Category Archives: Soviet Union / Russia


The Teberda Nature Reserve is one of the most visited reserves in all of Russia, which is pretty impressive considering how far south it is, down on the Georgian border. Located on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains it’s a suitable hilly environment, as can be seen on this wonderful tourist map of the area.

Showing a hilly region pictorially is a common way of drawing maps as it highlights the relief in a more immediate way than a ‘birds-eye view’ (more blogs on relief and pictorial mapping here  here, and here.)

The map is produced by the cartographic division of the Soviet Union, the Glavnoe Upravlenie Geodezii i Kartografii (GUGK). You’d imagine something state run in a Soviet society to be an unimaginative organization producing efficient but dull maps. With the GUGK this couldn’t be further from the truth, their use of bold colouring and uniform text styles make their maps instantly recognizably while at the same time both informative and aesthetically pleasing, and the Teberda map is a case in point. The map has been made with south at the top, this has enabled the cartographer to show off the region and hills to its best advantage, a decision no doubt influenced by the way the hills, especially those to the west and north of the valley floor, all seem to come towards the viewer, while at the same time giving a clear view of the main north-south road system between the two main resorts (Teberda at the bottom and Dombay towards the top right). The soft pastel colours and clever use of occasional shading give a sense of altitude and also, in the higher points, a hint of snow.

On the reverse of the map is text about the region and a panorama of the higher mountains found at the top right of the main map. There’s also a lovely cover, highlighting the mountainous landscape along with the beauty on show.

Теберда – Домбай (Teberda – Dombay), 1963. C40:9 (129)

Юні друзі!

Young friends! This illustrated atlas of the Kiev region of Ukraine is a wonderful mix of both thematic and topographic maps and guides for young cartographers and naturalists. As the translated introduction says ‘This atlas is for those of you who are interested in geography and history, love nature. Explore your homeland in local history hikes and excursions’. The front cover has one of our young outdoor explorers striding out, his rucksack the outline of the Kiev Oblast.

Each double spread has a map or maps on the left with an illustration on the right of children doing something linked. So for instance where there is a thematic map on fauna, including diagrams for different bird boxes and animal prints, opposite is a picture of our naturalist heroes bird-spotting (Практичні поради юним біологам, or ‘Practical advice for young biologists).

There are pages on weather and climate, flora and minerals, along with topographic maps and town plans. The atlas is published by the Main Department of Geodesy, Cartography and Cadastre under the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine in 1997.

The atlas also includes illustrations and text on surveying techniques and, shown here, orienteering. Text above the star chart in the top corner shows how you can find north by looking for the Big and Little Dipper in the sky, while notes on the ground explain how studying the landscape can help find direction (мох укривае піеічний біх дерее і каміння, or ‘moss covers the north sides of trees’, for example). And then, finally, the healthy benefits of being a ‘young tourist’. 

Atlas yunoho turysta-krayeznavtsya, Kyyivsʹkoyi oblasti, 1997. C410 c. 3

дорожное путешествие!

This beautiful map, published in 1965, shows that it’s not just the U.S. that does lovely road maps. Over three strips in a small atlas the road from Moscow to Simferopol via Kursk and Kharkiv (in Russian Kharkov) is shown in pictorial form.

It is the perfect map for a road trip. Starting at Moscow, with the white Grand Kremlin Palace visible behind the trees, going south following what is now the E105, part of the International E-Road network which starts in the north of Norway and finishes at Yalta, the map (and road) finishes in Simferopol, capital of what was at the time of the map the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Next to the map is text giving tourist information along the way. Throughout the map and amongst the text are small pictures of life on the road, camping

or, just in case you were having too much fun and needed a reminder of Soviet achievement, tanks on a War memorial

The map is part of a series, the Bodleian also has a version going from Moscow to the Trans-Carparthian region of Ukraine. This follows the same design as our featured map (including the lovely picture of the crane shown here) but does include a warning to the perils of the road.

As the introduction says, ‘Traveling by car from Moscow to Simferopol enjoys well-deserved popularity. The route of travel passes along a well-equipped highway, suitable for traffic at any time of the year’. Time for a holiday, mid-60s Soviet style.

If you fancied something a bit more sedate here’s a page from a travel guide to the Oka River, which flows south of Moscow.  All three maps are published by the Main Directorate of Geodesy and Cartography of the State Geological Committee of the USSR.

More on U.S. road maps here

Moskva Khar’kov Simferopol‘. 1965, Glavnoe Upravlenie Geodezii i Kartografii Gosudarstvennogo Geologicheskogo Komiteta SSSR. C40:6 d.3

Moskva – Kiyev – Zakarpat’ye, 1964 Glavnoe Upravlenie Geodezii i Kartografii Gosudarstvennogo Geologicheskogo Komiteta SSSR. C40:6 d.4

По Оке (On the Oka), 1964. Glavnoe Upravlenie Geodezii i Kartografii Gosudarstvennogo Geologicheskogo Komiteta SSSR. C40:6 d.5

Mapping radiation

On the 26th April 1986 technicians at the Chernobyl Power Plant in the Ukrainian SSR turned off the power to the number 4 reactor, hoping to test back-up generators used to keep the cooling waters circulating in case of a power outage. During the test the power-levels dropped to unexpected and dangerous levels. Following instructions that didn’t allow for such a possibility meant that the test proceeded, leading to a chain reaction releasing a huge amount of energy which immediately vaporized the cooling water, caused a devastating steam explosion and then the escape of a large radiation cloud. Wind conditions and proximity to the site meant that most of this radiation fell on the Byelorussian SSR.

This map, made post-independence in 1992, shows the density of pollution caused by Caesium-137 at different levels of contamination (a radioactive isotype that reacts with water, which as a consequence makes it easy to move around the body. It is one of the two most prominent isotypes released after the accident, and will continue to be a major health hazard in the area for the next two hundred years). The strong use of colours, more reminiscent of coloured-layering, is here used to show dramatically the area of contamination. There is also an inset of the area nearest the nuclear site showing strontium and plutonium radiation (Chernobyl is at the bottom centre of the map, Черновыль). What the map doesn’t show, of course, is the human cost to this tragedy. Only the title, ‘…until January 1992’, hints at a lethal problem still in place 6 years after the event. An updated version from 1993 manages to convey this cost though. Text in a number of languages states ‘…a catastrophe broke out – the major break-down of the power unit at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. By its scale, complicity and long-term consequences it is the most severe catastrophe throughout the entire World history of atomic energy use…after the Chernobyl accident Belarus has become the zone of of the ecological disaster‘.  The text is in a number of languages; Russian, English, French, German and Polish, and when you carry on reading you realise why. As well as a map to show the spread of radiation following the accident the map is also a plea for international aid, ‘But the extent of the consequences of the catastrophe of the Chernobyl Power Station is so enormous that, it is regrettably, impossible for Belarus to liquidate them alone. The Republic badly needs medicines…The Byelorussian people, guiltless victims of the severe catastrophe, need the help of the international community.’

This extract comes from the back of the 1993 map, which includes the appeal for international aid. The three maps show the spread of the contaminated cloud between the April 27 and May 1st.

Maps have played a crucial roll in showing the aftermath of the Chernobyl incident. From tracking the contaminated cloud spreading across Eastern Europe to the more long-term mapping of contaminated lands maps have been the most useful medium to show the immediate and long-term effects of the disaster.

The Bodleian holds maps from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Office for Official Publications of European Communities and the Hungarian Academy Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences as well as commercial publishers on Chernobyl and there are a number of interesting websites on the disaster, including Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Map – Chernobyl 35 years laterNew mapping of radioactive fallout in Western Europe | EU Science Hub ( and  ESA – Mapping Chernobyl fires from space

Карtа Радиационной Обстановки на территории Республики по на Январь 1992 г (Map of the radiation situation on the Territory of the Republic until January 1992) 1992 C403 (101). The 1993 map, Republic of Belarus. Review – topographic map with the data on radiation contamination is at C403 (104). Both maps are at 1:1,000,000


How to make a map Soviet style

On the reverse of a map of Minsk from 1991 there are some interesting and unusual sections. As well as including instructions on measuring distances there are also examples of the same area at different scales (1:1,000,000 going down to 1:10,000 and centring on the village of Borovsty). Shown here are the 1:1,000,000, 1:500,000 and 1;200,000 scale maps as well as two pictures about orientation


Map reading instructions and examples of different scales aren’t uncommon features, what makes this particular map stand out is the little diagram showing the process of making a map, from planning (ПроеКт) through surveying (aerial as well as ground-work) to drawing


and production and finishing with sales. Can the whole exercise be included as proof that the Soviet system still worked despite the Union breaking apart?, the Byelorussian SSR itself declared independence the same year the map was made, becoming Belarus.

The end result of all this work is the main map, made by the Soviet Cartographic Department, the Glavnoe upravlenie geodezii i kartografii, more commonly known as the GUGK (Main Directorate of Geodesy and Cartography). The use of oranges and greens here is a common feature of Soviet maps, immediately recognizable as a product of the GUGK.


Mинск и окрестности (Minsk and surroundings) 1991. C40:12 (40)


St Petersburg in colour

This large, beautiful map of St Petersburg was recently donated to the Bodleian Map Room. Measuring just over a metre square, it shows the city in great detail. Every building is marked and the layouts of parks and gardens around the city are shown. The fortress on Zayachy Island is shown in detail (below). The water depths in the Neva river and estuary are included. The title makes reference to some of the earlier plans on which the map is partly based, beginning with that of Fedor Shubert in 1828; it was updated from surveys in the 1850s and 1860s. It was published in St Petersburg in 1868.

The reverse of the map carries a handwritten note, “Petrograd”, which would date its acquisition by a previous owner to some time in the ten years from 1914 to 1924. Previously the city had been known as St Petersburg, since its founding by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 (on the site of an earlier Swedish fort); he made it the capital of Russia, which it remained until 1917. In 1924, shortly after the death of Bolshevik leader Lenin, it was renamed Leningrad in his honour. In 1991 the name reverted to St Petersburg.

The map is delicately coloured in red, green, blue and black. At first glance it appears to be hand coloured as the colouring is so smooth, but closer examination suggests that it was lithographed; very slight offsetting can be seen in places (where the green plate does not exactly line up with the coastline on some of the islands, for example, as can be seen in the detail above).  Colour printing of maps took off in the twentieth century; this is an unusually fine early example.

A final thought: This blog post replaces our Christmas blog post (below) as the 12 days of Christmas are now over in the UK and much of the western world. However, the Christmas season is just beginning in the Russian Orthodox Church, so we would like to wish everyone celebrating a very Happy Christmas!

Plan S. Peterburga : sostavlen na osnovanīi plana Shuberta 1828 g., posli͡edneĭ rekognost͡sirovki Voenno topograficheskago depo 1858 g., gidrograficheskikh kart Nevy i ei͡a ustʹi͡a izdanīi͡a Gidrograficheskago departamenta Morskago ministerstva 1864 g. i rekognost͡sirovok proizvedennykh 1867 i 1868 godakh redaktorom T͡Sentralʹnago statistichesk: komiteta M. Ī. Musnit͡skim / ispolnen v Kartograficheskom zavedenīi A. Ilʹina. S. Peterburg : Kartograficheskoe zav. A. Ilʹina, 1868. C400:50 St Petersburg (24)

Soviet flags and emblems

Published in Moscow in 1987 by the Main Directorate of Geodesy and Cartography of the Council of Ministers of the USSR this atlas of the USSR includes the usual topographic and

thematic maps you’d expect, including this physical map of the USSR.

The treats inside though are the pages Immediately after this physical map. Over the next 17 pages, following an organizational chart showing how all the states are joined to the Soviet

system with the flag and emblem of the  Soviet Union there follows flags and emblems for, amongst others, Belorussia and the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic

and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic.

 The flag and emblem for Latvia features the sea, befitting for a country that has some of the busiest sea ports onto the Baltic and with an important fishing industry

 while the colourful flag and emblem for Kirgiz Soviet Socialist Republic (Kyrgyzstan) shows the mountainous nature of a country where 80% of the land is part of a mountain chain.

The similarity of the flags and emblems shows an obvious central party influence. All feature the Hammer and Sickle, symbol of solidarity between the agricultural and the industrial worker as well as the Red Star, which for the Soviets was a symbol of the Red Army.

Atlas SSSR (атлас ссср), 1987. C40 e.4