Friday, February 8, 2013

Russia's Curious Passion for Subterranean Depths

Recently an Islamic sect in Kazan 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?

Here in 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 the darkness.

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 Moscow 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 “Undergound Man.” 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.”  

It doesn’t end there. Around the same time that Dostoevsky was writing, a member of Russia’s Old 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 Russia 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 Lake Svetloyar. 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 Holy City 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.

 Originally published by RIA Novosti 10/8/2012