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Since Russia Shrank, Making Maps Just Isn't What It Used to Be

Sitting behind an empty desk in his office at the Department of Aerial Geodesics, Pyotr Neberov cuts a lugubrious and disconsolate figure.

"This is from the days when we used to work for the country's defense," he explains nostalgically, handing a visitor a lapel badge as a memento. "We don't do that any more."

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Once, Mr. Neberov and his highly specialized colleagues at the government mapmaking service used to dispatch exploratory teams around the world to measure minute changes in the earth's shape and in its gravitational pull. Their findings were punched into the computer programs that guided the Soviet Union's nuclear missiles.

But money is short, and priorities have shifted in the new Russia. Today Neberov's team is engaged in more mundane work - mapping the outlines of property plots in Moscow and other big cities.

It is not a task that Neberov tackles with much joy. "We have no other work" is as much enthusiasm as he can muster. And clearly, delineating property rights does not demand the level of technological sophistication to which he was accustomed.

But now "land has become an item of commerce," as Neberov points out regretfully, and a job that didn't need doing when all land belonged to the state has become urgent. People and private enterprises want to know what exactly they are buying or renting.

The maps and atlases stored in the Federal Cartographic and Surveying Service Library on the outskirts of Moscow track all the changes that Russia has been through since Czar Peter the Great made the country's first imperial conquests some 300 years ago.

The torn and stained pages of a hand-engraved 1745 map, offering "A General View of the Russian Empire," marks Kiev as the westernmost point, and grows vague south and east of the Volga River. By the time Czar Nicholas II commanded a new atlas in 1914, his empire stretched from Warsaw to the Pacific Ocean, from Finland to the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia.

Today, says Vladimir Filatov, president of Kartografiya, the state company that makes Russia's maps, his designers are busy shrinking national atlases from their Soviet scope to incorporate just the Russian Federation.

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"Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we've had to redo everything," he says. "Take out the Baltic republics and Central Asia, and all the rest" of the former Soviet republics that are now independent.

This has meant more than a lot of extra professional work for Russian cartographers; it has also been personally painful for some of them.

Alexander Drajnyuk, head of the government's mapping service, says that the sudden creation of new national borders "was negative, of course."

Born in Byelorussia when it was part of the Soviet Union, but a Russian citizen after living and working in Moscow most of his adult life, Mr. Drajnyuk laments that "when I visit my motherland now, it is as a foreigner."

Even as Drajnyuk's cartographers work on new maps - digital maps of the capital for the traffic police, maps of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl - his archivists hang on to the old ones.

"We are not throwing any of the old maps of the USSR away," Drajnyuk says.

But he brushes aside any suggestion that they are being kept because they might one day reflect reality again. "It's simply that the older maps get, the more valuable they grow," he says, smiling.

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