Intractable Histories: Moscow’s Secret River [Global Undergrounds]

Moscow is a city of layers. It is built on old stones and on spilt blood, grown out of fire and flood and age-old secrets. Most notorious amongst those secrets are its subterranean realms, places like the legendary lost library of Ivan the Terrible, and the closely guarded military/government transport network known as ‘Metro-2’.

In recent years a growing subset of Muscovites have dedicated themselves to exploring the city’s lost, forgotten, or otherwise restricted lower levels. Known as ‘diggers’, these contemporary urban explorers have been investigating Moscow’s secrets since the 1980s; with alleged discoveries that range from Soviet-era military installations to the shrines of secret underground cults, as well as a system of tunnels that many claim to descend as deep as twelve storeys beneath the capital [1]. While some of these reports seem to tread the threshold of fantasy, the Neglinnaya River – commonly known by its diminutive, ‘Neglinka’ – is a well-documented landmark of the Moscow underworld.

In 1495, when the Kremlin was completed, the Neglinka formed a natural moat curving around its western flank. The river flowed from the north of Moscow, through the city and out into the larger Moskva River to the south. As a moat however, the Neglinnaya proved ill effective. It did not repel the Crimean Tartars, who sacked Moscow in 1571 [2]; it offered no defence against the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, who defeated Russia in the 1610 Battle of Klushino before marching on the capital and holding it hostage for two years [3]. Moreover, the broad floodplains of the Neglinka halted all construction west of the Kremlin.

Initially the river was dammed to control its flow, creating interconnected ponds which ran the course of the city; for a time these served the developing capital as bathing pools, by turning watermills and aiding fire-fighters. As the city continued to grow however, the Neglinka – once perceived a tactical advantage – soon became the enemy of Moscow’s progress.

In 1792 work began to redirect the course of the river into a masonry canal; by the early 19th century however, that canal had grown so foul that steps were taken to hide it from sight altogether. The first Neglinnaya Tunnel was built between 1817 and 1819, in the area of present-day Theatre Square. Initially this tunnel served as a sewer as well; for 70 years it channelled foul water into the Moskva, until the construction of dedicated sewers in 1887.

In time the Neglinka was lost to Moscow: it was built over, buried and forgotten altogether.

Today, this subterranean waterway flows for seven-and-a-half kilometres beneath the city, to meet the Moskva River just south of the Kremlin, where it is discharged through outflows under the Bolshoy Kamenny Bridge, and to the east, beneath the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge. Though removed from sight, however, the Neglinka features access points the length of its course. Lift a manhole cover on Tsvetnoy Boulevard or peer beneath the metal lids that pepper the park on Sadovaya-Samotechnaya; only a leap of courage separates one from the murky, timeless flow of the Neglinnaya far below.

Crossing that threshold is the hardest part – to descend from buzzing city streets into those damp, cobwebbed shafts, hand-over-hand down rusted rungs into a labyrinth of dripping stone. Down here the sounds of traffic recede, to be replaced by a new ambience; the endless rush of water through pipes, the drip, drip, dripping of condensation on the walls.

While Moscow above has exploded in size and density, a sprawling metropolis of eleven million people, the Neglinka has changed very little since the turn of the nineteenth century. The history of these tunnels is plain to see, written into the very walls themselves. Moscow suffered catastrophic floods in 1965 and 1973, both occasions prompting the construction of new, larger channels. These renovations stand out in brutal form: vast concrete pipes built to Soviet scale. They also add contrast to older sections, including the passages of crumbling masonry that mark the site of the original Neglinnaya Tunnel.

The Moscow Diggers claim to have made gruesome discoveries here, too: human skulls hidden in side tunnels, along with rusted weapons and jewellery [1]. The Diggers were not the first however, to embrace such a fascination with Moscow’s hidden river.

Vladimir Gilyarovsky was a Russian journalist active in the early twentieth century. He chronicled the shifting regimes, shared his memories of pre-revolutionary Russia, but also, less famously, was an accomplished urban explorer, being, ‘the first journalist who dared descend into the Neglinka, where he found incredible quantities of dirt … and dead bodies’ [4].

In over 800 years Moscow has earned noble accolades such as ‘The Hero City’, ‘The Third Rome’; but down here, beneath its pavements, the Neglinka remembers every dirty secret.

 

[1]‘The Diggers’, www.spirit-of-moscow.com, 2007.
[2] John F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Los Angeles, 2006).
[3] Tomasz Bohun, ‘Moskwa w rękach Polaków. Pamiętniki dowódców i oficerów garnizonu w Moskwie’ (‘Moscow in Polish hands. Memoires of commanders and officers of the Moscow garrison’) (Moscow, 2005).
[4] Tamara Eidelman, ‘Vladimir Gilyarovsky’, Russian Life, 48:5 (2005).

Intractable Histories

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