EuropeStoryUnderground by Tatiana Bormatova

Speleology is the study of naturally - occurring caves, and spelestology is the study of underground cavities not used for intended purposes.
157122 min



In ancient underground quarries, all is in full swing by day and night. Both adventurers and serious researchers – speleologists and spelestologists – come here. Speleology is the study of naturally – occurring caves, and spelestology is the study of underground cavities not used for intended purposes.

In the fourteenth century, in Outer Moscow people began mining stone underground using closed methods. It lasted until the nineteenth century. Under Stalin, entrance to the underground was strictly forbidden, but this did not stop people going on adventures. In the 1960s, the masses started to venture into the underground. Then they started to blow up the entrances to caves. Access to the underground became much more difficult, but the interest for anthropogenic underground caves did not cease to exist. Starting in the 1980s, spelestologists and enthusiasts again started to look for underground caverns, previously forbidden in Soviet times.

Underground | Tatiana Bormatova
A vertical well with a staircase known as “The Cat’s Hole” – the only open entrance into the Syanovsk caves. It got its name in the 1960s before the authorities began to destroy the entrances. Then there were many more again, but the remaining ones were much wider. It was possible to squeeze and struggle through. The Cat’s Hole was opened up by spelestologists in 1988. In 2007, they strengthened the well with reinforced concrete buttresses to prevent collapses.

The analysis of old rubble, digging up and exploring passages, and topographic surveys all require staying underground for several days at a time. In the caves specialists would start to allocate grottos for toilets, sleeping, eating and collecting water, as well as strengthening areas that were prone to collapsing. The walls were covered with drawings, inscriptions, artefacts and graffiti. These new traditions and rules resulted in the formation of new subcultures.

Visiting caves now is very entertaining. More and more often, they are being visited by thrill seekers, people who like to drink, unofficial excursion groups, and bloggers. Often people go underground without knowing basic safety precautions. That said, the risks in underground caves are not few: one could get lost or end up in a rock collapse. Spelestologists think negatively of amateurs who try to prevent filming and unofficial tours. A few of the researchers carry out excavations and study the underground caverns, but the increase in popularity is starting to disturb their work. They try to keep the whereabouts of newly discovered caves secret.

The photographs in this project were taken in the Moscow Oblast, in the Syankovsk and Novlensk caves, and also in the Kamkinsk quarry, more well-known as Kiseli.

Underground | Tatiana Bormatova
The living grotto in the Syanovsk caves. In Syanovsk, the grottos belong to different groups of spelestologists. Strangers do not like it here. Those who come for the first time can spend a night in separate living grottos.

About Tatiana Bormatova

Tatiana Bormatova is a Sevastopol based photographer, was born in 1993 in Moscow, Russia. She currently engaged in personal projects in Russia. Her work focuses on topics devoted to social problems and phenomena of modern Russian society. She studied documentary photography and photojournalism at the School of Modern Photography Docdocdoc (St. Peterburg, Russia). Continues to study in the direction of post-documentary photography. [Official Website]

Underground | Tatiana Bormatova
Soap beside a washbasin made out of plastic bottles.

The high level of moisture helps the growth of mould in the caves.

The main openings have a wideness of 1.5 metres and a height of between 0.4 and 3.5 metres. Spelestologists can move around the caves, sometimes having to crouch. Some of the openings have very narrow holes which must be crawled through.

The entrance hole in Syanovsk caves is located in a ravine on a river embankment. There is a bus stop above it and residential buildings are over the caves themselves. Local residents have to agree with the drilling of wells as this affects the structure of the caves.

A running cord is used to mark the route. It was probably amateurs who installed this. Experienced spelestologists are oriented either by map or memory.

The speleologists take a smoking break in the man-made track of the Kamkinsk cave. The tracks in the caves near Moscow are passages carved out of stone and use other materials to strengthen the ceiling.

Imprints in the ceiling of the Novlensk caves indicate that stone blocks were broken out of here to be used as supporting wedges.

The map of the Syanovsk caves. Topographic photographs of underground passages are taken by different groups of spelestologists. Because of this there are often mistakes which result in people wrongly mapping the routes.

The water point where drinking water can be collected. It is made from stretched polythene with a catcher underneath. The collected water is boiled and drunk, or otherwise used for technical purposes.

The hall in Syanovsk. The walls of the caves are covered with drawings, inscriptions and graffiti.

Decorations made from empty wine bottles in one of the grottos.

Spelestologist overalls. In the caves it is dirty, dusty and damp in places. The constant temperature is somewhere between 7 and 10 degrees. Spelestologists enter the caves in changeable clothes, often in cotton or specially designed overalls, boots or shoes. Their hands are covered by gloves and heads are covered with bandanas. Hardhats are not worn in the caves. It is worth being careful underground, you can hit your head on the low ceiling at any time.

The Altar of Desires in Syanovsk – an amusing object created by someone who visited the cave no less than five years ago.

A trolley, insulation and boards in the grotto of the Syanovsk caves.

A head attached to the walls in Syanovsk – a modern art object.

A speleologist smokes in a grotto in Kiseli (in the Kamkinsk caves). The Moscow speleological clubs use the caves for scientific excursions and developing albums of topographical photos.

The “Chekist” grotto in Syanovsk. Usually the name of the grotto is given by its builder or “owner”. It might be arbitrary or simply be named after the “owner”. Nicknames in the subcultures of spelestologists are widely known. The names on the walls of grottos help guests orient themselves and coordinate with maps.

The sought-after, commercial stone is limestone. This is what was mined in the quarries. Stone is chopped for a specific order and the primary processing of the stone all took place whilst still underground. Limestone was used in construction as well as for wall masonry and decoration. Why the remains of stones are still in the passages of the Novlensk caves after being processed is unknown.

The underground passages. It is very dark in the caves and you cannot move about without a head torch.

“Tomb of the elevator” – a fake grave in Kiseli; an ironic reminder of the dangers of the underground.

The grotto in Kiseli. On the tables are food covers which protect items from rodents, underneath there are foods with far-off expiry dates. Anything that can be eaten by mice or rats is suspended from the ceiling. Rubbish is collected in bags and taken above. Once a year the enthusiasts carry out a big underground spring cleaning.

The entrance to the grotto is covered with a banner. Speleologists use synthetic materials which are not damaged by moisture for their basic needs.

The old system of accounting seen on the walls of the Novlensk caves. The strokes were probably made with charcoal on masonry stones. Miners noted how much they managed to turn, cut or carve out of the limestone. Speleologists closed this cave to the public to preserve the historical importance of the passages.

The exit from the Syanovsk caves.

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