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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Diggers Plumb Moscow's Cavernous Depths

For MTDiggers founder Vadim Mikhailov taking another journey into the subterranean city.
For most people, Moscow's underworld conjures up images of high-rolling gangsters driving around in expensive cars. For Vadim Mikhailov, Moscow's underworld is a tangible place of wonder and awe, a site of endless tunnels and labyrinths, clandestine streams and strange, unexplainable phenomena.

"Moscow has the largest, deepest and most complicated network of underground channels of any city in the world," Mikhailov said.

In 1990, Mikhailov founded Diggers of the Underground Planet, a loose confederacy of subterranean explorers. The group first formed in Moscow, but now it has members in major cities all over the world.

Mikhailov's love affair with the depths started at an early age. His father, a train driver for the Moscow metro, would often take him into the operator's cabin. Young Vadim, who was barely tall enough to see over the control panel, would stand on his tiptoes and gaze wide-eyed at the world being illuminated by the train's headlights.

When he was 12, Vadim and his friends staged their first journeys into the sprawling mass of tunnels, sewer systems and natural passages that exist under Moscow. It wasn't long before they made their first major discovery: a Stalin-era underground bunker deep below Leningradsky Prospekt. When he and his friends returned to the surface, Vadim realized that the bunker was almost directly under the building where he lived.

Other, more mysterious finds soon followed, including a trip to an abandoned Institute of Oceanography storeroom, where the young explorers found crystals growing from the floor and unidentifiable species of sea creatures preserved in large vats of formaldehyde.

What began as a series of adolescent exploits quickly became an obsession. Twenty-six years later, Mikhailov and his Diggers have achieved semi-celebrity status in Moscow and gained a cult following among underground adventurers the world over.

"I wouldn't call us archaeologists," he says. "We are not too interested in finding things and bringing them up to the surface. We want to explore, and leave what we find in peace."

Mikhailov has seen some extraordinary things in three decades of probing the bowels of an 850-year-old city. Centuries of mad tsars, secret monastic orders, and more recently, the Soviet government, have left an indelible mark on the capital's nether regions.

In 1994, the Diggers stumbled upon Stalin's rumored spetzmetro, a secret metro used to shuttle Soviet leaders around the capital. Mikhailov claimed that in addition to the metro, Stalin built an underground highway wide enough to transport tanks and planes to and from bases outside of Moscow.

Another more alarming discovery from the Soviet era was the nearly 350 kilograms of radioactive material that the Diggers found under Moscow State University.

"It was stored in special cases, and the cases were overturned and broken, with the material leaking out," Mikhailov recalled.

According to Mikhailov, he called the authorities and they removed the hazardous material.

The Diggers have also unearthed passages and chambers that date back to medieval times, such as an ancient underground cemetery beneath the Arbat, which an incensed Mikhailov claims has been disturbed by builders laying the foundation for new construction projects.

"Morally, ethically, spiritually, it's not right to disturb these places," he says. "These builders think only about putting their houses up, not about the history they are destroying in the process."

Indeed, Mikhailov is a vocal critic of the government. He rails against the city municipality not only for allowing historically significant sites to be disturbed by construction, but for its failure to properly maintain the water mains below many of the city's aging buildings. According to Mikhailov, many of these buildings, like the famed Durov Animal Theater, which suffered severe structural damage when pipes burst under it several years ago, are in danger of collapse.

"I've told them that there are structures in this city whose foundations are rotting away," he said. "But they won't listen to me."

Despite his often adversarial relationship with Moscow's hierarchy, Mikhailov is often called upon when situations arise that require his expertise.

The Diggers helped authorities in a successful manhunt for three convicted murderers who dug their way out of Butyrka Prison several years ago. More recently, Mikhailov's group was on hand during the "Nord Ost" hostage crisis, helping the elite Alpha unit enter the Dubrovka theater through the sewage system. A special unit of the Diggers, known as Digger-Spas, conducts life-saving operations throughout Moscow.

Mikhailov's plans for the future are ambitious indeed: an underground Digger bar; a team of Diggers that would conduct explorations from Paris to the Amazon; and a search for the mystical library of Ivan the Terrible, which many say lies under Moscow. At the moment, however, the underfunded Diggers would like to update their antiquated equipment and move their base of operations out of Mikhailov's tiny apartment.

The Diggers most fascinating expedition is one that laid the foundation for Mikhailov's personal outlook on life, what he calls the Digger philosophy.

During their deepest foray under the earth, an 840-meter trip under southwestern Moscow, the Diggers came across a sink hole through which three underground streams converged, forming, in Mikhailov's words, a subterranean Niagara Falls.

Rappelling down the 30-meter shaft, the Diggers found themselves in a massive cavern, hanging over a tremendous lake. Mikhailov said some scientists believe there are many such bodies of water deep below the Earth's surface, all feeding into one another.

"Borders only exist above ground," Mikhailov says. "In reality, we are all connected."