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.