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The conflict in Ukraine, and how maps paint us a picture of territorial sovereignty
It’s 2022, and the question of the day is: will Russia invade Ukraine? Phrased like this, my mind paints a simple picture: Ukrainian soldiers are on their side of the border, digging trenches and getting ready to repel invaders, while Russian soldiers are on their side of the border, getting everyone ready to roll over the line when the orders arrive.
But hasn’t Russia already invaded Ukraine? In 2014, Russian agents entered Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea that was part of Ukraine. What happened next was either an annexation, the unilateral and illegal absorption of another country’s territory, or a referendum, the legal process by which people living in a place can decide what country they want to be part of. Most of the world called it annexation. Russia calls it a referendum. Either way, Crimea is part of Russia now.
Also in 2014, separatists in Donbas, a region in southwestern Ukraine on the border with Russia, were supported by Russian soldiers in their breakaway from Ukraine. Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, the two top-level administrative subdivisions of the Ukrainian state that together make up the Donbas region, have set themselves up as the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. Each is recognized as a valid state only by the other one, and by South Ossetia, another similar post-Soviet breakaway quasi-state. Fighting in Donbas, which has continued off and on since 2014, is intensifying.
Neither the invasion of Crimea nor the Donbas conflict map onto my picture of “invasion,” in which nations can fight, and troops can cross borders, and lands can be occupied, like in Risk. The idea that borders can change feels antiquated, the sort of thing that happens after the Congress of Vienna or after a World War. Not something that happens in 2022.
To make sense of the Ukraine crisis it is important to recognize that the standard political map, with its neat borders and labels, was conceived in part to assert a worldview in which nation-states are territorially unified and culturally homogeneous. In other words, they try to paint a picture of a world entirely at odds with the reality of the Ukraine crisis.
It is February 1814, and Napoleon is preparing to fight the Battle of Arcis-sub-Aube, one of his last major battles before he lost his throne and was exiled from France. Napoleon and his officers are having dinner with the local priest. The officers are discussing their plans with reference to local settlements, hills, and rivers, which baffles the priest. How do Napoleon and his entourage know the names of these places and how they are situated? Surely, the priest asserts, they must all —by some miraculous chance— be natives of this area, some 100 miles east of Paris?
The answer, Napoleon’s officers reveal, is not that they are locals, but that they each have a copy of the Carte de Cassini, or “Cassini’s Map.” The maps were named for four members of the Cassini family: the first Cassini, Jean-Dominique Cassini, along with his son, his grandson, and his great-grandson. The patrilineal chain of Cassinis were leaders of the Paris Observatory, starting from its inception in 1667 under Louis XIV.
The officers’ maps astounded the priest. And they were astounding, for their time. The Carte de Cassini was incredibly detailed, showing, for example, the network of roads, rivers, and settlements around the small village of Arcis-sur-Aube. Each sheet of the Carte de Cassini measured more than 2 feet by 3 feet, and there were 180 to cover the whole of France. The symbols used to represent natural and man-made features were standardized across all the maps, as were the fonts and font sizes used to distinguish the different hierarchies of place names (city vs. town vs. parish and so on). The language was also standardized: all locations were described using Parisian French vocabulary, regardless of whether the locals spoke Parisian French, Occitan, Breton, Catalan, or another language.
The French crown was interested in building a map of the nation not only for military purposes but also as an instrument of nation-building. Jerry Brotton, in his History of the World in 12 Maps, says that the Carte de Cassini “enabled individuals to understand themselves as part of a nation. Today, in a world almost exclusively defined by the nation state, to say that people saw a place called ‘France’ when they looked at Cassini’s map of the country, and identified themselves as ‘French’ citizens living within its space seems patently obvious, but this was not the case at the end of the eighteenth century. [...] It is no coincidence that the dawn of the age of nationalism in the eighteenth century coincides almost exactly with the Cassini surveys and that ‘nationalism’ as a term was coined in the 1790s, just as the Cassini maps were nationalized in the name of the French Republic.”
Living in a world of nation-states, it is hard to put myself in the shoes of someone living in feudal, pre-nation France. Within what we today call simply “France”, different communities spoke different languages and had different laws. The jurisdictional areas of the church, which held real legal power, did not necessarily align with the jurisdictions of the local nobility or the increasingly centralized power in Paris. The idea that one’s primary identity was “French” was likely —if you will excuse the pun— a foreign concept.
Benedict Anderson writes in his Imagined Communities that nations, unlike the empires or kingdoms that preceded them, asserted that “state sovereignty is fully, flatly and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory.” Without maps like the Carte de Cassini, it would be hard to hold onto such a notion. It is easy to point at a map with clear political boundaries and say, “This is France.” When that map uses a single, standardized language and symbology, it is easy to imagine a homogeneous people, a unified “nation,” filling those borders. By contrast, it is hard to understand the network of contingent personal and legal relationships that characterized pre-nation-state feudalism, and harder still to figure out where “France” can fit in that complex network.
The shift from a feudal society organized around personal relationships and loyalties towards a nation-state with a more “even” distribution of sovereignty even had echoes in the history of the Cassini family themselves. The Cassinis were well-connected, capable, and likely brilliant men. They received patronage directly from the French king to build their maps. But after the French Revolution started in 1790, the business of making maps of the state, of “making” the state in the sense that Anderson describes, could not be left in private hands. The engraved plates used to make the maps were confiscated by the new state, and the business of making and updating maps of France passed from individuals in a personal relationship with the king into a standardized profession of state-trained and state-employed surveyors.
Returning to Ukraine, I find that the maps I grew up with provide me little understanding of the conflict, except to know that Ukraine is adjacent to Russia. These simple political maps, being the descendants of maps like the Carte de Cassini, are designed to make the world neat and orderly on the plan of the nation-state. These maps do not communicate complexities, like the fact that the many Ukrainians’ first language is Russian not Ukrainian, the fact that different people in different parts of Ukraine have different attitudes toward the Eurocentric and Russo-centric spheres of influence that are colliding on top of them, or the fact that the act of putting down red dots and saying “Russian-backed forces” is not as simple as checking to see what flags those particular troops are waving.
Ambiguity appears central to Putin’s strategy in Ukraine, while the very maps we use to describe the situation do not admit ambiguity. The map on the New York Times live-update webpage shows Ukraine with a white background, other countries including Russia with a brown background. The borders between countries are solid lines. But the page needs three footnotes to explain Crimea, which is shown with a striped white/brown background and a dashed line, the Donbas, which has a white background but a dotted line, and Transnistria, which has a brown background but a dashed line. Clearly the situation is more complex than the simple two-color, one-line schema can meaningfully convey.
The Carte de Cassini, and its descendant political maps that I learned about in school and now look at in an attempt to make sense of the crisis in Ukraine, feel one-dimensional. The weird colors and line types needed to explain the exceptions like Crimea and Transnistria remind me of the conceptual backflips, typified by the “epicycle,” that early astronomers needed to make in order to explain why, if the Earth really were the fixed center of the universe, that planets would sometimes appear to reverse their directions. In a heliocentric worldview, you need many small fudge factors to make them fit the observed astronomical data. In a nation-centric worldview, we need many weird devices on maps to make them “fit” the situation on the ground.
To understand the conflict in Ukraine —and, more generally, to understand the lines of power and influence that will govern history in this century— simple political maps can only play a limited role. We need new visualization tools that efficiently communicate how the world is, not caricatures that assert outdated views of how the world should be.