Geographic Atlas

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Atlas, Geographic


a systematic collection of geographical maps executed in accordance with a general program as a whole work. The collection of geographical maps made by the ancient Greek scholar Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus, second century) is considered the ancestor of modern geographic atlases.

Geographic atlases were widespread in the late 15th century, after the great geographic discoveries expanded people’s notions of the earth, and colonial seizures, flourishing trade, and navigation produced an enormous demand for geographical maps. The name “atlas” was used for the first time in 1595 for the collection of geographical maps by the cartographer Mercator; it honors Atlas, the mythical king of Libya who, according to legend, prepared the first celestial globe. The term was universally accepted.

The first special-purpose atlases were published at the end of the 16th century. Notable among these was the two-volume collection of navigational sea maps by L. Waghenaer (1584–85). In the 17th century, the preparation of atlases developed for the most part in Holland. Some atlases grew into multivolume publications (the Blaeu atlas in 12 large-format volumes). In 1701, S. Remezov compiled the first Russian geographic atlas, the Drawing Book of Siberia. During the 18th century, work on atlases was prominent in the activity of the Paris, St. Petersburg, and Berlin academies of sciences. Thematic atlases appeared in the 19th century.

V. I. Lenin’s letters on the preparation of the first Soviet geographic atlases (written in 1920–21; see Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 51, pp. 253, 267; vol. 52, pp. 163–65, 234–35, 291; vol. 53, pp. 12, 126–27, 167, 182, 192; vol. 54, p. 123) were of great methodological importance for the development and perfection of geographic atlases. The Great Soviet Atlas of the World (1937–40), a comprehensive atlas of physical, economic, and political geography, marked the start of the new, contemporary stage in the development of the geographic atlas. It was based on the following principles: completeness and integrity of contents; many-sided characterization of phenomena, with demonstrations of their connections, interdependence, and contradictions; the transmission of phenomena in their historical development; and the inclusion of maps shedding light on phenomena connected with the activity of imperialist monopolies and other processes—a direct outgrowth of the instructions contained in V. I. Lenin’s letters.

Specific features of contemporary geographic atlases are the internal unity, coordination, and complementary nature of the maps. Important factors in achieving these features are comparable projections, scales, legends, indexes, and methods of representation; a single standardization system; general principles of design; confining the contents to a particular date (or dates); and an expedient distribution of maps.

Geographic atlases are very diverse. They are differentiated by their territorial scope, content, or purpose. Atlases may cover the world, individual countries, or regions. Their content may include general geographic maps or specialized thematic maps in geology, climate, or agriculture; all-around atlases include maps of a number of interrelated phenomena—such as the climate and oceanography of the world oceans—or give a unified, multifaceted characterization of the natural features, population, economy, and political administrative structure of a given territory. Atlases, according to their purpose, may be for scientific reference, regional studies, or school, tourist, or road use. Geographic atlases also vary in size from large multivolume desk atlases to “Lilliputian” pocket atlases. For a long while, geographic atlases were bound in the form of albums, but in the 1930’s they began to appear in collapsible bindings, and later, also in cases with unstitched sheets. Large geographic atlases are frequently published serially. They may even be published in individual sheets; this simplifies the distribution of the atlas and the use of large-format maps but makes storage more difficult and, in addition, may impair the atlas’s unity if the maps were compiled at different dates. Many atlases include explanatory texts, tables, and statistical reference information. Atlases are accompanied by indexes of geographical names to make it easier to find a subject. Geographic atlases, which contain collections of maps of particular functions, themes, and territorial scope, make it easier to use maps in research or practical work and to obtain different sorts of geographical information.

Among world atlases, the basic Soviet publications are particularly valuable. The large reference general geographic Atlas of the World (1954; 2nd ed., 1967) is a detailed representation of the waters and terrain of the earth, political administrative divisions, populated points, and communication routes of the USSR and foreign countries (format 50 x 31.5 cm; about 200,000 geographical names in the index; two parallel editions in Russian and English).

The Physical Geographic Atlas of the World (1964; 298 pages of maps and text; format 50 x 32 cm) has three groups of maps (the world, the continents, and the USSR) representing natural phenomena—terrain, geological structure, tectonics, minerals, Quaternary deposits, geomorphology, soils, climatic conditions, flora, and fauna—as well as physical geographic regions, particularly detailed with respect to the USSR.

The four-volume, multipurpose Maritime Atlas (format 51 x 75 cm unfolded; vol. 1, Navigational Geographic, 1950; vol. 2, Physical Geographic, 1953; vol. 3, parts 1–2, Military Historical, 1958–63) is an excellent guide to the geography of the oceans and seas (somewhat obsolete because of the rapid study of the world oceans) and to military history.

The Atlas of the Peoples of the World (1964, 112 pages, format 33.5 x 24 cm) shows the ethnic composition (on the basis of linguistic criteria) of the population of the world (1,600 peoples are distinguished) and density of settlement. It also characterizes (in a textual supplement) the numbers and dispersal of the population, its natural movement, migrations, racial and ethnic make-up, languages, and religions.

The Atlas of the History of Geographic Discoveries and Exploration (1959) indicates the course of geographic discoveries, the study and mastery of the earth, and the development of geographical maps.

The world atlases are supplemented by the comprehensive Soviet Atlas of the Antarctic (vol. I, 1966), which contains a many-sided and detailed characterization of the natural features of Antarctica. It contains the comprehensive results of decades of Soviet investigation and materials of other countries which participated in the work of the International Geophysical Year (1957–58).

Among foreign world atlases, the Oxford Economic Atlas of the World (3rd ed., 1965) and the Oxford regional economic atlases based on it (including the USSR and Eastern Europe, 1956; the Middle East and North Africa, 1960; and Africa, 1967) are of interest. They contain maps for different branches of agriculture (showing the output of different agricultural products) and industry (centers or regions of production are indicated).

National atlases of individual countries are particularly useful for in-depth detailed studies. Usually they contain multifaceted characterizations of the natural features, population, economy, and culture of the country; they are compiled by state and public institutions as works of national value and prestige.

Many countries have published (or are publishing in installments) their own atlases. In Europe, they are Czechoslovakia (1935 and 1966), Italy (1940), Belgium (1949), Denmark (1949), Poland (1953–56, incomplete), France (1950–59), Sweden (1953), Finland (1960), Austria (1961), Great Britain (1963), the Netherlands (1964), Spain (1965), Switzerland (1965), and Hungary (1967); in Asia, India (1957, preliminary edition), Israel (1956–64), and Turkey (1961); in Africa, Egypt (1928), Ghana (1949), Morocco (1955), Tanganyika (now Tanzania, 1956), Cameroon (issue 1, 1960), Rhodesia (1960, incomplete), Kenya (1959, 1962), and Uganda (1962); in America, Canada (1957) and Brazil (1966); and the Commonwealth of Australia (1951–60; 2nd ed., 1962).

In the USSR, comprehensive atlases of individual Union republics may be considered national atlases: Byelorussia (1958), Armenia (1961), the Ukraine and Moldavia (1962), Azerbaijan (1963), Georgia (1964), and Tadzhikistan (1968).

Many countries also publish branch thematic atlases, devoted to particular regions or socioeconomic phenomena, for their territories. Most common are climatic atlases, agricultural atlases, and especially road (automobile) atlases. Among Soviet publications, the most important are the large scientific reference Climatic Atlas of the USSR (vols. 1–2, 1960–63), the Atlas of Agriculture of the USSR (1960), and the Atlas of the Development of the Economy and Culture of the USSR (1967), which sums up the achievements of 50 years of development of the Soviet state.

In the USSR, regional atlases—that is, atlases of individual republics, krais, and oblasts—have attained great scientific, practical, and educational value. These include scientific reference atlases containing (like national atlases) summaries of contemporary knowledge on a geographical region—such as the atlases of the Komi ASSR (1964); Irkutsk (1962), Kustanai (1963), and Sakhalin oblasts (1967); and Transbaikalie (1967). In addition, reference atlases are published for institutions, Party and Soviet workers—such as atlases of Tselinnyi Krai (1964) and Kiev (1962) and Leningrad (1967) oblasts. Small comprehensive atlases are intended for schools, regional studies, and everyone interested in the natural features and life of his region; these include atlases of the Dagestan ASSR (1964) and a number of oblasts—Tambov (1960 and 1966), Kalinin (1964), Moscow (1964), Smolensk (1964), Yaroslavl’ (1964), Vologda (1965), Riazan’ (1965), Volgograd (1967), Voronezh (1968), Astrakhan (1968), Kirov (1968), Kursk (1968), and Pskov (1969).


Salishchev, K. A. “Geograficheskie atlasy.” In the collection Itogi nauki: Kartografiia, issues 1–3. Moscow, 1964–68.
Salishchev, K. A. Kartografiia. Moscow, 1966.
50 let sovetskoi geodezii i kartografii. Moscow, 1967. Pages 268–78, 292–309, 328–57.
Arnberger, E. Handbuch der thematischen Kartographia. Vienna, 1966.
Witt, W. Thematische Kartographie: Methoden und Probleme, Tendenzen und Aufgaben. Hannover, 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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