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Russian Cartographers Add Crimea to Maps Amid Sanctions

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, flanked by Upper House Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, left, and State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin signs final decree completing annexation of Crimea at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2014. Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The Russian Geographical Society is adding Crimea to its maps of Russia and plans to open two branches in the disputed region this year.

The society, founded in 1845, announced the changes on its website days after Crimea voted to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia. In the statement, the Russian Geographical Society said it plans to organize a research expedition to Crimea to “study its natural, cultural and historical heritage.” The Washington-based National Geographic Society, meanwhile, said March 19 that Crimea would be shaded gray as an “Area of Special Status” if formally annexed by Russia.

The annexation, declared legal yesterday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, prompted the U.S. and Europe to impose sanctions on Russia and to threaten more if Moscow doesn’t reverse course or seeks to grab other parts of Ukraine.

While redrawing maps to reflect new boundaries is simpler in an era of electronic publishing, doing so is as politically charged as ever. Cartographers are typically a conservative bunch -- unless they are propagandists, says Jim Akerman, curator of maps for Chicago’s Newberry Library, whose collections range from ancient maps to almost every atlas, road and railroad map published by Rand McNally.

“It matters where maps are made,” Akerman said in an interview last week.

In contested areas like Crimea, the National Geographic Society, founded in 1888, tries to stay above the political fray. According to its policy, the society will probably shade Crimea gray as an “Area of Special Status,” designate its administrative center Simferopol with a special symbol and provide a map note explaining the changes.

Not Recognition

“This does not suggest recognition of the legitimacy of the situation,” the society said on its website.

Google Inc.’s mapping service uses broken lines to delineate disputed territories like Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia in 2008, Kosovo, Kashmir and disputed boundaries between Egypt and Sudan. Crimea’s borders haven’t changed on Google Maps.

“When recognizing claim lines we consult a number of sources and authorities such as the nation-state, UN member or by the territory whose status is recognized by one of these sources,” Google said in an e-mailed statement last week. “We don’t do the drawing or redrawing for borders, but work with sources to get the best interpretation of the border or claim lines.”

Rand McNally, a publisher based in Skokie, Illinois, isn’t planning any hasty changes to its maps, atlases, textbooks and globes and navigational tools after the Crimea vote.

“We wait for the State Department to alert us of any political changes,” Amy Krouse, a spokeswoman, said last week.

For Juan Valdes, the National Geographic Society’s director of editorial research, or The Geographer, the goal is to map reality on the ground.

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