GeoCarta Has Moved

Dec 1, 2005

Russia Publishes Erroneous Maps To Keep Foreigners Guessing

Years after the fall of the iron curtain, Russia continues to publish erroneous maps for use by foreigners involved in strategic industries. Bruce Morrow, who formerly worked on oil wells along Lake Samotlor detailed one example for the International Herald Tribune:
From the maps the Russians gave Morrow, he could never really know where he was, a misery for him as an oil engineer at a joint venture between BP and Russian investors. The latitude and longitude had been blotted out from his maps, and the grid diverged from true north.
"It was like a game," Morrow said of trying to make sense of the officially doctored maps, holdovers from the Cold War era provided by secretive men who worked in a special department of his company.
Attempting to deceive foreigners with fake maps was a common practice during the days of the Soviet Union. During the cold war, government bureaucrats created false statistics and misleading place names. Today, alterations made to maps used by foreigners include shifting the orientations from true north slightly east and using a grid that does not correspond to larger maps.

Of course, in the internet age, where detailed maps can be accessed with the click of a mouse, it may seem silly to try keep such sites a secret. The Samotlor oil field can be seen on online mapping sites such as Google Earth. If your feeling a little daring, go to 61 degrees 7 minutes north latitude and 76 degrees 45 minutes east longitude. You'll see the lake just north of the City of Nizhnevartovsk.

The secrecy rule over maps is enforced by the Federal Security Service (FSB), a successor to the Soviet KGB. Besides showing Moscow's determination to keep a close reign on Russian oil, some westerners suggest that there are other motivations for Russia's map secrecy rules:
  • They serve as a subtle trade barrier, encouraging foreign companies to seek out Russian partners.
  • They provide jobs for hundreds of cartographers that have the proper security clearance. The cartographers are employed translating between real and fake coordinates.
  • They keep key management jobs occupied by Russians, whom some suggest are more susceptible to pressure from the authorities.
Remarking on the futility of trying to keep such secrets in the internet age, Yevgenia Albats, author of a 1994 book on the KGB, told the Herald-Tribune, "The FSB knows about Google Earth as well as anybody," she said. "This does not have anything to do with national security. It's about control of the cash flow."