Exploring Moscow's underground Mysteries abound in maze of tunnels

April 12, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Sealed in a Day-Glo army-issue chemical weapons suit, Vadim Mikhailov enters a public park as nonchalantly and unhindered as if he were on a Sunday stroll.

With a crowbar, he pops open a 75-pound manhole cover and drops into the dank, echoing depths of a dark tunnel for another day's work.

Where Moscow's self-appointed lord of the underground emerges is likely to be a story on the evening news.

Up from the sewers, utility tunnels and underground river beds, he has crashed parties through ventilation shafts at the chic Maxim's restaurant and Planet Hollywood. He has prowled the lower depths of the Central Bank, claiming encounters with mysterious masked men. And he has emerged from the base of a bridge to warn city officials that it was about to collapse.

Last month, Mikhailov led a national television news crew to the site of 4,000 pounds of radioactive waste below Moscow State University.

As head of the Moscow Diggers, a loose affiliation of urban cave explorers, Mikhailov has no official authority to enter the city's maze of sewers, underground rivers and subway tunnels.

Yet no one stops him or the followers he says number 3,000.

In a city with an armed guard at practically every door, police officers at every major in-

tersection and a long history from Ivan the Terrible to Josef V. Stalin of burrowing for safety from invaders, the city's underground is strangely open to anyone.

But Mikhailov says he and the Diggers are not just anyone.

"We're professionals," says the 32-year-old medical school dropout who has been exploring Moscow underground since he was a child.

"This is a profession that combines security, ecology, archaeology and architecture," says the Russian cross between Barney Fife and Indiana Jones.

He takes the discovery of a ton of rotten apples under the Kremlin as seriously as he does a dangerously corroded water main.

He also promotes tours of the Moscow sewer system. The Russian Playboy magazine suggested in December a New Year's underground party with the Diggers at $200 a ticket. There were no takers.

But the mayor of Moscow, a former prime minister and a presidential candidate have taken one of Mikhailov's underground tours.

Mikhailov likes to lecture his charges on urban pollution, the vulnerability of the underground to terrorist attack and the general state of disrepair of the 1,400-year-old city's infrastructure. He also spins tales of corpses and live "unknown biologicals" in the depths.

Mikhailov, with his ponytail and with irises permanently enlarged from his daily life in the pitch-black underground, spices his lectures with philosophy and folklore.

If he could, Mikhailov would descend for good. He sees romance, mystery and science in the 2,000 miles of rat-infested, slimy tunnels he has explored.

Anyone who ever loved J. R. R. Tolkien or Jules Verne knows the pull of the imaginary nether world. But Mikhailov had more. His father, a Moscow subway train driver, used to take him for rides in the driver's seat through the city's splendid underground system.

"The change of light and darkness, and the tunnels branching off sideways fascinated me. I knew these concrete caves of civilization were another world -- a fairyland," says Mikhailov.

With enthusiasm he picks through his collection of Moscow stalactites and stalagmites, czarist coins, ancient mortars and pestles, horseshoes of indeterminate age, and stacks of blueprints and maps in his apartment. Moscow's City Hall has exhibited his finds, and children's camps have invited his group to lecture.

On a recent tour of the underground Niglinaya River, which courses gently, knee-high through central Moscow near the Kremlin, Mikhailov danced through a spray of apparently clean spring water bursting through a hole in an 18th-century brick tunnel. With flashlights inadequate against the pitch black, he pointed out strange, white fungi growing on the walls and showed where he claims to have found the hacked-up skeletons of victims of 18th-century robberies.

But separating the Diggers' fantasy from reality is hard. One moment, Mikhailov talks about a body he discovered in utility tunnels under the U.S. Embassy (an event embassy security officials say they don't remember), and the next he shows clippings about himself from serious publications.

"We take the Diggers very seriously," says Alexander Kopisov, a spokesman for the company that operates the city's 911 emergency services.

"We're hoping that Digger volunteers will be one of our departments in the future," he says, explaining that the Diggers already have rescued people who have fallen into spillways and manholes.

"They're fanatics, but they do some serious work," says Nikolai Nikolaev, an NTV television reporter who reported the Diggers' radioactive waste find last month. And after a subway bombing that killed four people last summer, he reported with the Diggers how easy it would be for terrorists to penetrate the subway system "unconventionally."

"They're at the same time a help and a nuisance to the city with all their discoveries," he says. "Probably, that's why they're more valuable to the city as they are. If they were recognized officially, they'd be a stronger irritant to the government and could raise even more alarm."

Official status isn't what the Diggers want, though. Mikhailov says he'd simply like to make some money from his profession.

And, he adds, "My dream is to explore the Brooklyn underground."

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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