The Central Academic Theater of the Russian Army majestically dominates Suvorov Square in northern Moscow. Right behind this prime example of ostentatious Soviet architecture, where real tanks occasionally used to roll onto the giant stage for general amusement, is Ekaterininsky Park, one of the most idyllic green spaces in the center of the Russian capital.
But for Mischa, the area is primarily the gateway to a highly specific form of escape. This is the location of one of his most widely used entry point for urban explorers. It's where Mischa and others descend into Moscow's underworld.
As a digger, the term Russian urban explorers use to refer to themselves, Mischa explores drainage systems, subway tunnels, underground river channels, and forgotten military facilities.
The underground facilities, which were largely expanded during the Soviet period, are stratified in many parts of the city into sometimes more than six levels—many of which have yet to be explored.
"We don't smear all over the walls down here. Only fuckers do that."
Underground Moscow isn't only dotted with various secret military bunkers, but also with provisional mini dwellings made by illegal immigrants and off-the-grid citizens. And then there's also the myth-enshrouded Metro-2—a separate transportation system for bombs and absconding politicians, which it seems was built during the Stalin era deep under the normal subway.
Mischa hastily slips on his knee-high rubber boots, which, in combination with a helmet light, make up every digger's standard gear. He pulls a steel rod out of his rucksack, uses it to open a manhole cover, and he and his small crew drop into what's most likely Moscow's most peaceful recreational area.
Digging in Moscow has been a widely-practiced phenomenon for long enough that not only are there extensive forums where users trade choice photos, even intelligence agencies will defer to the diggers' knowledge.
The Dubrovka theater hostage crisis in Moscow was only resolved because Russian special forces were able to find a way through the sewers to the pro-Chechen terrorists, who had been holding several hundred hostages for two days. One of the old-school legends in the digger scene relinquished one of his homemade maps of Moscow's sewage and tunnel systems to the FSB special forces.
"A train stuck her leg. The bone broke through the skin and her flesh was oozing out. But she was very strong and managed to get back above ground on her own."
Together with Mischa, Motherboard wandered for hours on a march through one of the oldest historic drainage tunnels in town—from the northern edge of the subway ring, under the Kremlin and into Moscow's center. Once the water level started to rise—which Mischa noticed through by the sound of the drain water getting louder—we were forced to immediately leave the tunnel at the next exit.
During the tour, Mischa shows us Kremlin's sewage inflow and an exit to Red Square. We walk directly under Red Square, completely unnoticed, while 15 meters above us, masses of tourists make their way through the crowd. In this sewage tunnel, which runs directly under Russia's seat of power, there are historic bricks and cloacas far and wide, but no cameras or other security systems for surveilling the facilities.
Now and then we use the time during Mischa's many cigarette breaks to talk about Russian diggers' exploits, his friends' secret cellar parties, and underground forced marches through stinking ooze.
MOTHERBOARD: It's peaceful for sure down here, but it's also pretty uncomfortable. Why do you do it?
Mischa: Digging has become what I like doing most with my free time. The underground has become an important part of my life over all the years that I've been digging around when I'm not studying. A lot of explorers have also become friends. You experience a lot together and get through dangerous moments together.
My ultimate dream would be to get into Metro-2.
That's the most legendary, but also the most difficult spot for urban explorers in Moscow. What does the Metro-2 system even look like, can you still get into it today?
In the 90s, there were supposedly several explorers making their way around Metro-2 and they even made their own drawings and maps. The system is made up of three lines. One runs east, another west and the third runs south, almost to the edge of Moscow's city limits. They're escape routes for the ministers and the government. There are also a few stations in Metro-2; I'd say about a dozen.
"For our digger parties, we just meet up somewhere underground."
As far as I know, you can't access Metro-2 anymore. It would be a dream to see this place—but it will most likely stay a dream. Also, I wouldn't want to get caught there. If I did, I'd go to jail. Metro-2 is today still an object with high strategic value and the intelligence service, FSB [which succeeded the KGB] still protects the system.
Have you ever come across totally unknown spots during your tours?
Yeah, recently for example, I discovered some bunkers and military facilities, which were unknown before.
What do you do after that kind of discovery? Do you publish the information online?
No, nobody does that. When I discover something new, I only tell my close friends about it. There are too many people who want to be explorers. If detailed information becomes public, then a lot of people try and find the spot and they destroy the place for all explorers. Either it gets trashed or closed off.
You see a lot of tags and other lettering down here. Do you also leave your names in the catacombs?
No, only fuckers do that. We try to protect the spots.
How did digging start in Russia?
It all started in the late 80s. A few pioneers made their way into the subway systems and sewage facilities. When the regime started falling apart, that made the situation a lot easier for these people. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, digging got more popular.
In the early 90s, Vadim Michailov and his team surfaced. He got interested in exploring through his father, who worked for years as a machinist and subway conductor for the Moscow metro. Vadim influenced the old school generation like no other. By now he's about 40 and has been exploring for 20 years.
If you ask Vadim about spots, he still acts like he's a noob. Even though he's seen almost everything, he'll basically tell you nothing about the places he's discovered. In public he usually just reports on easy to get to sewage channels.
He does that because he doesn't want digging to become too popular, because he doesn't want too many explorers to find the best spots. More people, more idiots.
What's the general political stance of the digger scene and what's their relationship towards the police and security services?
Vadim Michailov actually works closely with the security services for example. The most well-known case was the devastating hostage crisis in the Dubrovka theater in Moscow. Back then, the special forces were desperately looking for a way into the theater to where the hostages were being held. With the help of information provided by diggers, they were finally able to find a way to storm the theater from underneath it. The terrorists were shocked—the way through the sewers was the key to the victory.
I'm definitely pretty proud of these guys. Two old school dudes that helped the security forces with their work and also got medals and badges for doing so.
You guys also have parties down here. How does that work?
For our digger parties, we just meet up somewhere underground. We chat, drink, sometimes we have a guitar with us and we sing songs together. It's actually just like a normal party, but it's underground.
Do the guests at these parties also wear protective gear and the typical digger dress?
Of course. At least if they don't want to get wet.
Is digging a boys' hobby or are there also girls at your parties and excursions?
Of course there are women there. In general there are a lot of women diggers that are active in Moscow.
We brought plastic bottles and wrapped-up sandwiches for our break. Do you leave the trash down here or do you bring it back up with you?
We actually always bring our trash back up with us. It's not ok to leave your trash underground. What would happen if everyone did that? But there are obviously a few idiots that leave their trash down here.
Do your fellow students at your university know about digging? If they do, what do they think of your hobby?
It isn't a secret. I upload my pictures on social media as well as on well-known digger forums like caves.ru.
Some of them think I'm crazy and say it's dangerous. Entering the subway tunnels is especially alarming for a lot of them. But other people are just impressed when they see the pictures that we take down there.
Have you ever heard of diggers getting hurt while they were down here?
Yes, there are occasionally injuries and there have also been deaths underground. But that usually happens to graffiti artists, not diggers.
But a friend of mine was once seriously injured in the metro. A train stuck her leg. The bone broke through the skin and her flesh was oozing out. But she was very strong and managed to get back above ground on her own. Then she had to be in the hospital for a month—but by now she's back to digging.
How do you protect yourself if you're in the subway tunnels and all of the sudden a train comes unexpectedly?
When you hear from far away that a train is coming, then the best strategy is to run as fast as you can and look for a door that leads to a technical room or to a bathroom. If there isn't such a door there, where you are at the moment, then you can always hide behind boxes next to the tracks where they store equipment.
If there's nowhere to go, because the tunnel is too narrow, then all you can do is lie down on the edge of the tunnel and play dead.
Then at least you can avoid being seen. Just being seen down here can lead to very real problems.
Additional reporting: Manuel Freundt. This conversation and the pictures were recorded several months ago, but were first published in August, 2015. This story was translated from Motherboard Germany.
Lead image shows the Shiplovskaya Metrostation during construction in 2007. The site used to be a long time favorite for diggers as well. Image: STALFORM Engineering. Wikimedia.