Staunton, January 4 – Americans, it has sometimes been said, are prisoners of the Mercator projection because that widely-used map, which shows the US in the middle of the world protected by two large blue bodies of water, reinforces their views about the special standing of their country and its relations to the rest of the world.
But Russians are equally prisoners of the maps they use, according to Konstantin Ranks in a Slon.ru article the portal has reposted from last summer -- although the implications of their “incarceration” are different, reinforcing their “illusion” about the size of their country and their belief that others want to seize part of their territory (slon.ru/world/karty_pretknoveniya_gde_nakhoditsya_rossiya-1119927.xhtml).
Ranks, a Latvian who has worked in Russian media in Russia and most recently in northern Europe, says that his reflections on this point were prompted by the decision of West Europeans not to come to a Finnish auto festival because it was “right next to the Donbas, and there a war is going on.”
For East Europeans, this sounds absurd because the distance from Pori to Donetsk is roughly the same as from Donetsk to Venice, something that anyone who takes the time to measure it will find out but also something that is concealed rather than emphasized by the maps many use.
For West Europeans, Ranks says, “our side of Europe literally is combined into a single whole. This is completely natural: for a Russian living in Moscow, it appears that Chita and Vladivostok are right next to each other even though in fact there are almost 3000 kilometers between them,” about the distance from Karelia to the Caucasus.
A major source for these “geographic illusions,” he continues, are the maps people use, maps which “create in our consciousness a not always adequate image about the surrounding world, about our place in it, and about the possibilities which this very place offers us.”
The earth is a sphere, and when the things on a sphere are displayed on a flat map, distortions are inevitable. Perhaps the greatest example of these because of its use around the world is the Mercator projection, which shows countries far from the equator to be far larger than they are relative to those near the equator which are shown relatively smaller than they are.
Thus, he continues, on a Mercator projection map, Greenland is shown larger than Latin America or Australia, even though both are vastly larger than the frozen island. And the map shows Russia vastly larger than Latin America even though the continent is “almost a million square kilometers larger than the area of Russia.”
Google has come up with an interactive game called “Guess Which Country,” Ranks says. It involves moving a country from one place to another on the Mercator map and then seeing how this changes its apparent size. Finland moved to the equator is half the size of Nigeria, and Ukraine is “no larger than Ecuador,” while transposed on Europe, “Australia covers it from Portugal to the Caucasus.”
Given these distortions, many have tried to come up with alternative maps, but none is entirely satisfactory, although one offered by Arno Peters in 1974 and welcomed by many countries corrects most of them by introducing corrections in the size of countries as shown by the Mercator projection.
(The Peters projection is not without its problems either, the Latvian commentator says, noting that it introduces distortions running away from two latitudes, 45 degrees north and 45 degrees south, while the Mercator projection has the distortions running only from the equator to the poles.)
Drawn in this way, he says, “Africa, Asia and South America became real giants,” while “Europe declined in size, the US grew, and Russia began to look much more limited in size.” The map also showed that Europe, “even together with Russia,” was large only in the northern part of the globe and not across its full extent.
The only way to get a more or less accurate understanding of the relative size of different places is to place them at the same latitude and longitude. If one does so, that leads to some interesting conclusions. For example, the South China Sea is twice as large as the Sea of Okhotsk and bigger than all of Sakha (Yakutia).
Ranks then concludes: “Russians need to understand that foreign lands are in fact much bigger than they appear to them, and rated by natural conditions, practically everywhere is much more comfortable to live. [Consequently,] hardly anyone on the planet would exchange their lands for Siberia, even with its reserves of natural resources.”
And once they recognize this, Russians will revisit their notion that “everyone on the planet wants to seize Russia in order to shake with cold and mope about in unending dullness.” Such ideas, they will see if they turn away from their maps, are “simply senseless.” Russia’s neighbors will find it “much simpler just to buy from the Russians all that they need.”
Like Americans, Russians are Prisoners of the Maps They Use (1)