What Soviet Russia thought of Birmingham in spy maps from the 70s

“The center of Birmingham was reconstructed following the Second World War and is the best part of the city.” “The center is surrounded by the old industrial districts, specialized in production with appropriate titles: “Armory”, “Jewellery”, and so on.”

These aren’t the dry words of some travel writer taking liberties with the name of the Gun Quarter, or a long-lost edit of a Wikipedia article. This is from a profile of the city on a map produced by Soviet Russian spies from the heights of the Cold War in the 70s.

These pieces found their way to map experts John Davies and Alex Kent, who wrote a book on the Soviet Union’s incredible secret project to map the world in extraordinary detail. The Red Atlas looks into how they pulled it off, gathering a wealth of information in a time of distrust and nuclear nervousness.

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The maps, which cover Birmingham and the Black Country point out hundreds of locations of interest in the region. Nearly 200 factories and industrial sites of all kinds are marked on the map – anything from aircraft and automotive engine plants to bicycle workshops and sawmills.

Over 80 post offices got a reference code, along with 28 police stations. Hams Hall Power Station was among the power plants in the list of sites interest, as was Birmingham Airport, the University of Birmingham, New Street Station, and the train and carriage works in Saltley.

See the ‘sites of interest’ below

If not for the painstaking detail, and the pointing out of terrain features and civil and industrial sites, you might mistake this for any other map in Russian. Some of their maps are more detailed than even the publicly available Ordnance Survey maps of the time, pointing out military installation details, prisons and the like that would normally be absent or censored.

The extract below shows the city center and the north and east side of Birmingham. Every major and residential road, rail lines and more are represented – even down to parks like in Ward End on the right, and the grounds of Aston Hall in the upper-mid-left.

An extract of how the Soviet Union saw Birmingham city center from nearly 2000 miles away in the 70’s. Saltley and the now-Network Rail yard are in the middle, the city center and Newtown are on the left hand side, and Perry Barr is the black-and-white section near the top.

Along with the maps were profiles on cities or regions, telling their Soviet readers in-depth info about the places they could be “visiting”. For us, translated from Russian – “The main industrial branches of West Midland are machine building and metal finishing, more than one half of all ventures.”

“Machine building plants produce cars, trucks, also accessories for them, electric generators, electric engines, transformers, tractors, locomotives, engines (diesel, gasoline and steam), and equipment for different types of industry. Military industry is developed: producing small arms, artillery weaponry, air missile techniques, fuselage and plane details, air navigational equipment, et cetera.”

Notes for Birmingham Airport say it “is used by civilian aviation, has 2 take-off airstrip lines with asphalt-concrete cover (the length of main line is 2256 meters), radio and fight technical equipment which permits flights during the day and night in complicated meteorological conditions, appliances, buildings for technical service and plane repair, group plane parking, 3 hangars, service and residential buildings.”

They took an interest in our cultural works, too. “There is a university in Birmingham, a few high technical institutions, large libraries, museums (including Barber Gallery of Fine Arts), and theatres.

“The most famous architectural memorials of Birmingham are: Gothic Church of Saint Martin (St. Martins) (13th Century), City Hall (Townhall) (19th Century), and Saint Chad’s Cathedral (19th Century).”

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These maps and others like them were gathered for the Soviet military, perhaps in the event they ever got into a position to invade the West. This level of detail suggests they were never meant for use in crude nuclear war planning.

These maps were made using stolen or purchased maps from other countries, and complemented with satellite imagery. Spies on the ground would find out the details behind sites of interest – what a particular factory produced, or what a construction site was building, for example.

The Soviet spies didn’t always get their map markings quite right. One famous example lists Her Majesty’s Theater in London as the residence of the Queen and the Royal Family.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 80s and early 90s, officers were ordered to bring all of their classified documents, like these maps, back to Russia so they could remain secret. Through sales and scraps though, more and more maps eventually found their way out of the Soviet military machine, and the true scale of their secret project became known to the world.

Visit The Red Atlas’ website to find out more about the book by John Davies and Alex Kent.

What do you remember about life in Britain during the Cold War? Comment below, or talk to us in our Facebook nostalgia group.

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