Thursday, June 24, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russian Map Makers Struggle to Overcome Longstanding Tradition of Geographic Secrecy

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 24 – The Russian government has ended its cartographic monopoly, thus opening the way for dozens of private firms to enter the three billion US dollar annual market in Russian maps, but the longstanding Soviet tradition of secrecy about geography continues to cast a shadow over even these private enterprises.
In an article in “Kommersant-Dengi” this week, Dmitry Chizov describes what he says is the ongoing “geographic discovery of Russia,” one in which for the first time both Russians and foreigners can finally obtain accurate information about specific locations in the Russian Federation (
On April 1, Chizov reports, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that “maps must be free and generally accessible lest the modernization of the economy become simply impossible.” And that directive was institutionalized in May when the Federal Cartographic Service, Rosreestr, launched the first Russian cadastre information site,
The site currently posts online maps on land units in 17 federal subjects – the rest are slated to go up before the end of 2010, Chizov says -- at scales ranging from 1:1,000,000 to 1:25,000, a step that should promote expansion of the Russian cartographic market, which brought in 2.92 billion US dollars in 2008, but only about half that last year because of the crisis.
The “drivers” for this expansion are housing and business construction, government plats, GLONASS systems, natural resources exploration, Internet firms, and so on, Chizov says, and all of them have an interest in accurate maps, something that the continuing influence of Soviet secrecy in this area has played “an evil joke” on contemporary people.
Because the Soviet system classified almost all maps and sometimes issued maps that were incorrect, each ministry and agency tended to produce its own maps, with little reference to what others were doing. Today, Chizov writes, that past has led to many inaccuracies and a serious shortage of maps, especially at the regional level.
“Accurate geographic maps,” the journalist continues, “for a long time were almost the most protected secret of Soviet and then of Russian power.” Anyone who wanted an accurate map, if he wasn’t in the military or the security agencies, was viewed as “the most evil enemy of the government.”
Chizov says that it may be difficult to imagine now, “but still in the mid-1990s, workers in the special services” were upset with efforts by network companies who used GPS navigators.” The special services’ concerns were ultimately ignored, but “obtaining exact topographic data did not become easier.”
At that time, the Federal Cartographic Agency, Roskartografia, “in essence declared itself the only legal owner of all geographic maps of Russia.” That meant in practice that any company was supposed to pay a fee, something that didn’t always happen, despite the threat of court actions against them.
Situated within the transportation ministry, Roskartografia maintained close ties with the military topographic administration of the General Staff, Chizov reports, “and as a result defended the interests of the defense capacity of the country.” That means that the Russian military has a veto on many cartographic questions.
Ivan Nechayev, executive director of Russian Navigation Technology, told the journalist that “cartography was a secret sphere and companies involved in business in border oblasts had to obtain licenses. Until very recently, the creation of maps was the prerogative of the state. Recently, commercial companies have been able to get involved in that.”
“But other than such monsters as Google with its multi-billion dollar budget, no one can allow himself to get involved in cartography” without regard to the attitude of the state. As a result, one of Chizov’s colleagues reported, “relations between the state and cartography even today cannot be called rosy.”
That colleague recalled that not long ago, he took a photograph out of the window of a small plane. And as a result, he “’almost landed in jail. It turned out, in the course of [his] photography session, he had unintentionally photographed a secret site. But the thing was that he himself could not possibly know about that: the object in question was secret!’”

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