107 - Asia From Irkutsk
From a young age, Frank was fascinated by maps and atlases, and the stories they contained. Finding his birthplace on the map in the endpapers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings only increased his interest in the mystery and message of maps.
While pursuing a career in journalism, Frank started a blog called Strange Maps, as a repository for the weird and wonderful cartography he found hidden in books, posing as everyday objects and (of course) floating around the Internet.
"Each map tells a story, but the stories told by your standard atlas for school or reference are limited and literal: they show only the most practical side of the world, its geography and its political divisions. Strange Maps aims to collect and comment on maps that do everything but that - maps that show the world from a different angle".
A remit that wide allows for a steady, varied diet of maps: Frank has been writing about strange maps since 2006, published a book on the subject in 2009 and joined Big Think in 2010. Readers send in new material daily, and he keeps bumping in to cartography that is delightfully obscure, amazingly beautiful, shockingly partisan, and more.
How delicious is this: obviously a sister-map to the one in posting #103 (‘Europe From Moscow’), but this time applying an unusual perspective to the Cold War situation in Asia in the early nineteen fifties. The map, found here at the University of San Diego and originally published in Time Magazine in 1952, visualises the communist threat as it existed at that time.\n
To contemporary anti-communists, it must have seemed like an unstoppable wave poring over the continent, a feeling exacerbated by the perspective of this map. Russia obviously already was communist before the World War, as was Mongolia (a Russian vassal since 1911 and a communist one since 1924).\n
With the victory of Mao Zedong’s Chinese communists, the ‘red’ wave reached parts of the old Chinese Empire that had more or less escaped its grasp. Formerly independent or autonomous areas such as Tibet, Sinkiang and Manchuria are marked separately, but also in the Chinese tint of communist red – underlining the expansionist threat of Chinese communism. Red-shaded areas bordering China but outside of the country itself are North Korea and part of what was to become North Vietnam, clearly stressing China’s influence.\n
The swathe of land separating communist-held territory in Tibet from the Indian Ocean seems precariously thin, thereby threatening to landlock a large part of non-communist Asia – a threat only contained by the height of the Himalaya mountains.\n
As the previous one was centred on Moscow, this map is centred on Irkutsk, a large Soviet city close to China, as if to indicate that this was the ‘nerve centre’ of communist expansion in Asia. I have no idea of how realistic such a notion would have been, but at that time, Soviets and Chinese were still on the same page.\n
Soon afterwards, ideological and other differences caused a rupture between China and the Soviet Union, providing some relief to the other side in the Cold War. But not much: communist expansion in Korea and South-East Asia (and the military reaction to it, at least half successful in Korea but eventually a total failure in Vietnam) dominated world politics for decades to come, and proved extremely costly in lives lost on both sides.
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