FEAR ME, Giant Sewer Rodents, for I Am VADIM, Lord of The Underground!

Deep beneath Moscow a crew of urban spelunkers frolics, hunting Stalin's secret hideaway, Ivan the Terrible's torture chamber, bootleg nuclear weapons, and a little fame and fortune

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Beneath the onion domes of the Kremlin, at the foot of crumbling Lomonosov University, Vadim Mikhailov crouches along a sidewalk ventilation shaft and aims a conspiratorial eye into the void. He wears a dirty yellow fireman's suit, a storm trooper helmet of chintzy gold affixed with a headlamp, and a pair of ludicrously oversize rubber fishing boots that smell distinctly like vomit. Mikhailov grips a crowbar in his large, pale hands. A worn rope is coiled through his jacket's metal clasps.

"Here, take one of these," he tells me, handing over some sort of mystery megavitamin pill. "You'll need this. Your metabolism's not used to the underground."

As I choke it down, Mikhailov methodically scans the streets for policemen and, once satisfied that the coast is clear, orders his young sidekick, Vadik Burov, to pry open the metal grate. Mikhailov pokes his head inside. There's a whoosh of cool air, a hiss of sewage, and an ancient, sulfurous stink. "Poshli, poshli, poshli!" he barks impatiently. Mikhailov and I clamber down a carbonate-encrusted ladder, down into the cellar of Moscow, with its rats and drug dealers, its toxic seeps and proto-capitalist gangland thugs, its squatters and prostitutes and fat albino roaches: untold thousands of miles of clammy tunnels and underground rivers that Mikhailov has spent the last 20 years obsessively exploring and where he still spends at least a few hours every day, burrowing into Moscow's past. A native Muscovite with a bodybuilder's physique, a permanent cloak-and-dagger air, and the gothic vaingloriousness of a comic-book villain, the 32-year-old Mikhailov is chieftain of a celebrated band of urban spelunkers known as the Diggers of the Underground Planet.

Burov hops in last and shoves the grate back into position with a clunk. Eyes blink, pupils widen. Mikhailov's helmet bobs ahead of us in an arched brick sewer, our only beacon in the black. "We're in the reverse world, friends," he says with a grin. "Aboveground rules no longer apply."

Mikhailov bounds ahead, negotiating sharp corners with SWAT team precision, hopping over pipes with little Jackie Chan flourishes that show off his years of aikido training. Suddenly he halts. There's a suspicious noise, maybe footsteps. "Shhh!" he says. "Could be a biological!" (Digger slang for "unidentified human being.") We stand completely still for five minutes or so, Mikhailov staring intently at the moisture beads on the ceiling — but we hear nothing, biological or otherwise.

"Before we go any farther, let's check for fumes," he says. He flicks a butane lighter and inspects the flame for a slight tinge of orange that might indicate trace levels of natural gas. "No, we're all right," he says merrily. "Onward!"

We slip and slide along the sewer's slim walkways in the general direction of the famed Bolshoi Theater, and before long we hit a tunnel that's layered with a viscous black goo that sucks at our boots and releases a horrific stench. It's literally the excrement of elite Russia: spindly ballerinas, government deputies, Maly Theater thespians, fat-fingered "New Russians" from the Hotel Metropol. We crane our necks and peer up a thin, 50-foot brick shaft topped with a plastic toilet seat.

A few tight turns later, we're shambling down a seemingly endless, six-foot-wide tunnel lined with spaghettilike green cables. "See these tubes?" Mikhailov says. "All special security service lines, you know." Property of the FSB, postcommunist Russia's version of the KGB. Then we hit what appears to be an impasse: a large rusted grill blocking the passageway. "Not a problem," Mikhailov says. He quickly manhandles it, and with a "ching" the middle bar breaks loose from its moorings. We slide through and press on, down more dim corridors festooned with wires. In a dank corner, behind some rusty pipes, are a pile of human feces and several vodka bottles, detritus from the large vagabond culture, thousands and perhaps even tens of thousands strong, that inhabits much of the city's netherworld, especially in the bitter months of a Moscow winter.

We edge past a giant turbine and descend two metal ladders, which take us down to the third level. The heat is intense under our plastic helmets and crinkly resin coveralls. We round a sharp corner and begin trailing the network of gas and water mains that leads directly underneath the Kremlin. I'm thinking, It shouldn't be this easy. A Chechen terrorist with a fertilizer bomb could practically bring the nation to its knees. Mikhailov, apparently, is thinking the same, for he's grown suddenly flustered, tentative, his mischief-maker's face washing over with solemnity. "Uh, we really can't go any farther," he says. "Not with a foreign journalist. After all, we're patriots here."

So Mikhailov turns our little expedition around, taking a slightly different route to the surface. Going on instinct, he hangs a right, a left, another left. Twenty minutes later we spot a tiny crawl space above, with shafts of mote-flecked daylight spearing through. We shimmy up through the hole, pop open a grate, and emerge right at the front door of the Hotel National, one of the few bastions of European poshness in this notoriously drab capital. A perturbed doorman in a starched green gabardine suit and black bow tie swiftly walks over to the grate to behold us, three suspicious characters in begrimed space suits.
"And who, may I ask, are you?"

"We're the Diggers, at your underground service," says Mikhailov. He eases the grate back into place. "We'll be leaving now."

But not so fast. Just around the corner we're accosted by three fuzzy-chinned teenagers who, oddly enough, have been leering at a brass manhole cover in the street, flashlights in hand, contemplating their own underground exploratory. They recognize Mikhailov instantly. Yes, they've heard about the Diggers. They saw him recently on a Moscow talk show, and in Russian Playboy, and on CNN. And how do they become Diggers, anyway?

"Why don't you swing by the base later tonight and we'll talk about what you need to do," Mikhailov says, always happy to indoctrinate fresh recruits. Burov tries not to look excited, feigns a busy frown, adjusts his battery pack. Mikhailov nods at the manhole cover and says to the boys, pooh-poohingly, "That only leads to the first level. You should have seen where we were just now. We could take a short trip if you like." The three boys shoot one another gleeful looks. Mikhailov, pied piper of the underground, strides back to the ventilation shaft we found earlier by Lomonosov University. The black grate lifts, the golden helmet descends, and the novitiates follow.

The city of Moscow, which this month is celebrating its 850th anniversary, was built on alluvial soils along the swampy banks of the Moscow River. It's the sort of pliable, sandy substrate that easily yields to a shovel. And so, as the village of Moscow grew steadily outward over the centuries, it also grew downward. Paranoid czars built subterranean bunkers, supply depots, and enormous vaults in which they stored their most treasured maps and books and jewels. In the 1580s, as he plunged into madness, Ivan the Terrible dug down hundreds of feet to construct his prized torture chamber and then, as legend has it, murdered all the laborers who had constructed it, presumably so no one would know its whereabouts. In the late 1700s, Catherine the Great hired Italy's finest architects to channel the inconveniently situated Neglina River into a vast underground network of brick-lined canals. Over time, sewer systems and subways were installed, not to mention gas lines, electric lines, telephone lines, the full latticework of modernity. The Soviets burrowed even deeper, building secret tunnels and subway tracks, KGB listening posts, and fallout shelters for the political elite, hundreds of meters below the surface.

Ordinary Muscovites have always had an ambivalent relationship with their underground. In a country that has for centuries endured all manner of political tyranny, living atop this maze of hidden passageways and rumored catacombs has only tended to compound their suspicion that someone somewhere is surely listening in, that dark doings are afoot, that the very ground on which one walks is not to be trusted.

But if Russia's extensive underground has spun a climate of dread, it's also offered ample opportunities for refuge. Samizdat, or banned self-published literature, passed among literati in subterranean darkness. Black marketeers have long turned to the catacombs to trade hard currency. Stalin's infamous midnight purges, which inspired the sobriquet "Genghis Khan with a Telephone," sent political enemies fleeing for hidden tunnels and friendly basements.

When Vadim Mikhailov was a child, he spent entire days riding the metro with his father, a subway conductor. He memorized the configurations and junctions of all the different lines, came to know every dip and dogleg in the track, learned the lay of his city from the bowels up. When he was 12, he began undertaking increasingly ambitious jaunts, innocently following municipal service tunnels and ventilator shafts just to see where they led. Stuck in a sprawling gray city, too poor to travel, where else was there for a restless young adventurer to go but down?

Besides, Mikhailov says, it was in his blood: He claims to be descended from an old aristocratic family that once owned and ran a gold mine in the Urals. Burrowing in the ground, he came to believe, was practically a genetic predisposition.

Mikahilov's fascination for the underground pulled him out of art academy and then out of medical school. He decided to forsake all chances for a relatively secure, state-subsidized life; instead he constantly daydreamed about ways to turn his moleish predilections into some sort of calling. At first he explored in secrecy, terrified at the prospect of getting caught by Soviet authorities who, having much to hide, kept Moscow's underground strictly off-limits and well stocked with security forces. Slowly, he built up a corps of a dozen or so comrades who shared his clandestine love for the underground: bodybuilders, pallid technogeeks, college dropouts with a jones for urban design, former soldiers from the Afghanistan front, a few former KGB agents turned karate instructors. They kept venturing deeper and deeper, until they eventually realized that a cross-section of central Moscow might have as many as 15 levels, plunging as deep as 700 meters. The city's jumbled secrets seemed to press on one another like so many tectonic plates.

In 1985, when Mikhailov was 20, Gorbachev came to power. Then, with perestroika taking hold two years later, Russians everywhere began to pick the lid off their history. Mikhailov and his friends were suddenly emboldened. For the first time they were able to publicize their underground jaunts while openly seeking more ragtag recruits. Mikhailov was finally able to invite the Moscow media to join him belowground, to shine their lights on the waste dumps, the sagging wartime infrastructure, the Mad Max cast of sewerbound psychotics, squatters, hookers, and thieves.

While the Diggers were mostly just larking around down there, they managed to make some fascinating — and in some cases frightening — discoveries along the way. Last year, Mikhailov and the Diggers stumbled upon 250 kilograms of radioactive material under Moscow State University, a discovery that seemed to shed light on the long anecdotal history of illness, hair loss, and infertility among the university's students and faculty. Recently, Mikhailov claims to have rediscovered an underground pond legendary since the eighteenth century as a site of mass suicides. Mikhailov, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian who takes great stock in omens, was thoroughly haunted by the place. "We all could tell something horrifying had happened there," he recalls. "The tension was palpable." The Diggers turned back from the site and never returned.

In 1994, exploring seven levels down, the Diggers hit upon what Mikhailov believes is Stalin's much-rumored second metro system, a "spetztunnel" used to spirit Party officials from the Kremlin to the underground town of Ramenkoye, some 50 miles away. The train is still functioning, he claims, and "for merely a few thousand dollars" he'd be delighted to take international film crews down for an eyeful. Now Mikhailov dreams of finding the lost library of Ivan the Terrible, a priceless collection of Byzantine and Hebrew scrolls that is believed to be stashed somewhere under the Kremlin and that for centuries has been the subject of an on-again, off-again national search. To do it right, of course, such an ambitious hunt would require not only considerable funding and state-of-the-art archaeological equipment, but also official permission to go rummaging beneath the twelfth-century foundation of the Kremlin none of which the Diggers have.

If anything, Mikhailov has tended to thumb his nose at local officialdom. He has a habit of hastily arranging press junkets in which he'll unveil to the nine million citizens of Moscow the location of some particularly egregious toxic dump or point out what he feels are the foundational flaws of certain city-favored construction projects, such as the giant Christ the Savior Cathedral that's now being rebuilt in the center of town. Around city hall, he's been known to flaunt his knowledge of the underground's many secrets, sometimes making vague you're-in-for-a-big-surprise threats, like the Penguin in a Batman episode.
At the same time, Mikhailov craves legitimacy like a kid craves car keys — legitimacy both for the Diggers and for the city's long-neglected underground, of which he considers himself the one true champion. He wants the government to certify the Diggers as an official organization, accord them some sort of status as underground firemen, security guards, caped crusaders — something. But officials just seem to ignore him. ("Oh, you mean the speleologues?" says Alexander Zavaratov, deputy director of the city militia's eco-police division. "We don't really work with them.") Although the city's bald-pated mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, once accompanied the Diggers on a well-publicized walkabout, he refuses to listen to Mikhailov's lavish ideas for opening up the underground to commercialized historical tours, glitzy malls and bistros, even a cabaret under Red Square. In a metropolis on the brink of bankruptcy and gripped by organized and not-so-organized crime, theme-parking the smelly underground is well down on the mayor's priority list.

Which predictably incenses Mikhailov. "Our bureaucrats don't understand that the city's future rests on its underground," Mikhailov pronounces. "A lot of people in the government hate me. And I know why. It's because I know more about the underground than they do. I'm the king down here."

After a long morning's foray underground, Mikhailov, Burov, and I repair to the Digger "base," which turns out to be nothing more than Mikhailov's mother's apartment in central Moscow, a cramped, slightly dilapidated space just off traffic-clogged Leningradski Prospekt that she shares with Mikhailov and his 19-year-old girlfriend. We climb the sour stairwell and enter the stuffy entrance hall, crowded with helmets, lamps, boots, orange vests, and waders — the de facto Digger dressing room. Mikhailov gingerly rests his helmet on the hallway table, like a trophy. Then we take off our skanky fire suits and hand them over to Mrs. Mikhailov, who halfway-neatly folds them up, trying her best to ignore the stench.

A busy, solicitous little woman with black hair, the widowed Mrs. Mikhailov is the Diggers' den mother, press secretary, and, it seems, greatest fan. "Come in, come in!" she burbles, hustling us toward the yellow, linoleum-floored kitchen, where a kettle of bouillon simmers on the stove, fogging up the windows. On a spotless card table, Mrs. Mikhailov has laid out a spread of piroshki pastries, china teacups, and a shiny zinc pot of tea.

Mikhailov pours himself a cup, parks himself on a stool, and begins scribbling a map of some dark nook from the day's wanderings. Mrs. Mikhailov unties her boy's ponytail and diligently combs his sweaty chestnut hair, frowning at each snag. "I can't get rid of it," he says, swishing his rock-star do. "The women think it's sexy."

Young Burov, meanwhile, takes the corner stool, picks up the phone, and starts calling around, in an authoritative, grown-up person's voice, to the local khozyayeni, or district landlords. He wants to see if there have been any fires today. It's part of the daily Digger routine, the Russian equivalent of checking the police scanner. Mikhailov likes to keep abreast of the news, partly because he's just incorrigibly curious and partly because he thinks the Diggers, as volunteer firefighters, might be able to save the day. "When are your exams?" Mikhailov asks Burov between calls, momentarily paternal.

"In three days," he answers, embarrassed that his high school age has now been revealed. "But it's only math."

Hanging out in his creaky apartment, you quickly realize that Diggerdom is truly Mikhailov's entire life. He has no job, no responsibilities, no schedule. The dozen or so hard-core members of the Diggers — most of whom, like Burov, are half his age — are his only friends. At 32, he's still an adolescent dreamer, and all his dreams, one way or another, lead underground. He's fueled by ambitions so vast and wide-ranging that he can barely articulate them, let alone turn them into reality. He wants to start a safety training center for Digger initiates. He wants to take a trip to the National Speleological Society in Alabama. He wants a new Land Rover. He wants new fire-fighting suits and helmets from France ("$1,700 each, but they're the best"). He wants to set up sort of a free-market, for-profit security service to prevent people who...well, people who aren't Diggers from roaming Moscow's warrens. And once he's prevailed over the forces of criminality and terrorism and cleaned up the environmental hazards, he wants to lead adventure tours down there, lighting it all up with the hot neon of capitalism.

In the meantime, all the Diggers really have to work with is their shared obsession, some seriously antiquated equipment, and their modest "base" here in this fatigued section of town behind the railway station. Mikhailov's apartment is both the Digger lodge and the Digger museum. It's stuffed to the gills with stalagmites and stalactites, fossils and bones, a miscellany of relics plucked from the depths. There are Digger scrapbooks, videos of various Digger media appearances, cassette tapes filled with Digger songs sung at Digger initiation ceremonies (in which Mikhailov touches the kneeling inductees on each shoulder with a sword, King Arthur style, and then asks them to recite an elaborate pledge to protect the underground environment). Hidden away, he keeps a manuscript of the Digger novel that he's written but can't get published and the collection of subterranean maps that he has lovingly rendered but can't sell. Out of a shoebox of photos, he removes a portrait of himself standing with Hollywood film director Phillip Noyce, whom the Diggers led underground for the 1997 Val Kilmer movie The Saint.

Which brings up a sore point, actually. "After I took him down," Mikhailov says ruefully, "Phillip said he was going to help me make a movie about my life. I gave him some tapes and, well, I haven't heard from him since." At that, Mikhailov's bombshell girlfriend, Marina, swishes into the kitchen in a pink terry-cloth bathrobe and black pumps. "Vadim," she says, fingering her wavy blond hair, "why didn't you sign a contract with him? You should have put something in writing."
Mikhailov winces at this noxious intrusion of practicality and lapses into one of his frequent monologues on Digger philosophy, such as it is. "The important thing," he says, "is that we've become a part of history. Diggerdom may have started as children's games, but it's turned into something serious. We're living in a whole new epoch now, the epoch of the Diggers. This is no hobby. It's a state of the soul. These places where we go, they're full of darkness and disease, rudeness and vice, all collected there like a sponge. But it's interesting! There's a total civilization down there! When I hear the water babbling in the sewers, it's as if I can hear our ancestors talking. I hear their whispers bubbling up, and I'm closer to them."

Marina rolls her eyes and disappears into some back room of the apartment. Mikhailov takes a sip of tea and goes back to work on his sketch, laboriously shading in the thousandth brick in what has become a baroquely detailed drawing of some monumental sewer system. Then he looks up and says, "People think they are independent of these underground forces. But they're not. We're all just rats in a big laboratory. We all depend on the underground. For what has come before us, determines us."

After a snack, we pull on our boots and fire suits again and head out for an afternoon sortie. Mikhailov secures his helmet in the hallway mirror, and slaps on a bit of Harley-Davidson cologne. Then he realizes his headlamp batteries are dead. He looks at me pleadingly and says, "Do you have money to buy some at the kiosk downstairs?"

It's late afternoon now, and we're seriously lost, somewhere deep under a part of town known as Sukharevskaya, several levels below Moscow's Garden Ring speedway. We're making our way through a cool brick corridor strung crazily with dripping electric wires, wading through a foot-deep swirl of sour-smelling chemicals. Two flashlights have already died on us, and now there's only Mikhailov's headlamp, with its nice fresh batteries, to guide us to the surface.

We stumble across a threshold and the brick corridor opens up into a series of chambers. We've wandered into some sort of extensive hippie hideaway, room after musty room painted with sad, groovy murals: red guitars dancing with musical notes, rainbows, "Peace," "I Love the Beatles."

"These date back to the sixties," Mikhailov whispers reverently, as if we've just stumbled upon some priceless eastern adjunct to the Lascaux cave paintings. But then the sad-sweet hippie atmospherics darken. Charcoaled on a gray, square building support, Mikhailov spots some demonic, if misspelled, graffiti scrawled in English — "satin was here" and "666" — and instantly falls into a deep panic. "Devil-worshipers!" he says. "Shhh! Be still!"

We hear some indistinct droning above. Mikhailov is certain it's satanic chanting, that there's a coven just above us engaged in some sickening rite. He's breathing uneasily, hunting desperately for a way out before warlocks descend, his Russian Orthodox imagination running wild. He brandishes a knife, and we retrace our steps, past an old white stone chimney and central heating system. A shabby-looking elevator looms up from the black depths.

After a half-hour of frantically retracing the maze, we take a chance on a cement crawl space low along a blistered wall. We hurriedly shimmy through on hands and knees until we come to a rusted ladder. Vadik races up first and pops the top. Light! Weak light, but light. We grasp the flaking rungs and follow Burov's lead, emerging, sweaty and disoriented, into a shadowy courtyard. A babushka sitting on a stoop shoots us a long, baleful stare; a toddler saunters in a scummy apartment entrance. It's your typical Moscow tableaux: no satanists, no chanting, just a television squawking from some unseen apartment.

We wash our hands under a dribbling drainpipe, and Mikhailov throws me a raised-eyebrowed look of relief, as if to say, "That was a close one." Maybe it was; maybe it wasn't. But it's somehow nice to see that decades of subterranean exploration haven't dulled Mikhailov's capacity for a good spook.

"It's a struggle down there, the forces of good against the forces of evil, " he says as we hail a cab in the late Moscow rush hour. "Yet God would have shown us a thousand times if we weren't supposed to be doing this. He protects us, you know. Nothing bad ever happens to the Diggers."

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!