Quiz: Soviet City Maps.

Cities quiz from the Graun:

From 1950 to 1990, the Soviet army created incredibly detailed maps of much of the world. Quiz: can you guess the world city from its cold war Soviet spy map?

It was a breeze for me (11/11), since I both know Russian and am obsessed with city maps (I’m constantly asking my wife to print out old maps of Perm or Archangel to accompany my reading), but if you have only one of those qualifications, you may find it an enjoyable challenge. (If you know neither Russian nor city layouts, you may find it an exercise in masochism.)


  1. For Pete’s sake, most of the first few have the city name printed bold as brass over the map.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    11/11, but not a complete breeze. Some were obvious at first glance, but I got so fascinated with the Russian spelling of familiar names that I couldn’t move on. Some were less obvious but it was easy to pick the right one from the set of alternatives. A couple lacked immediately diagnostic features, but I was able to guess correctly based on the shape and orientation of the landscape. And with one of them I had to spell my way through several street names before I concluded.

  3. Trond Engen says:

    My Russian reading skills are on a level that makes me able to overlook the city name if I want to.

  4. SFReader says:

    11/11. San-Francisco was the most difficult to guess. I thought the city was on the Pacific, so the sea should be to the left?

  5. @SFReader: San Francisco is on a peninsula, surrounded by water on all side except the south.

    My knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet is just what I’ve picked up randomly over the years, but I was still able to sound out most of the city names that I couldn’t otherwise recognize. When I was in high school, a friend who had taken four years of Russian thought it was hilarious to have me guess the pronunciation of the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. I knew the Latin alphabet and most of the Greek at that time. (The only Greek letter I probably didn’t know was ξ; my freshman year in college, I recall the curmudgeonly professor Harvey Greenspan being annoyed that nobody in our class knew that letter, and plenty of people didn’t know η either.) So I could guess most of the letters’ rough pronunciation, but there was still lots of room for error. My knowledge of Cyrillic is still at roughly that level.

  6. Interestingly, the map makers decided that “street” and “avenue” are parts of the proper name, which might have been the right call considering the time and expected audience, but it’s still pretty funny.

    Also, the first thing my eye caught for LA was jail.

    I didn’t see the full city names on the maps, but some prominent and well-known districts were there. At least you should know where the Grinnich is and where’s Galata.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    I had to guess between Liverpool and Blackpool. 🙂 Unsurprisingly, it’s Liverpool.

    Interestingly, the map makers decided that “street” and “avenue” are parts of the proper name, which might have been the right call considering the time and expected audience, but it’s still pretty funny.

    Down to transcribing the pronunciations of the letter-name streets in DC!

  8. Yeah, if you’re part of an army of occupation you have to be able to say the names in a way the locals will understand.

  9. True, but you don’t add “Ulitsa” to the name if you’re trying for that.

  10. Trond Engen says:

    I took Manhattan, Copenhagen, Berlin and Washington at first glance. The one that was most difficult to me was Los Angeles. I would have guessed correctly from the alternatives, but I needed Ul. Sentral Avenyu and Bul. Olimpik to be sure. Tokyo was almost Los Angeles class, but I saw it was Asian and decided the castle looked more Japanese than Taiwanese. I picked Istanbul and Edinburgh when I saw the alternatives. Of these, Edinburgh ought to have been first glance, but the section was just a wee bit west for me. Same with Istanbul, really, If they’d given us the mouth of the Golden Horn it would have been easy, San Francisco and Liverpool were the ones I had to look hard at the landscape to figure out, but after deciding I realised that the alternatives were out of the question.

    (Are these really military maps? They look more like general audience maps.)

  11. 10/11, fooled by the last one.

    Amused to find out SFReader isn’t from SF, as I had always assumed.

  12. Los Angeles was tough, until I saw the name of the river.

  13. If you can call it a river.

  14. Back before it was concreted to death, the LA River was pleasant and placid, except in rainy years when it would become a monster and flood large areas. That’s why it was channelized, but they are working on restoring some parts of it.

  15. Christopher Barts says:

    11/11, with an absolute guess for Istanbul (I was stumped, so I picked the city I would be least familiar with), a lucky Google on Edinburgh (they called Edinburgh castle a transliterated version of “The Castle”… really?), and a rather fortunate choice of which street name to Google for Liverpool. Berlin I got instantly because I immediately saw the “Mitte” and, of course, DC was a gimmie to anyone who can read “Potomac” in Cyrillic.

  16. I’m reminded of Aguonų (the genitive of ‘poppies’) Street, Vilnius, that I came across in a book (Dobryi Dom by Mykolas Sluckis, a volume in the Bibloteka pionera):


  17. David Marjanović says:

    Same with Istanbul, really, If they’d given us the mouth of the Golden Horn it would have been easy

    There is a body of water labeled “horn” (рог), so that one was really easy for me…

    Los Angeles was tough, until I saw the name of the river.

    Same for me, and I’ve been there twice…

  18. Washington should have been a gimme even for those with no Russian at all, as long as you noticed the enormous pentagonal building immediately to the south!
    It would be interesting to try the same without placenames; do different countries have different flavours of street plan? winding narrow streets and obvious fortifications for Europe for example…

  19. I think the assumption of the quiz is that the legends won’t help most people. Maybe more like this.

  20. The maps make interesting cartographic choices. I wonder whether this is spy-craft or just arbitrary.

    For example, the San Francisco shipyard area shows many individual buildings, including the sadly neglected L-shaped Building 101. But Illinois Street isn’t labeled.

    This is even more striking in Pacific Heights / Western Addition, where only every other N-S street gets a legend. Which ends up missing both Fillmore and Divisadero. Or, for that matter, Baker: I believe the Consulate was already at Green and Baker by 1980. (Navigable maps on the book’s pages here.)

    Compare a AAA map from the same period, where, of course, all the streets are labeled. But the pier areas are all white.

  21. Lars (not the regular) says:

    As for Istanbul, if you can read something something Atatyurk, it’s really obvious.

  22. Houston Street in NYC got transcribed as Хьюстон. It should have been Хаустон. The Edinburgh castle became замок Те-Касл. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen the definite article rendered like this in Russian.

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    There are some curious minor errors on the Manhattan map. Some have to do with nomenclature for streets that have different names at different latitudes (although maybe that particular one was done by the Soviets so long ago that it preceded the renaming of what had previously been the northern stretch of 4th Ave. as “Park Avenue South”, which wikipedia says happened in 1959?). Others are matters of the actual facts on the ground – hopefully no invading tank column would be proceeding down Lexington Avenue on the assumption that the street ran straight through the middle of Gramercy Park rather than being blocked by it and requiring a slight jog around it if you weren’t willing to blow some stuff up to make the reality conform to the map.

    And then there’s the question of what’s being connoted by showing some east-west streets as wider than others – for example suggesting 22nd St is an unusually physically wide or symbolically important one but 23rd St. isn’t seems Just Plain Wrong – and indeed this is not purely a matter of social convention/perception because 23d St is physically wider and can thus accommodate more tanks-or-other-traffic than 22nd (and the other generic east-west streets in the same general area). 100 feet wide to their 60 feet wide (including sidewalks in both cases, I think), says the internet, which seems like a fact of enough potential military salience that it would be helpful for a map to get it right rather than wrong.

  24. I’m so annoyed that I missed San Francisco as I lived in the Bay Area for the last five years! I actually had it correct, but changed it before checking answers because all of the army references made me think of San Diego (though I don’t know if there is much Army presence in addition to the big naval base). And somehow I had not heard of Potrero Hill until now…

    Also missed Liverpool, but I give myself half credit because I was pretty sure it was either Liverpool or Blackpool (and guessed the latter).

    Anyways, this was a fun puzzle, and it motivated me to start figuring out Cyrillic cursive, so thank you for linking!

  25. My pleasure!

  26. David Marjanović says:

    motivated me to start figuring out Cyrillic cursive

    And once you’ve figured out Russian cursive, you can start to figure out Serbian cursive! ^_^ It’s a bit different even as printed italics.

  27. Crawdad Tom says:

    Since I got nine of 11 and the only Cyrillic I could figure out was for the Potomac River, perhaps familiarity with city maps and having been to some of the cities (and poring over their city maps), as well as the choices offered after each map and some geopolitical knowledge, are the real keys to the quiz. Of the 11 cities, I’ve only been to Los Angeles, London, Istanbul, and San Francisco, but I live in Taipei and have lived in Madrid, which were among the distractors. And what sarah said: thanks.

  28. January First-of-May says:

    10/11, but no googling, and a lot of guesses by process of elimination, and/or by deciding that the names looked German or Japanese or whatever.

    Only got Los Angeles because of the Dodgers stadium. Liverpool was a lucky wild guess. Missed San Francisco, because I also thought the sea didn’t fit (and forgot about the weird shape of the coast in that area… or that San Antonio, which I chose, isn’t quite on the coast at all).

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