Stalin made many catastrophic decisions. But, argue John Davies and Alexander J. Kent, his decision to invest in a ‘world military-mapping programme’ was not one of them, for the Generalissimo’s immense cartographic project has bequeathed to us ‘an unparalleled legacy of geographic knowledge and geopolitical potential’. It is this legacy of which the authors, in just over 200 pages, attempt to unwrap.


Featuring over 350 extracts from maps made in the USSR between 1950 and 1990, Davies and Kent explore the sources and techniques used to produce ‘the world’s largest mapping endeavour’. Chapter 1 offers brief history of Russian cartography, Chapter 2 – an explanation of the maps’ content and symbology, Chapter 3 – an exploration of the cartographers’ methods, and Chapter 4 – the tale of the maps’ discovery after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each section is relatively short and also liberally interspersed with images, making the book aesthetically pleasing, and avoiding the thick blocks of text associated with the output of university publishing houses. Pages 146 to 204 are arguably the pearl of the whole book, with impressively high quality reproductions of many of the maps covering locations from San Diego to Belgrade.


Red Atlas is ‘dedicated to the thousands of men and women who created the treasure trove of maps described in this book’. This touching tribute characterises the tone of the whole book. While the title brings to mind John Le Carré thrillers and sensationalist ‘good guy / bad guy’ narratives of the Cold War, the authors adopt a markedly admiring tone throughout. Instead of framing the endeavour as a nefarious scheme cooked up to prepare for an attack on the West, they display a refreshing admiration and respect for the Soviet cartographers. These were not just ‘anonymous factory workers’, but individuals with names and skills that often devoted several years of their lives to the project, as is explained in Chapter 2. In today’s atmosphere of a ‘New Cold War’, this humanising touch is all the more significant.


Red Atlas, so the authors tell us on the first page, is ‘for the general reader and anyone interested in the history and political geography of the twentieth century’. A worthy claim – but, unfortunately, one of which the rest of the book falls short. Chapter 2, which covers the difference between the Topos and City Plan series maps, and Chapter 3, which explore the sources used by Soviet cartographers burst at the seams with – at times – excruciatingly minute detail. We are besieged with technical detail from the latitudinal and longitudinal degrees spanned by specific maps to the smallest errors in the depiction of road layout in a map of Burlington, Massachusetts. The lexicon, too, strays into the overly technical, with phrases such as ‘conformal projection’ used with little or no explanation.

On the one hand, this extreme detail is impressive. We are quite clearly in the hands of two people who know their subject inside out, and have not skimped on an inch of their research. On the other hand, it makes the book a rather dry read for anyone but the most fervent cartographic enthusiasts. There are tantalising glimpses of the historical thriller it might have been. ‘This is a story that can only be told by those that were not involved’ is a superb opening line that encapsulates the mystery that still shrouds this immense geographic project. Similarly, the anecdote in Chapter 4 on how a Latvian printing press owner happened upon a treasure trove of Soviet maps seems worthy of a novel in its own right. Alas, these gems play second fiddle to the miasma of detail that makes up the bulk of the book.


One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It is in this light that we must see Red Atlas. While optimistically but misguidedly pitched at the general reader, the true audience – it seems – is the academic and map specialist. For these readers, it is an extraordinary compendium of detail that will certainly prove invaluable for further research in the fields of history and geography. The ‘Boots on the Ground’ section of Chapter 3, for example, which alludes to the possible use by the Soviet authorities of agents to gather information on the countries to be mapped, offers the fascinating beginning of a bread trail for any budding sleuth or researcher. The authors are forthright about this: ‘We readily acknowledge that we “don’t know what we don’t know”’, they write, ‘It is quite likely that many more maps remain undiscovered, and as they emerge […] the story will continue to develop’.

All in all, then, Red Atlas is an exceptional manifestation of a research project that the authors have been working on for the best part of fifteen years. Its faults lie in the pitch and the writing style, not in the research or argument. It is, as the authors state right from the start, a ‘detective story’; a story of which their publication is but the first volume of what is sure to become a series as others use it as a launch pad for their own contributions to the subject. So, will we be seeing Red Atlas on the bestseller shelves of Waterstones or Foyles any time soon? Unlikely. But, do we owe immense admiration to the authors for their Herculean research effort into a ground breaking subject? Undoubtedly.

Red Atlas is published by the University of Chicago Press is available for purchase via the authors’ website for £21.20