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Mysteries Under Moscow

Mysteries Under Moscow

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists - May/June 1997 - Vol. 53, No. 3, pp. 11-14

by Andrei Ilnitsky

What is hidden under Moscow?

This question has intrigued Vadim Mikhailov since he was a child in the early 1970s, when his father, who drove a train in the Moscow subway, first gave him a ride in the driver's cabin and showed him the network of Metro tunnels beneath the Russian   capital. By the time he was 12, Mikhailov and his friends had begun making increasingly ambitious journeys beneath the city.

Discoveries began with the first expeditions. Through manholes and building basements the boys wriggled into labyrinths under the Russian capital. First, they explored the bomb shelters under Leningradsky Prospekt, then they came across an Academy of Oceanology warehouse. "Imagine walking along endless corridors," recalls Mikhailov, "something dripping from the ceiling, the uneven light of torches. And all of sudden you find yourself in a room full of tanks of formalin, containing various sea monsters."

They soon went deeper underground. According to Mikhailov there are about six levels under Moscow, and in some places as many as 12, including old sewer systems, fountain foundations, and sloping drainage tunnels entangled in the depths.

As they grew up, the explorers took their investigations more seriously, drawing maps of their routes, studying history books, and talking to elderly Muscovites about past uses of the underground. Their explorations of deserted shafts and water mains built during the reign of Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century sparked a greater interest and enthusiasm for further expeditions.

"Ten to 15 years later we realized that we had investigated the entire level closest to the surface, comprising municipal public service tunnels. It was time to go down to deeper floors," recounts Mikhailov. In 1990, the underworld travelers formed a group called "Diggers of the Underground Planet," whose aim was to study the historical, ecological, and social aspects of the Moscow underground.  

Criminal settlements

Trips under Moscow have grown riskier as people have settled on the levels nearest the surface. The underground shelters gypsies, spongers, political refugees, and professional hermits. These people usually enter the underground through the grates of heating and rubbish collecting systems.

According to the Diggers, the underground is also a refuge for former prisoners. It is against the law for ex-convicts to reside in the Russian capital, so those who do move to the city must find inconspicuous lodgings. Some settle in basements with good air-conditioning systems and two or three exits. Sometimes they gather in groups, living by "prison laws."

The underworld is not all rubbish, rats, and dampness. Some accommodations are well equipped--with radio, television, and heat. People cook food and bring up children. In the morning, breadwinners leave their homes through manholes to make a living.

"I know about 20 places where families who have lost their apartments now live. There are also so-called 'advantageous' closed accommodations, like boiler rooms that are from time to time visited by plumbers to check water mains--and to gather payment from the squatters. Some rather well-off people are among them," notes Mikhailov. Some underground residents seem to enjoy the way of life. The Diggers remember one professor who for some unknown reason lived with tramps and enjoyed a good reputation among them.

But underground communities are also a potential source of disease and a cradle of crime. In summer and winter, the usual seasons of migration into and out of the tunnels, alcoholics, drug addicts, and prostitutes flourish in the "reverse world."

Three or four years ago the Diggers found their first corpse. Now horrible things like dismembered bodies can be found in sewers and drains. "In former times the public works department used to control these facilities," Mikhailov says. "But today the engineers--mainly women-are afraid to come down because there are a lot of strangers in the underground."

Mikhailov recalls that once they found the semi-decayed body of a tramp who had probably been killed in a fight. When the police came they took the body, then asked the Diggers to tell no one. With no name, no address, and no information to go on, the police consider such cases to be hopeless. The news rarely makes it into the press.

More recently, say the Diggers, the city government has begun paying more attention to the underground system. The police have reinforced their control over basements, and they now detain disheveled people--suspected of being tunnel-dwellers--while they check their registration documents. But this has not solved the problem.

Terrorism from below?

The Diggers believe the powerful and inaccessible Russian capital--with all its special security departments--is vulnerable from below. For example, it is easy to go beneath the Metro platforms and get into the "escalator park," where the mechanisms that drive the massive escalators are unprotected. One can cross the tunnels and get from one system into another. The Metro trunkways have already been damaged. And there is even access to the Kremlin from the main Metro lines.

The current city government is aware of the possibility of an undeclared "revolution" from below, and the problem of Metro security stays on the agenda at government meetings. But the Diggers consider the city's measures a drop in the ocean. More serious safety measures would require larger investments and a special staff. Neither is available.

The Diggers' concern has been heightened by sightings of groups of people dressed in camouflage uniforms. In a tunnel under the Centrobank building, the Diggers observed uniformed people in masks equipped with powerful halogen lamps. The Diggers were afraid to follow them lest they should come under fire. So far, security services have not taken the Diggers' reports of these sightings seriously.

Only once have the police responded to a report by Mikhailov. Under the Leningradsky Prospekt the Diggers noticed a detachment of uniformed men at work in a tunnel. The police sent two officers with machine guns to arrest the group, but all of them escaped. Upon investigating the site, the police found evidence of fresh digging. "Who these camouflaged people are," Mikhailov says, "I don't know. Evidently, neither do officials. As far as I know, we are the only researchers working under the city. But if another group or organization is also investigating the underground, who is it? It is neither a military nor a police force. All the state security services say they do not go down."

How serious is the threat of terrorism from below? The Diggers have written a memorandum detailing dozens of entries to closed facilities like bomb shelters and strategic command posts, together with possible combinations of terrorist actions. When the memorandum was submitted to the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Moscow--the former KGB-- the security bodies agreed to cooperate with the Diggers.

"The Diggers believe," says Mikhailov, "that regardless of barriers one can pass unnoticed under the ground. There should be a monitoring system established that could, to my mind, control such places as the Metro's ventilation shafts."

Mysterious labyrinths

Beneath the city are passageways, chambers of torture, and about 150 underground riverbeds lined with bricks and white stone. Studying the masonry and brickwork, the researchers found marks left by old stonemasons; they could even date, approximately, some of the drains.

Gruesome finds have also been made. While studying an old Moscow river, the Neglinka, the Diggers often came across human skulls. Similar findings were described by the Russian writer Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a pre-revolutionary explorer of Moscow. He wrote that long ago an owner of a criminal den built a tunnel leading to the underground waters. Inside the den was a pipe through which criminals threw out the corpses of those they had robbed and murdered. The Diggers made their way into one such tunnel and found among broken skulls a silver ring and a kisten, an ancient weapon similar to a large metal mace.

Mikhailov thinks there may be evidence of Stalin-era executions in some passages under the city. Under Solyanka Street, for example, there is a large inaccessible network of tunnels that may conceal a mass burial site. "But who would take responsibility for discovering it?" asks Mikhailov. Even in post-Soviet Russia, such a find would become a political issue.

Other Soviet secrets lie under Moscow, including a second ring of Metro lines built by Stalin on the outskirts of the city, but never used by the public. Muscovites speculate that the ring was employed by the military to shuttle bombs around the capital.

Under Bolshaya Pirogovskaya Street the Diggers discovered a deserted laboratory with an old telephone, chemical-protection suits hanging on the walls, and old-fashioned respiration masks. The room appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry. In adjacent rooms there were huge flasks, and the floor was covered with crystals.

A 3,000-seat bunker located under the Cathedral of Christ the Savior is another unsolved mystery. (The cathedral was demolished by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s; it is now being rebuilt.) "We were not allowed to go there, although the cathedral dean asked us to take out a sealed container with communist slogans on it," says Mikhailov. The dean called it the "anti-capsule," in the same tone he would use to speak of the anti-Christ. Mikhailov would have liked to explore, but "officers from the Kremlin guard said that nothing under the church threatened the safety of the building, and so they did not allow us to go down."

Under the Skliffasovsky clinic the Diggers encountered people dressed in monk's robes, carrying torches around a strange-looking altar made of stone. They were performing some sort of service and singing. When they saw the Diggers, they hurriedly disappeared.

The hidden library

Lately the Diggers have decided to search for the underground's greatest prize: the lost medieval library of Tsar Ivan the Terrible.

In 1472, Ivan III married Princess Sofia Paleolog, a niece of the last Byzantine emperor. The bride brought a splendid dowry of invaluable books and scrolls from Byzantium.

To preserve her treasures from raids and fire, Sofia employed a famous Italian architect, Aristotle Fiorovanti, to build a library under the Kremlin. Today, the location of the library is covered by a veil of mystery and legend. Sofia's grandson, Ivan the Terrible, was said to have found the treasure. If so, he took the secret of its location to his grave. Napoleon; a Polish king, Sigizmund; and thousands of lesser-known people have since searched for the library.

One Russian academic wrote that the ancient manuscripts might be located somewhere on the second or third level beneath the Kremlin. He claimed that he could clearly see the library on a map shown to him in the 1980s by a former Kremlin commander, General Vedeneev. (These levels have been very poorly investigated.)

The last attempt to find the library was made by Nikita Khrushchev, who established a special search committee headed by a man named Tikhomirov. When Brezhnev came to power the committee was disbanded

According to Galina Lelyanova of the Phenomenon Press Center, a new committee has started to work. The committee's team includes scientists, historians, and archaeologists, but the committee has also recruited "vine walkers" and psychics to take part. The vine walkers claim they can detect gold, silver, and other metals using bioenergetic powers, and the psychics are on hand to insure the researchers' security by combating any "dark forces" that may be guarding the hidden cache. (Those who have searched for the library, the legend goes, have been prone to accidents, disease, or death.)

The Diggers also want to search for the library. "We believe that the library is still beneath Moscow, most likely in a chamber built in Egyptian style, and that it may be possible to find it as well as all the treasures the Terrible took at the Kazan seizure. The tsar hid those underground as well and they are waiting for their time to be discovered."

Tourist attraction

Last year, the Diggers registered the "Center of Underground Research" with the Moscow municipal government. The center has departments of security, ecology, and history; eventually an analytical and archive department will be added. Their activities have also acquired a commercial character. They have signed agreements with the Moscow government, the Vityaz organization, which represents veterans, and with other organizations interested in underground research. For the 850th anniversary of Moscow, to be celebrated this year, the Diggers plan to issue an underground map. City officials want to develop underground sightseeing tours.

The Diggers have organized two exhibitions on the Moscow underground:one in the main city administration building and another in the Ostrovsky house/museum. They plan eventually to exhibit their underground findings in their own building.

But the Diggers have not hurried to tell all they know about the underground world. They are now working on a series of TV shows that they say will deliver sensational news. The programs will air during the 850th anniversary celebration, allowing Muscovites to peer into the mysteries lurking beneath the old Russian capital.

Andrei Ilnitsky, the editor-in-chief of Shass Pik, a weekly newspaper in Obninsk, Russia, was a recent Bulletin fellow.