of the world?

  2. Patrick Thornton says:

    I had no idea that “cartographic propaganda” was a real thing. was all of the Soviet Union “in on” this plan or did they get the crappy maps too. I can see the clear advantage that planting fake maps in the hands of invaders would have, especially seeing how inhospitable the Russian landscape can be. In modern times, do you believe that this type of deception still occurs? I think it could be very easy to alter a digital map to achieve the same effect.

  3. It’s nice to be getting my weekly dose of cartography again this semester. Though it looks like I should start paying more attention to where my maps come from. This was the first time I have heard of cartographic propaganda and it is a really interesting concept. Did any accurate maps of the Soviet Union exist for its citizens, or were the true maps hidden away for the eyes of military higher-ups and officials only? Are there any “false” maps still being produced today? It seems like the advent of the spy plane and satellite imaging may greatly reduce the impact of cartographic propaganda, though if a falsified map was an army’s only resource in an unfamiliar landscape, cartographic propaganda could certainly be an immensely powerful tool of war or intimidation.


  1. […] que ce pays qui a tellement été diabolisé ait tant apporté à la cartographie » s’amuse ainsi Jack Swab du Penn State Department of Geography. C’est le paradoxe de l’Union soviétique qui, par rivalité avec le bloc de l’Ouest, a su […]

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