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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow River's Murky Mysteries

In 40 years of underwater rescue work, Lev Shurygin had rarely received such a strange request.

A car had slid into the Moscow River, and while the owner said he would be happy to recover it, he would settle for an envelope he left on the front seat.

"I got the envelope, it was a bag inside a bag, and when I came to the surface, I handed it over," said Shurygin. "The owner ran off, just like that. He didn't bother to come back for the car."

What was in the envelope? "I didn't ask. Probably better not to know."

Shurygin and a dozen other muscular men who work out of a nondescript building tucked away in south Moscow belong to one of the city's oddest professions. They are scuba divers whose territory is the Moscow River and its myriad tributaries.

This is not Jacques Cousteau country.

The Moscow River is murky and heavily polluted. Visibility in its slimy depths is virtually nil. Although fishermen occasionally cast lines over its concrete embankments, they are much more likely to come up with auto parts than perch.

The river is a repository for the city's secrets, a convenient place to toss contraband, pistols, stolen cars and dead bodies. It's also a kind of free-flowing avenging angel, punishing revelers who blend bathing with vodka by dragging them down to a liquid death.

Shurygin and his comrades are technically only lifesavers — their main task is to save passengers and crew from sinking boats and barges.

But because of their intimate knowledge of the subsurface world, they are on call for police work, repair duty (the river is crisscrossed by pipes and cables) and salvage. Museums have called on them to search for World War II relics.

Finding corpses for the police is grueling and grisly. Lack of visibility means they must feel their way along the bottom. Sometimes the bodies are dismembered. "Once I pulled on something. I thought it was a head," said Shurygin. "It came off in my hand. It turned out to be a rubber ball."

About 200 people drown in the river each year, mostly after getting drunk and passing out. "The typical thing is for people to drink, swim and decide to 'take a rest,' so to speak, in the water. They just fall asleep and sink," said Shurygin, 74, who began his career in the armed forces and traveled to all of Russia's seas.

Now in semi-retirement, he teaches new divers.

Winter presents a different problem — cars sliding off icy roads into the river. Lately, calls to salvage sunken snowmobiles have become common.

"They zoom along, not realizing that spots in the river are thawed out. In they go," said Sergei Polinov, 32, a diver who learned his trade from Shurygin.

The poor upkeep and resulting decay of passenger boats that ply the Moscow River and the canals linking it with the Volga and other rivers have also become a source of disaster. "Several boats a year go down. Sometimes they fall apart while still at the pier," said Polinov.

As Polinov spoke, he received a call to help salvage a barge that had broken in half and sunk in the Volga River. "We can't just leave it in place. With all these boats going down, at some point, our rivers will clog up," Polinov said.