Poems from the Underground
Russia’s Kola Superdeep Borehole, close to the far northwestern border with Norway, is one of the deepest holes ever drilled in the name of science. Nine inches wide and stretching 7.5 miles into the earth, the borehole project was initiated by the USSR as a terrestrial counterpart to the Space Race—a national effort to reach the center of the earth before the United States did. After beginning drilling in 1970, Russia didn’t stop working on the hole until 1995; ten years later, it was capped. But Yuri Smirnov—geologist, poet, and devout communist—served as self-appointed guardian of the hole until his death at age 87 this past June.
Smirnov, a decorated World War II veteran, joined the borehole project as a geologist when it first began, shortly after the centennial of Lenin’s birth. An earlier American initiative called Project Mohole had begun in 1958; initially funded by the National Science Foundation, its goal was to reach the boundary between Earth’s crust and mantle by drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The US project was abandoned in 1966, with the deepest of its five holes extending 601 feet, or about one-tenth of a mile, beneath the sea floor. (Earth’s continental crust is an average of 18 miles thick, but can be as little as 3 miles thick under the oceans.) The Kola Superdeep Borehole, also known as SG-3, was incepted four years later by the USSR’s Interdepartmental Scientific Council for the Study of the Earth’s Interior and Superdeep Drilling. The borehole site was part of a “closed city” meant only for research purposes, says photographer Alexey Yurenev, who spent several weeks photographing the area and Smirnov’s life last year.
Beyond demonstrating the USSR’s power as a nation, the Kola Borehole was a useful study site for geological research: it revealed metamorphic changes in rock, evidence of life from over 2 billion years ago, and an extensive underground hydrogen supply. Finding oil or energy resources was not the goal, and the project only stopped when conditions deep below the earth’s surface—including temperatures as high as 365 degrees Fahrenheit—made drilling impossible.
Twenty-three years after drilling stopped, the former research site is littered with defunct machinery, metal scraps, and crumbled concrete. But Smirnov—proud of the borehole’s scientific significance and disheartened by the lack of recognition surrounding it—never left it behind. Geology was his passion, with communism coming in as a close second; the site was the embodiment of both. Almost blind and in poor health, Smirnov was a fixture in Zapolyarny, the small copper- and nickel-mining town close to the drill site. His wife had left him decades earlier, when she became unable to cope with the surroundings and gave her husband an ultimatum: “It’s me, or the hole.” Smirnov chose the hole.
Alexey Yurenev met Smirnov while working on a film in the area in 2016, and he returned a year later to document the man’s life. Sharing Smirnov’s three-room home for a week and often staying up until 2 a.m., Yurenev was treated to personal tours of both the home and the drill site, as though they were museums of Smirnov’s own. Local lore had it that before the hole was capped, the “sounds of hell” could be heard coming from it. Smirnov, however, was a staunch atheist. He believed that if there was any god at all, then she would have to be a woman.
In the time that he knew him, Yurenev says, Smirnov spent his days rising late, distributing communist propaganda, criticizing local technocrats, and writing about women, science, and women in science. To him, being guardian of the hole meant preserving the history he treasured and informing others of it, whether by giving tours of the drill site or adding to his collection of hole-related memorabilia. His home was strewn with cups covered in political poetry, striped Russian military shirts called telnyashkas, artifacts from the hole and from the war, the poems he had written for every woman in town, a shotgun, and the couch he slept on. He kept a photo album he had made for his family that they rejected and sent back. He signed everything as, “Yuri Smirnov: Geologist, WWII Hero. Ten confirmed kills, four captives.”
There are no plaques or museums marking the Kola Superdeep Borehole. It’s unguarded and surrounded by rubble. Smirnov’s dream was to raise enough money to memorialize it, or even restart research-based drilling. In his introduction for his future borehole museum, he wrote: “Perhaps the ultimate human happiness consists of not only understanding the present, but also the depths of the past, combining contemporary history with the beautiful and perpetual cycle of existence.”