Thursday, December 06, 2007

Urban Explorers: into the Darkness

I made it to the show at the Riverview tonight, very cool. So there are actually other people out there who are more than just internet posts then right? DVDs were $15 each, but only if you were there (you can still order them from the film's website for $35). Its worth watching for sure, even if its just for kicks.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Into the Pit

I've been pretty busy lately, otherwise I'd have posted much more content recently. Archery and theater tech have been taking up all my time after school, and working Saturday and Sunday kills my weekends. Enough complaining though, time for a story...

I signed up for the light crew this year to get myself introduced into the South High Theater. It was a good choice, cool people, fun stuff. One of the best parts is getting to know the theater. I'm not going to go into too great detail about things, but above all the seating is "the grid", catwalks and wooden planks techies walk on to change house lights and CCTs, Parcans, Fernels, and all variety of theater lights. It is an awesome place to be, and provides access to the pits. There are three pits, each located over the three sets of doors that provide access into the theater. To access them from above, you must squeeze under and between cables, pipes, and burning hot house lights. The pits primary purpose is to hold massive folding walls that expand like an acordian to divide the auditorium. They also hold a variety of equipment, dead rodents, and other oddities. Here are a few of the photos taken over the past few days "working" as a light tech and just trying to explore the theater.

A shot of the grid.
Opening the hatch into the commons.
This got us a few surprised looks from bemused administrators and janitors.
The bottom of the Pit.
On the edge.Eventually though, my luck ran out. When I was sliding down a rope, I wasn't watching what I was doing close enough, and slammed my knee into a metal pipe. It hurt like hell at first, but I managed to get out just fine. Soon after I noted a large blood stain soaking through my jeans. Fortunately, we were pretty much done for the day anyways. I went home, and when several hours later it was still bleeding, and I realized how deeply the impact had split the skin, I went in to get it stitched up. The problem was that every time I bent my knee, it would pull open, and start flowing blood. Messy. I had to go to work the next day and be able to move, so something had to be done.

Three stitches and 6 hours later I'm sitting here typing this with one sore knee seeping blood, and some aspirin, just what the doctor ordered.
I can't wait to go back.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Nicollet Island IV

Its been a while. Have you noticed that it seems like I'm saying that every time I post after I've been exploring? Anyways though, a few days ago Scout asked me to go back to Satan's Cave with him so he could show it to a friend who was interested, and I said that'd be awesome.

[fast forward to the weekend]

We met in a parking lot next to the Hennepin Ave. Bridge in the late afternoon at the back of Scout's unmarked white
Econoline van, and I got introduced to Kanskje. From there, we had to do a bit of calling around to let someone know where to find us if we never came back, then down we went. We used an entrance on the side of the Island, trying to make sure we didn't get seen by any of the people out in the 60+ heatwave we had, damn Americans trying to be fit and healthy. After we crawled through the collapsed "room", under the sewer, and into the tunnel, we decided to just head for the "cave", all the side tunnels were were pretty wet, and we were already going to have to walk through allot of black sewer sludge as it was.

Kanskje behind a fire-hydrant pipe

Scout and Kanskje in the brick water-main tunnel that roughly runs-around the north half of the island

Flow-stone at the base of a hydrant


There isn't really a whole lot to see in the brick tunnels, except for some very interesting white fluffy looking mold that we passed by pretty quickly.

We made it all the way to the "cave", took a look at the tags and carvings, met a few bats sleeping upside-down in niches on the walls, but didn't stay too long. The air this time was particularly bad, the worst I've ever had down there yet, really thick and lacking real oxygen. It got to the point that Scout and I were really starting to notice it, so we decided to book before we got to take a look at the shrine again. We ended up going straight for the manhole that opens into the middle of the field.

I popped it without anyone seeing us, about and hour and a half after we went down. Just as soon as we slid the cover back in place, a police car pulled up about 60 yards away. I'm pretty sure they never saw us, but we got out of there pretty quick. We took our time getting back to the parking lot, and split up.

The river was like glass

It's fun exploring with awesome new people, so hopefully, we'll all go do something like this again soon, but somewhere besides Nicollet Island. Its kinda starting to get old now, and conditions down there don't seem likely to get better to soon, so its time to find somewhere new, maybe a grain elevator, we'll see...

Me on top of a light tower next to the Hennepin Ave. Bridge

Preacher or dictator?


Making a point


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

"Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness" DVD Release Party

December 6th at the Riverview Theater, 7pm.
The fun plan includes a screening of the film, possible live music, and very interesting people watching!

The details

Official Film Website

Friday, July 27, 2007

Tradgedy in St. Paul Storm Drain

I don't mean to over-hype the incident, but it hit very close to many in the local UE community and deserves at least some mention.

Two contractors working for the City of St. Paul were killed Thursday when they were swept away after the storm sewer they were working in flash-flooded (flooding being a normal occurrence) during the afternoon storm around 3:00 pm. A massive rescue attempt was launched after emergency services were notified four hours later. Teams entered drains and covered outfalls to try and recover the lost workers.

When it rains, no drains.
This should never have happened. There is somewhat of an international motto among explorers and the like, considered even more paramount than the "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints".
  • Never enter a drain if there is even the possibility of rain in the days forecast.
  • Examine side tunnels and shafts to determine possible emergency exits.
  • Know what is down stream of you, so if all else fails, you can try and work with the flow to get you to an outfall.
  • The most important thing is not to find a place to hold on to or hide in, but get the hell out.
The following like takes you to a page with a first hand account about when things in a drain get out of control, and this wasn't even during a flood. Attempting to follow these guys yourself is highly discouraged (if I say something like that on this site, it has to be something I wouldn't consider doing myself).

I can't recall ever hearing of the death of an explorer in a local drain. A private firm that claims to have had monitoring deceives and weather spotters in place should have bean able to avert this tragedy.

I think it's fair and accurate to say the hearts of the entire TC UE community are with the victims' friends & families, and they share their frustrations, some, more than they may ever understand.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Nicollet Island (3rd Times the Charm)

Weer'e baack! No more silly reports stolen from other sites, its time for some super bad ass urban exploring! I was chatting with a friend I hadn't seen since school ended (Sparkling Wild Berry) and she brought up the idea of going exploring with another friend (Scout) that I had talked about doing something like this over the summer with. Long story short, Thursday morning we were on the way to Satan's cave. Yeah, I know we've been there half a half dozen times before, but there is still plenty of it I haven't seen, and its sort of like a good place to get back into shape.

Every trip we had made before this, we had used a manhole located on a hill in the middle of a field to get into the tunnels, and we were more than lucky no one ever saw us. A few days before this trip, I had spent an afternoon walking around the island, trying to find a better way in. I found one.

We crawled our way up into a partially caved-in "room" littered with slabs of limestone and sleeping bags, then down a length of sandstone tunnel before emptying into another large space, this one bisected by a branch of the large brick sewer tunnels found under the island. We has two choices, over or under. Scout and I took the high road, and SWB managed to get through underneath. We had to take turns tossing packs and gear back and forth to fit through some of the tight spots, but it wasn't long before we ended up in a brick water main tunnel. We followed that for a long time. We didn't take any side tunnels this time, it was wet, heck, our main tunnel was flooded enough in parts that even by walking on the top of the water main pipe, our shoes were sinking into about an inch of nasty smelling black sludge shit.

Eventually we got to the cave. Out came the cameras, we admired the artwork, and moved on. We took the long way out and headed through the "other cave" that loops into the brick tunnel again closer to our old entrance.

Scout in Satan's Cave

Lick Nuts. If ya haven't figured it out by now, yeah, we're weird

Scout, art aficionado

Sculpture in the cave

SWB documenting

In the belly of the beast.

Check that?... err, still here

Not even alcohol

The shrine


Light writers



Scout BW

Sparkling Wild Berry

Me (thanks Scout)

SWB again

Back into the brick tunnel

It was actually open when we got there. Weired. At the top we found a flashlight someone had left. Double weird. Call us lucky or Scout's got mad skilz, cause no one saw us this time either! Afterwards, we stopped by the Aster Cafe' on the mall there for some lunch and a few rounds of Jenga. Great place. Got to go back there some time when I'm not covered in clay.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

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

Here is an amazing report from a 1997 issue of Outside magazine. I wish I lived in Russia.

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
By Erin Arvedlund

Vadim Mikhailov emerges from Moscow's netherworld
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.

The Digger chieftan inspects another priceless relic from the catacombs
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.

in the government hate me,"
"It's because I know more
about the underground than they do.
I'm the king down here."
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.

Moscow cross-section, as mapped by Vadim Mikhailov
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.

criminality and terrorism
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."

Erin Arvedlund lives three floors aboveground in Moscow, where she is a correspondent for the Moscow Times.

Photographs by Jeremy Nicholl

Monday, February 05, 2007

"Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness" Minnesota Debut

Here are the details:
Closer to home, Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness makes it’s official Minnesota debut on Friday, March 16th, at 9pm, followed by a second screening a day later, March 17th, at 4pm. Both are at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, whom you should contact to reserve or purchase tickets. To judge from the turn-out at the last fundraiser for the film, I would not show up fifteen minutes early and expect to get in.
-taken form
For more information: