History | October 15, 2017 5:00 am

The U.S.S.R. Had a Program That Secretly Mapped the Entire World

A new book, 'Red Atlas,' details the history of the clandestine Soviet military project.

Unbeknownst to the west, the Soviet Union military undertook the greatest mapping endeavors the world has ever seen during the Cold War. According to National Geographic, military cartographers secretly created thousands of maps and filled them with detailed notes about terrain and infrastructure, as specific as building height, of every place on Earth.

The maps were more detailed than just regular maps. For example, the maps of China include notes on local vegetation and whether or not you can drink the water from wells in different areas, reports National Geographic. The maps of America not only include military buildings that are not included on American-made maps of the same era, but also include how much weight different bridges can hold, National Geographic writes.

A new book, The Red Atlas, by John Davies and Alexander Kent, digs into this secret Soviet military project. Davies, according to National Geographicis a British map enthusiast. He has spent over 10 years studying the maps. Meanwhile, Kent is a geographer at Canterbury Christ Church University.

According to National Geographic, it is impossible to know how many people took part in this enterprise, but it was likely thousands. The Soviets seemed “obsessed with infrastructure.” The used every tool available to make the maps, most likely including publicly-available topographic maps made by the U.S. Geological Survey, satellite imagery, and sources on the ground.

Davies and Kent don’t think that the maps were guides for invasions, but more likely just a “helpful resource in the course of taking over the world,” writes National Geographic.

How these maps became available for Western eyes is a little “touchy” according to National Geographic. They have never been formally declassified and they were never actually meant to leave Russia.None of the former military cartographers were willing to talk to Kent and Davies. However, after the Soviet Union broke up in the 1980s, the maps were seen in the catalogs of international map dealers. A lot of them were bought by telecommunications and oil companies, reports National Geographic, or aid groups and scientists.