Alternative Oxfords and the Red Atlas

I attended the Bodleian Library’s fascinating webinar on unconventional maps of Oxford on Tuesday evening, where the star turns were easily the secret Soviet maps of the city from the 1970s.

It’s a fascinating, and not fully understood story. The Soviets produced top class maps of pretty much the entire planet between the 1950s and 1980s, which remained entirely secretly and unknown to the world until the early 1990s. So good are they, that the Bodleian itself still uses some of them for reference, particularly for Turkey and Greece, apparently.

Depicted, a detail from the Red Atlas featuring Dublin city centre, from c. 1980.

No one knows entirely why the Soviets did this, especially when you couldn’t even get a map of Moscow in Moscow until the very late 1980s. I can testify that when I lived in Minsk, there were no maps available. I ended up drawing my own in a notebook just to be able to get around.

The Red Atlas probably weren’t invasion maps, but they definitely were for restricted access. All sorts of fascinating locations are carefully marked up in purple, including the usual suspects like police stations, prisons and military bases, but also places of more curious interest, such as universities.

Chicago published a selection of them a few years ago, primarily of British and American locations, and called ‘The Red Atlas’. As for the Bodleian map librarians, ownership of this is probably useful if you can read a little Russian and don’t mind your maps being about five decades out of date.

It was a little disappointing though to discover that the Bodleian’s map librarians had never heard of the map of Lyra’s Oxford, from the fiction of Philip Pullman. Clearly they aren’t familiar with his work, despite it being probably the most famous and popular of speculative geographies of the city of dreaming spires.

Their other choices of alternative Oxfords included legendary town planner Thomas Sharp‘s vision of an automobile-enabled Oxford of the post-war period, and a civil war era map which may have been deliberately inaccurate in order to throw off enemy parliamentarian forces.

But the best of the rest, secret Soviet maps apart, was the 1883 ‘Drink Map’ of Oxford, produced in a spectacular example of an own goal, by the Temperance Movement. Its reverse featured a lengthy lecture on the dangers of alcohol and the evil magistrates allegedly facilitating excessive drinking in the city, but one gets the strong feeling that, as with other such drink maps of Britain at that time, they were more likely used by thirsty people seeking a nearby locale for some fortifying adult beverages.

Nowadays, such drink maps are basically pub crawls in cartographic form. They even come in formats where one may colour in images of pubs, like a drunken infant, thereby ticking off hostelries which you have deigned to feature with your sozzled presence.