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“Topographic maps: the scientific principles of their content” and “Military topography”

  • Last updated: 04 Feb. 2020 14:35

Russian Studies Series 2/20


by Alexander J. Kent 1

“Topographic maps: the scientific principles of their content”
“Military topography”

Review of:

T. V. Vereshchaka, Topograficheskiye karty: Nauchnyye osnovy soderzhaniya, Moscow: MAIK Nauka/Interperiodika, 2002, pp. 319.
V. N. Filatov, Voennaya topografiya, Moscow: Voyennoye Izdatel'stvo, 2010, pp. 520.


Russia’s trajectory of global posturing including military action in Georgia (2008), its annexation of Crimea (2014) and intervention in Syria (2015), is underpinned by a revolution of its mapping technologies and access to accurate geospatial information. As President Vladimir Putin noted when addressing the defence leadership at Sochi on 16 May 2019, access to up-to-the-minute reliable information on the aerospace, meteorological and cartographic situation, as well as on the status and activity of foreign armed forces, should be taken as given. 2

Russia has gained a considerable advantage by inheriting the immense cartographic legacy of the Soviet Union. The most comprehensive global mapping program of the twentieth century, Soviet topographic maps – with more detail than those of any national mapping organization – covered Europe at the scale of 1:50,000, other continents at 1:200,000 or larger, and the world at 1:1,000,000. In addition, over 2,000 foreign towns and cities were secretly mapped in street-level detail using a range of scales from 1:5,000 to 1:25,000. After they became openly available in the West in 1993, Soviet topographic maps found new uses and users, including the US military for conducting operations in Afghanistan in 2001.

The transformation of Russia’s military geospatial capability over the last decade has combined an integrated approach to mapping the Earth’s surface with the implementation of new technologies. Global positioning has been improved by achieving the worldwide coverage of GLONASS satellites and introducing a new global geodetic datum (PZ-90.11), while the digitisation of topographic mapping using new GIS (developed by KB Panorama) has enabled 3D terrain modelling and analysis in the field. This review examines two books that are essential reading: although not new publications, they illustrate the context of these developments and illuminate how they underpin Russia’s capability for global activity.

Topographic Mapping: The Scientific Principles of their Content

“Not one operation, not one battle of our Armed Forces against numerous treacherous enemies could have been managed without accurate topographic maps” said Aleksandr Vasilevsky, Marshal of the Soviet Union, in 1968. 3 This approach remains very much at the heart of Russian thinking. Today, topographic, geodetic and navigational support is provided to the Russian armed forces by the Military Topographic Directorate (MTD) of the General Staff, headed by Major-General Aleksandr Zaliznyuk. Topographic maps, which present a detailed record of the terrain based on precise survey, remain at the top of the list of required documents for Russian Army Groups when planning military operations in local wars and armed conflicts, 4 demonstrating their status and indispensability in combat today. In contrast to Western armies, these maps are only issued to commanding officers.

But topographic maps also play a very important role in supporting a state’s economic and industrial development. The significance of this role is explained in Topographic Mapping: The Scientific Principles of their Content, by Professor Tamara Vasilievna Vereshchaka. Vereshchaka graduated from Moscow State University in 1961, specializing in Geography and Cartography, before gaining valuable field and editorial experience in topographic mapping whilst working for enterprise No.7 of the Chief Administration of Geodesy and Cartography (GUGK) until 1977. She then joined Moscow State University for Geodesy and Cartography (MIIGAiK) as a Senior Lecturer and became Professor and Head of Cartography in 1990, following her doctorate on “Improving the Content of Topographic Maps: Theory and Methods”. Author of over 200 works on mapping, she is an Honoured Geodesist and Laureate of the Government Prize in Education. She is perhaps the leading Russian scholar of modern cartography.

The focus Vereshchaka places on the topographic mapping of Russia has few equals in other countries. Topographic Mapping: The Scientific Principles of their Content traces the development of topographic cartography in Russia, describing the characteristics of foreign topographic maps, and explains theoretical principles for map optimization. The book presents a conceptual model of topographic information organized into a system that includes digital datasets and geographic information systems (GIS). The book also examines the mapping of bodies of water and covers specialized cartography derived from topographic mapping. Ultimately, the volume distils the results of Vereshchaka’s scientific research and practical work in surveying, compiling, updating and editing maps of various scales and types in various parts of Russia, including terrestrial and aerial surveying.

The book is organised into four chapters: “Russian and Foreign Topographic Maps”, “General-Purpose (Basic) Topographic Maps”, “Topographic Maps of Water Bodies” and “Specialized Topographic Maps”.  Each chapter is illustrated with examples of maps, symbols and images, to allow an easy visual comparison between symbologies and landscapes. The first chapter presents a chronological survey of systematic topographic mapping in Russia and outlines the evolution of a cartographic symbology to meet the changing requirements of the state. This symbology was frequently revised and reissued; the Soviet period alone saw more than ten editions (from 1921 through to 1983) (p.11).

The mapping of Russia is characterized by the dynamic expansion of symbology to portray an increasing diversity of features as more of its vast territory was mapped. Mapping of the USSR at the basic scale of 1:100,000 was completed in 1954, after which 1:25,000 became the basic scale (completed in 1988). The initial focus on Russia is followed by an assessment of topographic mapping of the rest of the world. This adopts an environmental perspective, where symbols utilized by various national mapping organizations are classified according to feature type (e.g. hydrology, terrain, vegetation, culture, transport, borders), allowing an easy comparison of how cartographic solutions are applied outside Russia. The second chapter is more theoretical, establishing principles of topographic mapping at different scales and presents a systems approach to the organization of topographic map content. Using satellite imagery, the chapter illustrates how various landforms are symbolized in topographic mapping. The third chapter addresses the problems of mapping the seabed and Russia’s water resources to support their sustainability and contribution to the national economy. The level of attention given to hydrography is noteworthy in a text on topographic mapping and highlights Russia’s integrated approach to gathering data on all types of environment. The final chapter broadens the scope of topographic maps to discuss how their content can be isolated to create specialized maps, e.g. on waterways. The tables in the Appendix describe topographic maps produced by national mapping organizations from around the world, including details such as scale, grid, and coverage.

Throughout the volume, Vereshchaka reiterates the value of topographic mapping in meeting national economic and defence needs. From the outset, she regards the systematic topographic mapping of Russia as “an essential prerequisite for the development of the country’s economy and consolidation of its defence capability” (p.3). Given examples include the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline, which required surveys at 1:100,000 and 1:25,000, and the mapping of Antarctica for the geological and geophysical exploration of mineral resources. Furthermore, Vereshchaka also reiterates that “research into the information content and improvement of maps is vital for cartography, for the earth and social sciences, for the various sectors of the economy and for the country’s defence” (pp.5-6). While it is perhaps surprising that techniques of automated generalisation – relevant to the updating of the vast legacy of Soviet mapping – are not given more detailed treatment, Vereshchaka reveals that the comprehensiveness of Russian topographic symbology and its incorporation of hydrographic information are its defining characteristics. This integrated approach to recording the landscape at this level of detail supports the development of infrastructure and industry, but also supports troops in their assessment of terrain.

Military Topography

If Vereshchaka’s academic appraisal of Russian topographic mapping has highlighted its comprehensive portrayal of terrain, it is the detailed understanding of terrain that has characterized Russian military strategy. Military Topography is the latest edition of a series of substantial textbooks that aims to provide the theoretical basis of interpreting, utilizing and mapping terrain. The volume accordingly bears the approval of the Russian Ministry of Defence as a textbook “for cadets in higher military educational institutions and commanders of motorized rifle units in topographic and geodetic support of troops”. 5 Military topographers are regarded as the “eyes of the Army”, 6 and observers note that the Army is blind without accurate, up-to-date topographic mapping as demonstrated in the first war in Chechnya, from 1994–1996. 7

This 2010 edition is the first to be published since the collapse of the Soviet Union and since the 2008 reform of the Russian Armed Forces. Edited by Lt. Gen. (ret.) Valery Nikolaevich Filatov, it presents a substantial revision since the previous edition of 1986. The new edition includes sections on digital technologies ranging from the navigation of units by GLONASS to the construction of Digital Terrain Models (DTMs) and intervisibility analysis using GIS. It is designed to provide the reader with an appreciation of the tactical elements of terrain and the theoretical basis for using digital technologies in supporting combat operations.

Filatov graduated from the Leningrad Higher Military Topographic Command School in 1972, the V.V. Kuybyshev Military Engineering Academy in 1979 and the Higher Academic Courses of the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces in 1994. He joined the 29th Research Institute of the Ministry of Defence as Senior Researcher and his military career progressed to Head of the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces from 2001 to 2007. Following retirement from the military, he joined OJSC Concern Radio Engineering and Information Systems in April 2008 as Deputy General Designer for Geoinformation Technologies and was appointed Deputy General Director and Head of the Geoinformatics and Radio Navigation Complex in May 2009. He has been awarded several honours and prizes, including that of Honorary Surveyor, a Laureate of the F.N. Krasovsky Prize and Laureate of the Government Prize in the Field of Science and Technology (for the development and creation of new technology). His expertise in the development of cartographic support systems and his position as Head of the Military Topographic Directorate indicate that he is well qualified to edit the latest in the series of Military Topography textbooks.

Filatov begins by reiterating the importance of knowing the tactical properties of terrain, stating that “History knows many examples when, due to ignorance of the area, whole armies were destroyed” and, quoting from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, “whether you live or die depends on your knowledge of the area” (p.5). These general points are supplemented by lessons learned from recent experience:

The experience of the hostilities in the Chechen Republic once again confirmed convincingly the need for solid knowledge and skills of combined-arms platoon and battalion commanders in such matters of military topography as terrain orientation in any conditions, studying and evaluating the tactical properties of the terrain in the combat area, determining the pattern of coordinates for targets for their designation, and working with a map and photos of the area (p.6).

Organized into four sections (Location as an Element of Battle Situation; Topographic Maps – The Main Source of Information About a Location; Local Orientation; and Topographic Preparation), the seventeen chapters cover a wide range of topics, from the rudiments of interpreting the landscape and orientation to the use of satellite navigation equipment and flood damage assessment using GIS.

The first section covers the tactical properties of the terrain, including relief, hydrology, vegetation, soils; how to determine measurements of angle and distance in the field; and the fundamentals of geodesy. Chapter 1.3 (Types of Terrain and their Influence on the Conduct of Hostilities) epitomizes the level of detail in understanding terrain and includes the advice that soils (clay, loamy, loamy sand, and peat) allow the movement of military equipment in dry months but hamper movement during heavy rain, spring and autumn mudflows (p.27). 

The second section focuses on topographic maps and covers projections, distance measurement, symbols, and map coordinates. Chapter 7 includes instructions for building a digital intervisibility matrix and a terrain profile to establish the steepness of slope and therefore the time taken to travel between points. It also explains how many of these calculations can be performed using the GIS software “Integration” (superseded by “Panorama” in 2011) (p.141). Chapter 8 explains the nomenclature of Russian topographic sheets, which is identical to the Soviet system that was based on the alphanumeric system devised for the International Map of the World (IMW) over one hundred years ago. The section concludes with a chapter on aerial photography, which covers the mathematical basis of photogrammetry and includes image interpretation. A potential shortcoming of the book is the lack of imagery in this chapter, since very few examples are given to assist the reader in acquiring interpretation skills. This is surprising, given the pedagogical approach taken by the authors, and it perhaps presents a more serious omission, since mobile topographic units are expected to analyse aerial imagery and from these, create digital terrain models and print accurate topographic maps in the field.

Section three focuses on orientation and navigation, with chapters covering the use of a gyro compass and global navigation satellite systems such as GLONASS and GPS (NAVSTAR), which illustrate Briz-M and Grot receivers. This includes basic principles which aim to ensure that troops can navigate independently of satellite positioning, should this be unavailable during combat. 8 The final section addresses the management and training of troops in military topography and provides a range of exercises for use in both the classroom and the field. These include using topographic data to determine the visibility zones from a prominent building such as a stadium, constructing a terrain profile, and creating physical 3D terrain models. Examples also incorporate the application of GIS to model and predict areas of flooding. Interestingly, Desert Shield and Desert Storm – seen by the Russian military as key moments in the evolution of warfare – are used to explain the benefits of using GIS, where “200 GIS ARCINFO jobs were created, making it possible to map digitally the territory of Iraq (about 450,000 km2) from satellite imagery in 30 hours” (p.380). The Appendix includes a range of useful look-up tables, a selection of conventional symbols, and examples of maps and imagery at a range of scales.

This edition of Military Topography reflects a renewed appreciation of the importance of geospatial information in the battlefield and a significant investment in associated hardware and software following the reforms of 2008. But it also owes much to the intellectual heritage of the late 1970s to mid-1980s, as a realization of Marshal Ogarkov’s vision of conventional warfare driven by information, real-time integration of fire-and-strike systems with intelligence and reconnaissance assets. 9 If the frequency of publication of former editions of Military Topography has reflected the need for standardisation and technical proficiency in mapping Russian territory, new editions may therefore indicate the rate of technological change in Russia’s military topographic hardware. In responding to these changes, a new edition incorporating the implementation of geodetic datum PZ-90.11 can be expected soon.


These books were both published during a transformative phase that have laid the foundations for a new era of Russia’s global posturing. They demonstrate the modernization of academic and military topography training that underpins the whole state’s ability to wage globally integrated operations. They are essential reading for NATO audiences: although there is much discussion of how information lies at the heart of Russian activity, this largely – if not almost exclusively – focuses on propaganda or disinformation, social media and narratives. But an essential element of Russian information is too often overlooked: how Russia maps the world. These two books, by two leaders in their field, provide the foundation for a better understanding of this more technical side of information and what it means for Russian activity.

1 (back) Dr Alexander J. Kent is Reader in Cartography and Geographic Information Science at Canterbury Christ Church University, and Immediate Past President of the British Cartographic Society. He is the co-author of the book The Red Atlas: how the Soviet Union secretly mapped the world (University of Chicago Press, 2017). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Defense College or NATO.

2 (back)   “Meeting with the leadership of the Ministry of Defence and defence industry enterprises” The Kremlin, 16 May 2019

3 (back) Quoted in A.A. Psarev (ed.), Russian military mapping: a guide to using the most comprehensive source of global geospatial intelligence, Minneapolis, East View Cartographic, 2005, p.3.

4 (back) Especially at the scales of 1:50,000, 1:100,000 and 1:200,000. See S. Batyushkin, “Preparation and conduct of military actions in local wars and armed conflicts”, Moscow, KnoRus, 2017, pp.91-92.

5 (back) An English translation of an earlier, abridged, volume was published by the US company East View Cartographic in 2005.

6 (back) A. Gnatenko, “‘Eyes’ and the navigator of the Army: no serious operation can be done without them”, Zvezda, 3 November 2017

7 (back) By the beginning of the Chechen war in 1994, the 1:50,000 topographic maps of Chechnya had not been updated since the mid-1980s and the latest 1:5,000 city plan of Grozny was produced in 1979. S Denisentsev, “Two problems of military topography – personnel and corruption”, Voenno-promyshlenny kourier, 17 April 2012,

8 (back) For example, in the case of jamming or deliberate alteration of satellite positioning signals. See N. Aliyev, “Russia’s Military Capabilities in the Arctic”, Diplomaatia, 190/191, June 2017,

9 (back) For more on this, see M. Kofman, “The Ogarkov reforms: the Soviet inheritance behind Russia’s military transformation”, Changing Character of War Centre Russia Brief No.5, June 2019, pp.10-12,

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