In Soviet Russia, maps read YOU

Europe from MoscowOne of my favourite websites at the moment is Strange Maps, a blog featuring various unusual and interesting maps and considering how they affect our view of the world. I came across it via a link to its post of a map showing where (and how) evolution is taught in the US (one word: yikes), but it won my heart by printing Spitting Image’s Tory Atlas of the World, which I recall enjoying in my own youth (the reproduction of that map isn’t great, but you’ll get the general idea).

The two maps illustrating this post are a particularly good example of how maps both reflect and shape how we view the world, and the political impact that they can have. They are both taken from 1950s editions of Time magazine, and show the view from the USSR towards, respectively, western Europe and south-east Asia. Click each map to go to the corresponding Strange Maps post, with full-size version of the map.

Asia from IrkutskNotice the way in which, in each map, the USSR’s red colouring appears to leach into its neighbours, vividly illustrating western fears of the spread of communism and the threat to the “uncontaminated” parts of the map. This seems a more accurate depiction of the post-war takeover of eastern Europe by the USSR than it does of the rise of Chinese Communism, which surely cannot be reduced simply to the results of Stalinist expansionism.

(As it happens, even in the case of eastern Europe I think the Soviet takeover, terrible as it was, is explicable more in terms of Russia’s historic strategic aims – namely, having a safe buffer against invasion from the west, and breaking the power of Germany – than in terms of specifically Communist ambition.)

One detail on the Asia map is that Manchuria and Sinkiang appear to be shown as separate territories from (or perhaps within) China itself; as is Tibet, for more obvious reasons. Perhaps someone (CPA???) could enlighten me as to why those territories might have been depicted separately. Looking at the boundary lines, they don’t appear to be shown as international boundaries (compare the border with “outer” Mongolia), so perhaps it was just to make the map clearer for US readers. Or perhaps it just reinforces (in a slightly misleading way) the depiction of a gradual, seemingly-inexorable spread from country to country.

Update: CPA has now provided an explanation for this in the comments. It’s seriously fascinating stuff.

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8 Responses to In Soviet Russia, maps read YOU

  1. CPA says:

    It has to do with the politics of the US-Kuomintang alliance. Since 1860, Russia had long had imperial ambitions of varying intensity in Mongolia, Xinjiang (Sinkiang), Tibet, and Manchuria/Northeast China. From 1870 in Xinjiang, and especially 1901 in Mongolia and Tibet, Chinese policy turned to assimilation, and as a result, the local ruling classes (Dalai Lama and other Buddhsit hierarchs, descendants of Genghis Khan, etc.) generally sought Russian (or British) patronage to become independent of an increasingly assimilationist China.

    When the Russian Revolution happened, revolutionary Russians saw continuing this policy as liberating oppressed peoples (since China was semi-colonial, installing Soviet rule in Mongolia was a blow to imperialism), while conservative Chinese saw this as simply a new, and more effective, version of the old Russian imperial ambitions. Up to 1937, at any rate, the Chinese Communists dutifully supported the idea of (revolutionary = Soviet-sponsored) independence for Tibet, Mongolia, Xinjiang, etc.

    After 1937, Mao Zedong happily adopted Stalin’s new united front, anti-fascist line and began to envisage only local autonomy for China’s border regions.

    But in 1945-49, China was forced by Stalin to recognize (“Outer”) Mongolian independence, and the Chinese Communists in Inner Mongolia did ally with Inner Mongolian nationalists to create an Inner Mongolian autonomous government, in fact controlled by the CCP, but with considerable autonomy for the Mongols. As a result, conservative Chinese again came to see Communism as simply a Muscovite plot for stealing China’s borderlands. US policy makers, allied with the Kuomintang, frequently adopted this line too, as a way to ally with Chinese nationalism, and picture the Chinese Communists as stooges of Moscow’s imperial ambitions.

    That Mao proved to be much better than the Kuomintang at crushing autonomy of the borderlands was a surprise: welcome but expected by Chinese in the PRC, welcome and unexpected by Chinese abroad, unwelcome (but not entirely unexpected) to Moscow and both unwelcome and unexpected to Mongol, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Kazakh nationalists in the borderlands.

  2. John H says:

    Thanks Chris. I had a hunch that there was more going on there than met the eye, but I didn’t realise just how much. Fascinating stuff, and it also fits in with my point about the Soviet takeover of eastern Europe being more about Russian imperialism rather than Communism per se.

  3. CPA says:

    The irony is, revolutionary movements hate above all their own nation’s great power politics and are likewise opposed by conservatives as betrayers of their nation, and yet, when revolutionary movements actually triumph, they usually pursue the country in question’s traditional great power aims with extreme energy, effectiveness, and thoroughness — witness Cromwell’s pursuit of English power elsewhere in the British Isles and overseas, the French Revolution and Napoleon, Soviet Union, etc. Only half in jest, no matter how much the world has trouble dealing with messianic American nationalism now, it’s nothing compared to the world-wide terror a socialist workers’ America would cause.

  4. Tom R says:

    > “the USSR’s red colouring appears to leach into its neighbours, vividly illustrating western fears of the spread of communism and the threat to the “uncontaminated” parts of the map”

    I hesitate to quote or in any way recognise Germaine Greer, but she made the memorable comment that, in her convent school days in Sydney, the nuns would show the schoolgirls maps with a giantic, red-coloured Red China hovering over Australia, implying that the very force of gravity itself would bring Chinese hordes rushing inexorably downwards.

  5. John H says:

    …the nuns would show the schoolgirls maps with a gigantic, red-coloured Red China hovering over Australia…

    And full marks to the nuns for managing to steer clear of imagery with blatant Freudian subtexts. Close one!

  6. Only half in jest, no matter how much the world has trouble dealing with messianic American nationalism now, it’s nothing compared to the world-wide terror a socialist workers’ America would cause.

    Sounds like a Ken MacLeod novel waiting to happen.

  7. Tom R says:

    Hitchens (C not P) wrote something about Tom Paine urging Jefferson to make the nascent US a world imperial power in favour of liberty, equality and democracy.

  8. Sounds like a Ken MacLeod novel waiting to happen.

    Well, I say Ken MacLeod. Kim Newman and Eugene Byrne would also be relevant. Also the late great Mack Reynolds.

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