Monday, December 05, 2005

Mytheography: Or propagating myths through maps

It is well established that ideological discourses find their ways even into "modern" and "accurate" maps... Here is the newest example in the NYT
Mapmakers and Mythmakers
Published: December 1, 2005
MOSCOW, Nov. 30 - Bruce Morrow worked for three years on the shores of Lake Samotlor, a tiny dot of water in a maze of oil wells and roads covering more than a thousand square miles of icy tundra in Siberia.
From the maps the Russians gave Mr. Morrow, he could never really know where he was, a misery for him as an oil engineer at a joint venture between BP and Russian investors. The latitude and longitude had been blotted out from his maps and the grid diverged from true north.
"It was like a game," Mr. Morrow said of trying to make sense of the officially doctored maps, holdovers from the cold war era provided by secretive men who worked in a special department of his company.
Unofficially, anyone with Internet access can take a good look at the Samotlor field by zooming down through free satellite-imaging programs like Google Earth, to the coordinates 61 degrees 7 minutes north latitude and 76 degrees 45 minutes east longitude.
Mr. Morrow's plight illustrates how some practices that once governed large regions of the former Soviet Union may still lurk in the hallways where bureaucrats from the Communist past cling to power. Not only do they carry over a history of secrecy, but they also serve to continue a tradition of keeping foreigners at bay while employing plenty of people made dependent on Moscow.
The misleading maps also reflect the Kremlin's tightening grip on Russian oil, one of the world's critical supplies, and one that is to become even more important in the future with plans for direct shipments to the United States by 2010 from ports in the Far East and the Arctic.
The secrecy rule over maps is enforced by the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., a successor to the old K.G.B. It was written at a time the Russians were suspicious of virtually all foreign businesses and fearful of a missile strike on their Siberian wells.
Those days are gone. But as the Russian government reasserts its control over strategic industries - particularly oil - it is not letting up on the rule.
The doctored maps belong to a deep-rooted Russian tradition of deceiving outsiders, going back to the days of Potemkin villages in the 18th century and perhaps earlier. During the cold war it was called maskirovka, Soviet military parlance for deception, disinformation and deceit.
For decades, government bureaucrats created false statistics and misleading place names. For instance, Baikonur, the Russian space center, was named for a village hundreds of miles away. Accurate maps of old Moscow's warren of back alleys appeared only after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Even now, Mr. Morrow and his colleagues can use only Russian digital map files that encrypt and hide the coordinates of his location. Officially, only Russians with security clearances are permitted to see oil field maps with real coordinates at scales greater than 1:2,500.
"It was totally futile," Mr. Morrow said of the false coordinates on his F.S.B. maps, created through an encrypting system. "None of us was particularly keen on pushing it. There were rumors if you do that, you end up in the slammer."
A spokeswoman for the F.S.B. confirmed that it controls maps around sites deemed important for national security, including oil fields. Asked whether the easy availability of accurate maps on the Internet made such continued secrecy obsolete, she said the agency was interested only in national security and would not elaborate on its practices.
Foreign business executives, though, say there is a secret behind the secret maps, and it has little to do with national security.
The rules are not only a way to maintain control over a strategic industry, but also form a subtle trade barrier and are a convenient way to increase Russian employment. After all, TNK-BP, the 50-50 joint venture where Mr. Morrow works, pays scores of cartographers to encode and decode the maps, said Frank Rieber, a former engineer there. The rules cover all oil companies, but are particularly pressing for TNK-BP.
They provide a livelihood to hundreds of F.S.B.-licensed cartographers. Oil companies either outsource the work of stripping and restoring coordinates to independent institutes, or employ Russians with security clearances to do the work, as TNK-BP does.
The map orientations are shifted from true north - the top of the map could be pointing slightly east, for example - and the grid does not correspond to larger maps.
"It makes us pull our hair out," Mr. Rieber said.
Yevgenia M. Albats, author of a 1994 book on the K.G.B., "The State Within a State," said the spy agency's interest in oil field mapping is just anther way of asserting its influence on society and business here, though one increasingly made obsolete by the Internet.
"The F.S.B. knows about Google Earth as well as anybody," she said. "This doesn't have anything to do with national security. It's about control of the cash flow."
The agency is guarding the wells as much from foreign business executives as from foreign missiles these days, she said. The laws about oil field secrets are used to persuade TNK-BP to replace foreign managers with Russians, more susceptible to pressure from the authorities, Ms. Albats said.
"Russians are easier to manipulate," she continued. "They don't want to end up in Khodorkovsky's shoes," she said, referring to the former chief executive of the Yukos oil company, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, now in a Siberian penal colony serving an eight-year sentence. He was convicted of fraud and tax evasion after falling out with the Kremlin over taxes, oil-export routes and politics.
The F.S.B. has also pursued scientists who cooperate with foreign companies in other industries. Last winter it charged a physicist, Oskar A. Kaibyshev, with exporting dual-use metal alloy technology to a South Korean company. Mr. Kaibyshev objected in vain that the technology had already been discussed in foreign journals. The case is pending.
On Oct. 26, F.S.B. agents arrested three scientists at a Moscow aerospace company and accused them of passing secrets to the Chinese. Another physicist, Valentin V. Danilov, was convicted of selling technology for manned space flights to the same Chinese company last year, though he also protested that the information was available from published sources.
At the same time, the Kremlin is using oil to recapture status lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which explains the close attention paid to the industry by the security services.
Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov told a Parliament committee in October that energy exports were Russia's most powerful diplomatic tool in relations with other nations, according to a report in the newspaper Nezavisimaya.
BP bought into the Tyumen oil company, or TNK, in 2003. Friction over the use of oil field maps existed from early on, geologists at the company said, but intensified this year. The issue has risen to high levels in the government, with a faction that embraces foreign investment protesting that the F.S.B. is hobbling the work of Western engineers who come to help this country drill for oil, providing technology and expertise in the process.
In October, Andrei V. Sharonov, a deputy economic and trade minister, said F.S.B. pressure on the oil venture over the classification of maps had disrupted production in western Siberia, an article in Vedomosti reported.
It quoted Mr. Sharonov as saying that the agency was pressing TNK-BP to replace Western managers with Russians. A spokeswoman for Mr. Sharonov declined to comment.
An F.S.B. spokeswoman denied any ulterior motives in policing oil field maps.
Engineers call the practice a nuisance, but say it has not disrupted production. The licensed cartographers are skilled in accurately translating between real and false coordinates, and so far, they do not know of any major mistakes, they say.
In a telephone interview from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., Mr. Morrow, who worked as an engineer for TNK-BP from 2002 until May, said he left partly because he became frustrated with the police controls. He guided a reporter to Lake Samotlor on Google Earth.
The lake lies just north of Nizhnevartovsk, a city on the Ob River, as it loops in silvery ribbons through a background of dark green Siberian wilderness. In the middle of the lake is an island, like a bull's eye.
"That was the folly of it," Mr. Morrow said. "You could get this information anywhere. The bureaucracy got in the way of common sense. But that didn't make it any less illegal, or any less inconvenient."


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