Recently an Islamic sect in
made intentional headlines when police discovered that its members had dug a
series of tunnels and cells beneath their compound. Apparently they wanted to
hide from the sinful world above and not only that, but their leader thought it
a good idea that babies born in the stygian depths should remain there. As a
result, some of the children had never felt the sunlight on their faces. Precise
details of what was going on are yet to emerge, but as I watched the story on
the news I wondered- just what is it with Russia, sects and going underground?
Texas for instance we
have no shortage of sects, but when a cult leader decides it’s time to cut
himself and his followers off from the rest of society he just finds a big
field or ranch in the middle of nowhere and moves there. In Russia too, there
is no shortage of open space and remote zones, but sect leaders seem to have a taste
for the bowels of the earth.
This is a preference which crosses confessional and ethnic boundaries. For instance, although the group in
Kazan is Islamic and Tatar, in 2008 a
bunch of Christian Slavs convinced that the End of the World was imminent dug a
big hole under a tree in the Penza
region and disappeared into it with half a ton of honey for food. They stayed
there for six months, fasting and praying and avoiding the plague of hot sex
and anthropophagy that their prophet assured them was taking place in the world
above. Two of their members died before they finally gave up and emerged from
In fact, so profound is this underground obsession that it extends beyond the world of “conventional” religious sects and into the twilight zone of post modern beliefs. A few years ago I met a man named Vadim Mikhailov, who claims to lead a small community of followers known as The Diggers, who prefer conditions in the tunnels and bunkers beneath
to the surface world.
Mikhailov, who lived with his mother in a tiny apartment facing onto Belorussky Vokzal, spun wild tales about secret metros and a vast subterranean megalopolis that the soviet elite had built beneath Moscow in case of a nuclear attack. There were four lane highways and apartment blocks, and enough canned food for millions of people, said Mikhailov. He then took me below, and in a journey I describe in my book Strange Telescopes, he revealed unto me a stinky sewer. I was skeptical, to say the least.
On the other hand not everything he said was false: the secret metro does exist, and I don’t doubt that the Russian elite built substantial bunkers for their own use. In fact, these stories are so widespread that I remember a respectable guidebook in the mid 1990s repeating Mikhailov’s yarns about an underground city as fact, adding that the entrance was via a drain near the statue of Karl Marx opposite the Bolshoi Theater.
The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoesvky was so obsessed with subterranean things that he wrote a book entitled Notes from Underground, in which he created the enigmatic figure of the “
For Dostoevsky however the “underground” was a metaphor; his hero is a perverse
sickly creature who acts against his own apparent interests, and yet remains psychologically
free as he rejects mainstream society to burrow “underground.” Undergound Man.
It doesn’t end there. Around the same time that Dostoevsky was writing, a member of
Believer sect buried his entire family alive. Like the honey slurping
subterraneans in Penza
slightly over a century later he believed the Antichrist was coming, and that
his loved ones would be better off beneath the soil. Instead they died. And far
away, on the other side of the empire, a trader stumbled upon a mammoth frozen
in the ice. The indigenous Evenk people had also stumbled upon mammoth skulls
from time to time; I read that they believed them to belong to gods, who lived
beneath the earth.
The list, no doubt, could go on and on. So why this fascination with the bowels of the planet? What is it that the peoples of
are drawn to down there? A safe hiding place, somewhere the arbitrary whims of
authority cannot reach them? Perhaps. There’s an interesting folk tale, about
the Holy City of Kitezh. According to legend, a Russian prince built it in the
13th century, and when the Mongols hordes approached, Kitezh
vanished beneath . Apparently the
truly pure of heart can see buildings and religious processions taking place
beneath the waves. But how are sinful humans to reach the Lake
when they can’t breathe underwater? Well, perhaps they can try the second best
option, and go underground, to live alongside with the bones of the saints, and
their other noble ancestors. Holy City
Originally published by RIA Novosti 10/8/2012