How Stunning Soviet Union Maps Depicted 1979 Malta
The Russians were looking closely
At the height of the Cold War, as the United States and the Soviet Union tangoed for power and influence, some of the most important work of the war effort was relatively boring. In Moscow offices, cartographers employed by the Soviet Military painstakingly mapped every corner of the world. The unprecedented numbers of aircraft, submarines and spies operating across the globe meant that military personnel might need at a moment's notice a map of some remote area…or a tiny archipelago in the Mediterranean sea.
Malta got two treatments: a broad 1:200,000 scale map, where 1 centimetre is equal to 2 kilometres, and a more nuanced 1:100,000 scale, where 1 centimetre corresponds exactly to 1 kilometre. Meant primarily for military aims, the maps emphasise topography and infrastructure, employing a complex 400 character legend, which you can check out in full detail here. Luckily for us, only a small portion of the legend is applicable to Malta.
Let’s ease into the format using a larger scale broad map.
1:200,000 scale Map
The first thing you’ll probably notice is that the place names are in Cyrillic script, so Valletta is Валле́тта, Sliema is transformed into Слима and so on. Cleverly, the size of the font is proportional to the population, so right at a glance someone unfamiliar with the area will be able to see that Birkirkara (Биркиркара) is much larger than Manikata, while Mosta (Моста) is somewhere in between.
The utilitarian aesthetic too is probably striking: the black squares and rectangles of various sizes all across the islands are built up areas. That they’re solid black, as opposed to partially filled indicates that they are “fireproof”, probably due to the limestone construction that’s still prevalent even today, as opposed to wooden structures more popular in Europe. Airports at Ta’Qali, Hal Far and present day Luqa are also marked, as is RAF Kalafrana bay, the former RAF seaplane base which was later buried under the present day freeport.
Anchor symbols mark ports deemed suitable for the Soviet Naval fleet. Interestingly while both Xemxija and Marsaxlokk bays are included as possible ports, Valletta is not, with the solid black trapezium under Валле́тта’s ‘a’ indicating a military base at Fort Ricasoli.
Malta’s roads are also illustrated, with red being an arterial road or a “highway”, while yellow being one that’s “hard to negotiate” – which considering the Soviets used tanks, should probably be concerning.
1:100,000 scale Map
Things get even more spectacular when zooming in: most of the symbology is still the same at this finer scale. The various runway layouts of all those previously mentioned airports is now clearly visible, as are individual blocks of houses. A solid “+” shows a stone church.
The contouring gives you an idea of height, while a number of spot heights in metres above sea level is also given in plain black numerals. Plain blue numerals indicate the depth of the sea. Malta’s handful of forested areas on the outskirts of Rabat are drawn in green.
Interestingly, another green area in what is now Ghadira Nature reserve is depicted as a “vineyard or orchard”, and a number of semi-permanent small rivers that have now all but been built over are displayed.
Gozo also gets the treatment, with more, but smaller, vineyards scattered all over. The submarine cables that linked telephone and electricity lines are also mapped, and you can see the dashed line connecting across the channel to Hondoq in the lower right.
Here are a few more areas zoomed in.
Valletta & Sliema
Valletta and the Grand Harbour get the royal treatment, with the various lights and buoys around getting mapped. The University ring road is visible in Msida, as are the large number of churches in Valletta, Birgu and Bormla. The Marsa horse racetrack and the smaller athletic track are also depicted.
Here you can see part of Luqa airport, the whole of Hal Far airfield and the area surrounding Marsaxlokk bay.
The Soviet Union's gargantuan mapping effort used a combination of satellite and aerial imagery, combined with good old fashioned espionage. Remarkably, 25 years after the union's dissolution, they are still the preferred maps for navigating otherwise sparsely charted parts of Africa and South America.