Cold-War Soviet cartography in our own backyard

The Seattle Times on Saturday, June 2, published an article by staff reporter Erik Lacitis about a “secret, massive program that produced a million maps of cities and places around the world.” The mapping program is fascinating both from a cartographic perspective and a local perspective since Seattle and its environs are among the parts of the United States that were mapped.

At first glance the Soviet maps are reminiscent of many of the USGS topographic maps from the same era, including purple features which on the USGS maps indicated new and revised map items. The Times article ranges from the history of the mapping program, which is detailed in the book, The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World, to a number of curious locations identified on the map in Seattle and Bellevue. Shortly after The Times published the article, a reader wrote in with a solution to one head-scratcher—the apparent identification of a nuclear fuel factory in downtown Bellevue!

The article includes a variety of links and illustrations from the Soviet maps, including a swipe-viewer comparison of Soviet and USGS topo maps of downtown Seattle and the Elliott Bay waterfront (see a static comparison below of a smaller portion of that area). The Red Atlas website includes links for viewing individual maps in a simple pan-and-zoom viewer (and for buying prints of the maps). To view USGS topo maps from the same time period, check out the USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer, a web application that allows the user to pick a location and then view all of the scanned historic USGS topo maps that are available for that location.

USGS-topo-1983

USGS 1:25,000 map, 1983.

Soviet-topo-1980

Soviet 1:25,000 map, 1980.

The map excerpts above show the KCGIS Center’s current backyard as it was before the KCGIS Center, and its current home, King Street Center which opened in 1999 right across the street from the Kingdome’s north parking lot, existed. As you can see, in some ways the Soviet maps are more detailed than comparable USGS topo maps. How accurate they were is a different question. Interestingly, the 1983 USGS map above was produced at a time when the agency, having nearly completed its 1:24,000-scale (1 inch to 2 feet) mapping of the United States and joining in a national trend to switch to the metric system, was in the process of converting to metric-scale mapping,* hence a 1:25,000-scale map instead of the more familiar 1:24,000 scale, but a match for the metric-scale Soviet map.


*Maps for America: Cartographic products of the U.S. Geological Survey and others, U.S. Geological Survey, 1979, p 109

Patrick Jankanish is Senior Cartographer in the King County GIS Center.

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