DURING THE COLD War, the Soviet military undertook a secret mapping program that’s only recently come to light in the West. Military cartographers created hundreds of thousands of maps and filled them with detailed notes on the terrain and infrastructure of every place on Earth. It was one of the greatest mapping endeavors the world has ever seen.
Soviet maps of Afghanistan indicate the times of year certain mountain passes are free of snow and passable for travel. Maps of China include notes on local vegetation and whether water from wells in a particular area is safe to drink. The Soviets also mapped American cities in remarkable detail, including some military buildings that don’t appear on American-made maps of the same era. These maps include notes on the construction materials and load-bearing capacity of bridges—things that would be near-impossible to know without people on the ground.
Now, I happen to know that the U.S. Air Force did the same thing. A friend of mine was drafted into the service, as a cartographer. Of all my friends, he has probably been to the most countries of anyone! Even you, my hero, Katy!!!
Maps made by U.S. and British military and intelligence agencies during the Cold War tended to focus on specific areas of strategic interest. Soviet maps contain plenty of strategic information too—like the width and condition of roads—but they also contain details that are unusual for military maps, such as the types of houses and businesses in a given area and whether the streets were lined with greenery.
It will be interesting when I ask my buddy about this. Maybe it is still classified?