Kremlin Tunnels : The Secret of Moscow’s Underworld

Times Staff Writer

It was a summer evening in 1933 when the two young men found what they were searching for: the entrance to a centuries-old underground tunnel within sight of the red Kremlin walls.

As they crept underground toward Moscow’s seat of power, lighting their way with a lantern, the men believed they might find Ivan the Terrible’s legendary library of gold-covered books.

Instead, they found five skeletons, a passageway sometimes so narrow that they had to file through singly and, within a few hundred yards of the Kremlin, a rusted steel door they could not open.

It is a story that pushes listeners to the edge of their seats, one that retired engineer Apollos Ivanov waited more than 55 years to tell even his closest friends.

Stalin Feared a Coup

It is also a story that the late dictator Josef Stalin wanted no one to know because he reportedly feared a coup attempt literally from below. So, Ivanov and his friend, detained that night after their great adventure, were forbidden under implied threat of death to reveal their secret.


Ivanov’s boss, who found out about the tunnels only after Ivanov was detained and who then intervened to prevent the young man’s arrest, later was accused of trying to organize a band to attack the Kremlin from underground. He was arrested and executed.

“The memory of that night is the most vivid memory I have. It was torture not to talk about it,” said Ivanov, now 78. “But I knew if I told someone, I would be taking an enormous risk.”

At last, the risk is over. In a remarkable sign of the changed times under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, a city official took an American journalist to one underground chamber that was recently discovered during work on a subway station about half a mile from the Kremlin.

A Deeper Passageway

The official led the way down a cool, musty hall beneath the street to the entrance of a deeper tunnel blocked by a pile of dirt and rocks.

Even now, the tunnels excite the imagination no less than they did when Ivanov was 22 and sneaking beneath ground.

Many of the tunnels are believed to have been built in the time of Prince Dmitry Donskoy, who ruled Moscow for 30 years beginning in 1359 and managed briefly to overthrow the Tatars.

Donskoy built the underground pathways beneath the Kremlin fortress as a secret link to the outside. They were to be used by government spies, as an escape route if the Kremlin were besieged and to bring water from the Moscow River during times of war.

As time passed, Russian Orthodox patriarchs also dug tunnels and connected them with the Donskoy tunnels so that, in case of invasion, the patriarchs could flee to the walled fortress of the Kremlin.

The uses of the underground passageways in later years can only be surmised because few historical documents refer to them and Soviet officials never mentioned them. But some historians have suggested that they served in modern times as rendezvous spots for illicit lovers or as places to hide the corpses of enemies killed in political intrigues.

Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible, a warlord who ruled from 1533 to 1584, apparently hid an arsenal of weapons in the tunnels. Some of the guns were discovered in 1978 when Soviet workers were expanding a subway station.

Many historians also have long believed that Ivan hid his famous library of gold-covered books beneath ground. The existence of the library is first mentioned in documents from the period of Peter the Great’s rule, which began in 1682. But the library reportedly has never been found.

Ivanov’s story begins on the site of Christ the Redeemer Cathedral, which Stalin blew up in 1931 as part of his war on religion.

Ivanov worked on the site and, studying a church document from the 19th Century, discovered a hint of secret entrances: a map that showed dotted lines leading from a room instead of the solid lines normally used to signify doorways.

“I asked the director of my department what it meant, and he told me it was simply a mistake. But there was still a doubt in my soul,” Ivanov said in an interview.

Using a metal bar to tap against the foundation of the destroyed church, Ivanov listened for the hollow echo of a hidden cavity. He found one.

The next day he told a friend, Boris N. Konoplov, of his discovery. That night they went to the site, where they broke through the chalk-white stone of the platform.

“Beneath the stone we saw a metal door. It was old and rusted, and we pulled hard to get it open. It screeched, and we felt cold air and we saw steps going down steeply,” he recalled.

“My stomach turned. Even though we were looking for a tunnel, I never really expected to see subterranean chambers.”

The two men were without lanterns, so it was several nights before they were able to descend again to the tunnel. One passageway went toward the Moscow River, the other toward the Kremlin. They chose the Kremlin path.

“The tunnel looked very old, with cracks in the walls and ceiling,” Ivanov remembered. “It was dark and smelled musty and became more and more narrow, so we finally had to walk one by one.”

As they moved along the tunnel, they noticed a tiny chamber to the left, and when they shined their lantern inside they saw two skeletons lying on the floor. Just beyond, there was a chamber on the right with two more skeletons.

“Without a word, we crept forward. But suddenly, Boris stopped so abruptly that I ran into him,” Ivanov recalled. “He pointed, and there in a third cavity to the left was a crucified skeleton with metal bars holding its arms, legs and neck to a cross.

“The neck was bent a little; it had black holes instead of eyes, and yellow teeth,” he said. “We later decided it had been put there to scare off intruders.

As they moved ahead, they heard a noise above getting louder and louder and then passing. They later agreed it was probably a tram on the street overhead, but at the time the reverberations and the skeletons combined to unnerve Konoplov.

“First, Boris said: ‘What if this tunnel collapses? No one even knows we are here, and we will never be found.’ ”

As Ivanov considered Konoplov’s words, his friend, who had led the way all along, composed himself, saying, “Oh, well, let’s go further.”

About 300 meters from the Kremlin, their journey was halted by a rusted steel door that they were unable to force open.

“We had been underground by then for about two hours. We decided to return home and come back through the tunnel the following night, bringing with us tools that would help us get the door open,” Ivanov said.

Their adventure, however, was ended for good. Guards stationed at the site of the destroyed church caught them emerging from the tunnel. Only with the intervention of Ivanov’s boss were they freed.

“My superior said, ‘What the devil moved you to do that?’ and he warned me that to speak to anyone else about it would be very dangerous,” Ivanov said. “I knew he was right. I didn’t know everything about Stalin, but I knew if I violated this order I would be in serious trouble.”

Stalin, a despotic ruler, apparently feared an attack from underground and thus ordered the execution two years later of Ivanov’s boss, Ivanov said. Stalin also had a public swimming pool built on the church property, thus effectively blocking the tunnel entrances.

Ivanov was afraid to write about his adventure until 1970, long after Stalin was dead. Then he began a book simply to put his tale on paper, perhaps for his children.

Ivanov and Konoplov seldom saw one another after their adventure. Konoplov died five years ago before Gorbachev came to the Kremlin to trumpet glasnost. But Ivanov lived long enough to see the changes. Now, he said, his book has a chance to find a publisher.

Despite the greater openness of the day and the new freedom to reveal the secret of the tunnels, Ivanov said he is certain there are other underground passageways that are not being talked about.

“I am absolutely convinced that tunnels still exist today under the Kremlin itself,” he said. “Whether or not they are in use, I do not know. But I am certain they are there.”