Somewhere deep in the Ural Mountains, a crumbling wooden gate serves as a guardian to a hidden world. Here, deep beneath the earth, rusting equipment lies abandoned in dark tunnels. This labyrinth was once at the heart of Russia’s war effort, but now only the bravest of the brave venture into its dark caves.
Photographer Mikhail Mishainik has a passion for all things underground. He runs a website dedicated to the mines and quarries of Russia and often makes the news with his dazzling photographs of places that are rarely seen.
On May 5, 2014, Mishainik uploaded some stunning images to his website. They were the end result of a death-defying adventure underneath the Ural Mountains. This rocky range cuts across western Russia, from the border with Kazakhstan all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
The Urals are rich in valuable resources such as coal, precious stones and metal ore. And ever since the 18th century, the profits from mining there have provided a significant boost to the Russian economy.
During World War II, hundreds of factories were relocated to the region, which transformed the mountains into a hub of Russian industry. In fact, nearly all of the USSR’s mining operations were also moved to the Urals, where workers rushed to source the metal ore required by the Soviet Army.
When the war ended in 1945, demand for ore petered out. And so the mines were closed and left to slowly rot and decay as the decades passed. But for Mishainik, the idea of exploring these abandoned industrial relics proved too tempting to resist.
Armed with his photography equipment, the photographer and a few trusted friends braved the rubble to venture deep inside one of the Ural Mountains’ forgotten mines. One of 26 operations that had sprung up in the region during the war, it was a dark and dusty labyrinth that hadn’t echoed with human footsteps for almost 70 years.
It was a mission that was fraught with danger. Indeed, the hasty construction of the mine meant that the engineering involved was questionable and that the structure could be prone to collapse.
There was also a risk that any chemicals present could release toxic gases, which would poison Mishainik and his companions. However, despite the hazards involved, the group decided to push on. And as a reward, they came out with some truly amazing images.
At the entrance to the mine, a makeshift wooden door had been constructed, presumably to block access to the tunnels. However, several large planks had fallen away from the structure, and so Mishainik and his companions had no difficulty getting inside.
The photographs reveal the haunting scenes that met the group. Moreover, in many places the wooden structures supporting the construction had rotted or collapsed – meaning the explorers were in real danger the entire time they were inside.
Climbing over a number of years’ worth of fallen debris, Mishainik and his friends peered down darkened tunnels and splashed through flooded passageways. And although some areas of the mine had been reinforced with concrete, the majority of the walls and roofs were carved from bare rock.
In one tunnel, the explorers found an abandoned trolley on tracks that disappeared into the mine. Yet precious metal ore filled the basket to the brim, as if the miners had simply downed tools and left mid-task.
In another part of the mine, Mishainik discovered the entrance to an old inclined shaft. However, the lack of adequate ventilation in the area meant that he was unable to venture further inside.
Further down, at a depth of approximately 1,300 feet, things began to get even more sinister. The group came across a huge set of reinforced metal doors, which were constructed to protect the mine from floods. According to Mishainik, they could withstand up to 25 atmospheres of pressure.
Beyond the doors, the mine appeared even more like a time capsule from a bygone age. Rusted machinery still lined the walls, while signs bearing instructions in Russian hung down from the rocky ceiling.
In one chamber, an old digger sat abandoned, poised as if ready to get back to work at any moment. In another, a section of ceiling had caved in – a stark reminder of the constant danger the explorers were in. Because if part of the mine had collapsed during their visit, the group would have been trapped deep beneath the earth.
Finally, they managed to snap an incredible photograph of the mine’s most amazing feature. In a room carved from the rock, a pool of translucent water had formed. And deep below the surface sat a collection of heavy machinery, perfectly visible through the crystal clear liquid that had submerged it.
After 12 hours spent underground, the group found that their power was running low, and so Mishainik returned to the surface. It would, however, be far from the last time that the explorer would venture into the dark world beneath the Ural Mountains.
Today, Mishainik runs guided tours for visitors interested in seeing Russia’s abandoned mines for themselves. For him, there is a special thrill to be found in exploring these secret, underground places. “The danger element is part of the fun,” he said in an interview with the Daily Mail, “and it’s a special feeling being somewhere very few people have seen.”