The Kola Superdeep Borehole
This is an excerpt from Driving Down Russia’s Spine, a book about three journalists’ (one American, two Russian) 6000-km trip down the full length of Russia, from the border with Norway to the Black Sea. The trip took place in October 2015, and this is one of the first episodes. The trip also produced a hardcover photo book with essays, The Spine of Russia. All of the photos in this post were taken by Mikhail Mordasov.
WE ARE IN Nikel to meet the deputy head of the regional administration for economic development, Alexander Molodtsov, who has what the reality-based among us might call a wild dream. He wants to transform an obscure, Soviet era scientific facility into a tourist attraction.
Fit, compact and sporting a crewnecked sweater and the neatly trimmed beard of a hipster, Molodtsov speaks like a lottery ad disclaimer on speed. Earnest and intelligent, he was born in Grozny (yes, that Grozny, capital of Chechnya), lived in Moscow, worked as a consultant, and about a year ago was recruited to serve in this hardship outpost. He is a new breed of consultant cum apparatchik, young and flush with hard-nosed enthusiasm to make his country a better place.
His idea is at once simple and ludicrous. He wants to turn the Kola Super Deep Borehole (Кольская сверхглубокая скважина) into something people will travel from all over the world to see.
“This place is comparable to what CERN might be in 30 years,” Molodtsov says, referring to the laboratory outside Geneva, Switzerland where 2500 employees oversee the Large Hadron Collider and other physics laboratories. “We expect to sign an agreement in the coming days and turn it into a tourist complex… In principle, it will not take that much investment. As you will see when you go there, one building is in very good condition. We just need to slap in some windows and we can have an information center, a museum about the Borehole, etc… The former head engineer has an excellent collection of historical materials.”
When asked if it is realistic to think that people will travel hundreds of miles to breathe toxic air and contemplate a seven-mile foot hole in the ground (admittedly, the question was stated more diplomatically), Molodtsov seems to not recognize the challenge. “There is lots of international interest,” he says. “Recently a German artist came all the way over here especially to see just this.”
“It’s also the source of lots of urban legends,” Molodtsov says, for the first time cracking a smile. “Surely you have heard about the myth how they dropped a microphone down the well and heard the sounds of screaming in Hell?”
Okay, now we are interested.
DRILLING OF THE Kola Super Deep Borehole was begun in 1970 on the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth (because nothing says “we love you” like a borehole). It reached a maximum depth of 12,262 meters (7.6 miles) in 1990 and soon thereafter funding ran out. The purpose of the hole was entirely scientific, and the project was launched at this location because it represented the shortest distance to the point where the Earth’s mantle and crust were separated by the Mohorovicic discontinuity. Translated into lay language, the goal was to drill as deeply as possible into the Earth’s crust.
As it turns out, drilling also had to stop in 1990 because the temperature at the bottom of the well was almost twice as high as expected, and the drill bits stopped working.
The site delivered much useful scientific information for geologists and physicists (little beyond the four kilometer drilling mark was as expected) but if anyone in the non-scientific world knows about the Borehole it is likely because of the urban legend known as The Well to Hell.
It began life as the sort of harmlessly bogus story one might expect to read in an obscure Finnish evangelical newspaper, because that is exactly where it began (its editors claiming they sourced it from a newsletter of messianic Jews in California). For some reason, the tale was then picked up by the Trinity Broadcast Network (see Pat Robertson) in the US, whence it bounced to mainstream media and the ever credulous internet.
The story goes like this: A group of Russians, led by a Mr. Azzacov [sic] drilled a 9-mile-deep [sic] well somewhere in Siberia [sic], whence the hole broke through to a cavity of some sort where the temperature was 2000º F [sic]. So, of course their first thought was to drop a heat-tolerant microphone into the Borehole. Lo and behold, what did they hear but the tormented screams of the damned [sic?]. A recording subsequently circulated that was later found to be a loop track for a 1970s horror flick.
But the best part is that a Norwegian teacher, Åge Rendalen, saw the story when visiting the US and decided to have a bit of fun at the expense of mass gullibility (those crazy Norge). He wrote to TBN, claiming that he had additional information about the story, confabulating a tale about a bat-like apparition that escaped from the mine just before the microphone was lowered down the hole.
TBN re-reported the story with Rendalen’s colorful addition, not bothering to follow up and check on the false sources he provided.
In reality, as disclosed by David Guberman, the Borehole’s last director, in 1995, the year the operation was closed down, there was an inexplicable incident of a strange explosion after hearing sounds of unknown provenance.
“When, at UNESCO, they asked me about that curious event, I didn’t know how to answer,” Guberman reported to the Russian edition of Popular Mechanics. “On the one hand, it was damn nonsense. On the other, as an honest scientist, I could not say that I did not have any idea what happened in our facility. A very strange sound was recorded, then there was an explosion… nothing was discovered about it over the next several days.”
MOLODTSOV HAS ANOTHER meeting, so he can’t accompany us to the Borehole, but his wife Liza is kind enough to provide us with detailed instructions, given the fact that the roads are not on any map, not even Google Maps.
Liza begins inscribing directions in my notepad. They begin with a turn down a nameless road just before a “rather disturbing” billboard and end with a “sharp right turn when you are surrounded by massive tailing mountains.” She notes down several interchanges, separated by the estimated time to travel between them.
“How long to get there?” the intrepid adventurers ask.
“About 20 minutes,” Liza says, “40 for non-locals.”
Her estimate proves to be wildly optimistic on either count.
Hunting the Borehole
We drive past Nikel’s belching, mile-long nickel refining plant (why would you need to drill seven miles down to find Hell when it has such a suitable replica right here on the surface?) and climb long roads of blackened earth, met only occasionally by an oncoming semi. Finally, a few kilometers out of town we reach the noted billboard (it is an ad to encourage seatbelt use: a man reaches around and across a woman from behind, as if his arm were a seatbelt, although he could just as easily be assaulting her from behind), and head higher still into the hills.
The first wrong turn takes us to the top of a hill (constructed of massive tailing boulders) where there are stunning views out over the Pasvik Valley (a nature preserve inconceivably located just a few kilometers downwind from the town, along the border with Norway). The smoke from the refinery settles over the valley like a toxic meteorological blanket.
We stop for a few pictures after realizing our error, then backtrack to the Y in the road we missed.
Soon after we climbed out of the town, the road conditions changed significantly. The smooth, crushed-stone secondary road was covered with a crusty, slippery snow that hid potholes and pointed tailing shards alike. Plus of course it was bitterly cold. So we traversed the empty miles in anxious anticipation of a blowout, joking about Liza’s overly optimistic directions.
This dampened our enthusiasm somewhat for the starkly beautiful terrain surrounding us, yet when we arrived at the massive tailing mountains (sharp right turn) the human imprint on this desolate, deserted landscape was thrown into mind-blowing relief.
Countless ten-story skyscrapers of boulders loom about us as far as the eye can see in every direction, castoffs from seven decades of digging and hauling from the mine at Zapolyarny. It is difficult to imagine the thousands of massive trucks that delivered their tens of thousands of payloads here, because the valley is silent but for the grind of our little Volkswagen Polo’s engine. There are other tire tracks in the snow, but we do not see another living soul during our long drive into or out of the area, even though we are never more than 15 kilometers as the soot-covered-crow flies from Nikel.
Finally, just as we are beginning to think we will never find the Borehole and are negotiating over how much longer would be considered a “good faith effort” to find it before we turn back, we crest yet another long hill over rutted roads and see a complex of abandoned buildings nestled in the valley below. We cheer, never having expected to be so excited to see a site of industrial and scientific ruin. Then, of course, we stop for photos.
Nadya and I wait in the car as Mikhail disappears out of sight down the side of the hill, camera in hand.
We are in the middle of nowhere and, in the eerie silence surrounded by the opaline Arctic landscape, Nadya makes an unexpected observation from the back seat.
“This is just like the beginning of a horror movie,” she says.
I laugh nervously.
“But I’m not worried,” she continues, “because the pretty girl always survives in the end.”
Keep reading Driving Down Russia’s Spine.