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June 10, 2002

Mysteries under Moscow
Posted by Teresa at 10:08 PM *

Everybody knows that New York City has dug down as well as built up. In an article from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 1997, we learn that Moscow has done the same, only more so. Is all the stuff in the article true? I don’t know. I hope so. Reading it leaves me feeling like I’ve just read a really good comic, maybe a whole mini-series. Behold:

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.

In 1990, Mihailov and his friends formed themselves into the “Diggers of the Underground Planet,” an organization devoted to studying the Moscow underground. Their work has gotten riskier as gypsies, spongers, alcoholics, druggies, prostitutes, political refugees, homeless families, ex-convicts, and hermits have homesteaded the upper levels. Some of them live in respectable digs, even commuting to day jobs through the manholes. Elsewhere it’s not so cozy:
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.”
No kidding. For instance, the Diggers keep sighting groups of people in camouflage uniforms and masks. Sometimes these groups are excavating new areas. Another time the Diggers came across people in monk’s robes, carrying torches round a strange-looking stone altar and singing. And they’ve found dozens of entries to supposedly closed-off bomb shelters and strategic command posts.

They’ve also found deserted passageways, dry water courses, torture chambers, ancient weapons, ancient stashes of ancient skulls, an entire second outer ring of Metro lines that were built but never used, another site that may have been a Stalin-era mass grave (only nobody wants to take responsibility for discovering it, even now), an inexplicable 3,000-seat bunker, and:

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 mystery, yes? But what the Diggers really want to find is the lost medieval library of Ivan the Terrible, brought from Byzantium by Princess Sofia Paleolog when she married him in 1472, and supposedly stashed in a secret underground library beneath the Kremlin. Maybe they will. That would be way cool.
Comments on Mysteries under Moscow:
#1 ::: Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2002, 04:19 PM:

This reminds me a bit of Neverwhere.

#2 ::: Greg van Eekhout ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2002, 07:11 PM:

Sea Monsters, monks performing secret rites, Stalin-era skulduggery ... Does Tim Powers know about this?

#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2002, 07:54 PM:

I love Tim Powers' work, but he's the scariest writer I know. It's not the books themselves; they have just the right amount of suspense for my taste. It's the way, afterward, something like this'll come up, and I'll find myself thinking, "Cripes, what if he's right?"

#4 ::: Mary Kay Kare ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 12:48 AM:

Begin quote:
A mystery, yes? But what the Diggers really want to find is the lost medieval library of Ivan the Terrible, brought from Byzantium by Princess Sofia Paleolog when she married him in 1472, and supposedly stashed in a secret underground library beneath the Kremlin. Maybe they will. That would be way cool.
End quote.

Yeah, Ivan's library would be cool, but I want them to find the Amber Room. Those lousy Nazis disappeared it and I wanna see it.


#5 ::: Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 12:42 PM:

Click on my name below and you'll find a reprinted news article giving some more details on Ivan's library.

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 12:56 PM:

Clicking on your name above works better.

#7 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 01:01 PM:

Interesting article. I imagine it containing ... oh, wonderful things. But doesn't everyone? And each one a different list.

#8 ::: Stephanie C. Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 02:01 PM:

"an inexplicable 3,000-seat bunker"? The inability to explain it depends on exactly where it is. I'd be interested to see how the capacity of that bunker compares to the number of essential personnel in the Kremlin circa 1962, or whether its location corresponds to the homes of very rich Muscovites of the same era.

As for Ivan's library, I think it likely that it hasn't been found because the chamber doesn't connect to the rest of the tunnels. Hell, if he was worried about fire, it might not connect to the palace.

Choose Your Own Adventure: You are a Russian autocrat with a fantastic library. You want to store it underground because you're worried that your palace might burn in the frequent fires that sweep the city.

Where do you put the door?

#9 ::: Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 02:04 PM:

My name was below the post when I checked the "preview" draft.

Blimey. Add to pet hates: programs that make a liar out of you.

#10 ::: Stephanie C. Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 02:07 PM:

Oh, excuse me, I hadn't quite finished the article. You're not a Russian autocrat; you're a famous Italian architect named Aristotle Fiorovanti. (!)

If Khrushchev was the last official to look for the library, I wonder if he didn't find it. The Soviets were not known as connoisseurs of great literature; I wouldn't be terribly shocked to discover that they had traded a few of Ivan's treasures for a little military hardware.

#11 ::: Joel Davis ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2002, 08:41 AM:

Hmmm, found at:

"The Moscow region has some 150 underground rivers carrying chemical wastes. Fish that happens to get into these rivers begins to mutate. I have seen fish without fins and without eyes, and once a carp with tiny horns on its head. We came across huge worms of grass-snake size that glowed in the darkness."

#12 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2002, 09:49 PM:

I was so fascinated with this that I found more information about these people. Here are some links, if anyone is interested.

More Exploration:

Another General-Interest Article:

Tourisim, Anyone?

Interview with the leader of "Diggers of the Underground Planet":

The following sites are in Russian.

Novosibersk Diggers' Website:

Pictures from the Minsk Diggers' Expiditions:

Unfortunately, while there also appeared to be a website for the Moscow Diggers, it doesn't work.

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