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This is Not a Place of Honor

this is not a place of honor


Estimated reading time — 7 minutes

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, huge numbers of formerly classified government documents were made available to the public for the first time. Such was the glut of these documents that even now, many of them have yet to be fully translated into English by historians and other scholars. One such document, a two hundred and forty-six-page report for the Ministry of Medium Machine Building (later renamed the Ministry of Atomic Energy and Industry of the USSR) on the topic of radioactive waste disposal, was only translated last year. Although the document was very dryly written, and received almost no attention from either the media or academia, it includes a description of an incident which, if accepted at face value, undermines much of what is believed to be known of the history of life on Earth.

The uranium-238 waste produced by nuclear power plants is a highly toxic radioactive substance, having a half-life of approximately four and a half billion years. For this reason, such waste must be stored in the most remote, geologically stable locales possible, as it must be isolated from Human populations and groundwater supplies, effectively forever.

Toward this end, the government of Premier Alexei Kosygin initiated a project to identify an optimal site for uranium-238 disposal in 1975. Geological survey results were inputted into an algorithm that evaluated sites in the USSR based on 22 different criteria. Eventually, the team of researchers determined a list of 500 ideal disposal sites, including a bare and nondescript hillock in the Great Lakes Basin desert steppe, close to the border with Mongolia.

In 1977, the ministry dispatched a team of geologists to the site to conduct a feasibility study. Hoping to gain a better idea of the local geological features, the scientists, led by one Grigori Lermontov (an Academician at Leningrad State University), drilled a number of narrow boreholes into the surface, into which they dropped sounding probes equipped with ground-penetrating radar. To their surprise, their results indicated a smooth wall of metal, buried at a depth of approximately fourteen hundred metres. By collecting data at several more sites, they determined that this wall was roughly hemispherical, with a diameter of approximately four kilometres. They also discovered an anomalous signature beneath one of the points at which a sounding was made, which Lermontov, somewhat reluctantly, speculated may have been a door or an entry hatch.

Intrigued by the discovery of such a large and regularly-shaped structure deep beneath the ground, the ministry decided to investigate further, and so Lermontov returned to the site the following summer at the head of a somewhat larger expedition, this time armed with a large drill and a team of mining engineers. By August 5th, 1978, the drill had successfully bored a hole down to the metal surface, directly over the site of the supposed hatch. One member of the expedition, a Georgian spelunker by the name of Amiran Cholokashvili, was then lowered into the hole on a mechanical winching apparatus, together with several tanks of oxygen, some scientific equipment, a powerful flashlight, and a QUARZ 5 8-mm movie camera.

The film that Cholokashvili collected is thought to be no longer existent, but a few frames from it were reproduced as figures in the report. The first, taken whilst midway down the borehole, depicts the light from his flashlight reflecting off of a gleaming metal surface far below. The second frame was taken after he had already reached the bottom of the pit and swept some of the remaining dirt off of the metal with a gloved hand. This figure reveals that the metal was iridescent and highly reflective. The report notes that at that point, Cholokashvili attempted to perform optical emission spectroscopy on the exposed metal, but found that he was unable to generate a spark between the metal and his electrode. As such, the precise chemical composition of the metal remains unknown.

Sweeping the dirt off of more of the metal, Cholokashvili found that there was indeed an entry hatch, which was shaped like an equilateral triangle, roughly a metre and a half to a side, a picture of which was included in the document. The hatch was inscribed with a series of symbols or pictographs in a language that has yet to be deciphered. In the centre of the hatch were three small, circular indentations, also arranged into a triangle.

At this point, Cholokashvili returned to the surface for further instructions, at which time he submitted his film to his superiors. The report notes that Lermontov, eager to get to the bottom of this mystery, sent a communiqué to his superiors in Moscow requesting that high-yield explosives and demolitions experts be dispatched to his site in order to blow open the hatch. Other, unnamed members of the team offered objections to this direct approach, noting that they did not know the provenance of the object, nor the effect that an explosion might have upon its metal, but these objections were overruled.

Given the remoteness of the site, Lermontov’s superiors advised him that any logistical support would take approximately a week to arrive. The researchers were ordered to stay put until then. During this time, medical records included with the report indicate that the spelunker, Cholokashvili, was prescribed sedatives from the infirmary tent on three occasions, in order to treat unspecified “nocturnal disturbances.” It is perhaps noteworthy that there is no record of Cholokashvili having been prescribed such medication prior to his descent into the borehole, but his mental state is not described.

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What is mentioned is that approximately six days after his initial descent, Cholokashvili decided to do it again, late at night and without either authorization or support. While almost nothing is known of his own individual psychology and temperament, it seems remarkable that an experienced spelunker would engage in such reckless behaviour. Indeed, together with his previously mentioned treatment for nocturnal disturbances, it does not seem unreasonable to speculate that Cholokashvili may not have been in his right mind at that point, and that, indeed, he may have even been sleepwalking.

Whatever his motivation, Cholokashvili apparently succeeded in rappelling down the side of the borehole, as the next morning, the Soviet scientists were shocked to discover the hatch at the bottom of the pit had somehow been opened wide. Moreover, the Georgian explorer had apparently purloined a movie camera, a reel of film, and several pieces of scientific equipment including a Geiger counter to take with him on his descent. It remains unclear how he managed to pry open the hatch.

Attempts to establish radio contact with Cholokashvili proved unsuccessful for nearly two hours. Then, just before a rescue party was to be lowered in after him, he was seen to emerge from out of the hemisphere, dragging a medium-sized ceramic canister. The hatch immediately closed once again behind him, after which he seemed to collapse upon the hemisphere’s metal surface. Lermontov then dispatched his rescue party to bring the spelunker with them out of the borehole.

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Cholokashvili remained alive for a further three hours following his rescue, but spent this time in a delirious state, occasionally babbling unintelligibly but unable to answer questions about either his inexplicable behaviour or what he had found within the dome. Physically, he showed symptoms of severe radiation poisoning, with burns covering much of his body, in addition to other abnormalities. In particular, Mr. Cholokashvili was described as suffering from extreme necrosis of the lower legs, with the bones in his feet being described as “almost chalk-like.” One doctor notes in the report that, if she had not known better, she would have concluded that Cholokashvili had been suffering from extremely poor circulation in his lower extremities for months or even years. It should be noted that neither necrosis nor osteoporosis are known symptoms of radiation exposure; the report does not speculate as to the cause, but notes that the results of post-mortem toxicology tests remained pending at the time of writing.

Unfortunately, the film captured by Mr. Cholokashvili fared little better than the spelunker himself; the report notes that most of film reel showed damage characteristic of exposure to high-energy gamma radiation. Nevertheless, a few segments of the film did manage to survive with only minor damage, and the material contained therein is potentially very telling. Notably, the report includes descriptions of two brief clips appearing to show the interior of the chamber, as well as frames from these clips. The first clip is approximately eight seconds long and begins with a shot of the distinctive triangular porthole, seen from below and illuminated with a flashlight. The interior wall of the dome appears to be made of the same iridescent metal as the exterior. The cinematographer–presumably Cholokashvili himself–then pans the camera down to reveal a room full of containers of various shapes and sizes, ranging from standard steel drums bearing radioactivity warning symbols and text in the Latin, Cyrillic, Simplified Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic writing systems, to more elaborate containers of unknown material and manufacture, bearing unrecognizable labels in unidentified scripts.

The second clip is nineteen seconds long and a good deal more difficult to decipher; the report describes the camerawork as “extremely unsteady” and prone to unaccountable optical distortions, but it seems to show the cinematographer attempting to make a rapid egress from the chamber, scrambling over fallen containers toward a cord dangling from the hatch.

The ceramic canister carried out of the dome by Cholokashvili was also recovered from the borehole. This canister was cylindrical in form, sixty centimetres high by twenty-five centimetres in diameter and was identified as being a standard-rated medium-sized drum for radioactive waste disposal. Upon analysis of spectrographic data, this drum was found to contain uranium-238 and lead-206, as well as trace quantities of several other isotopes, most notably uranium-234 and thorium-230, all of which are along the decay pathway for uranium-238. The relative concentrations of these elements indicated that the canister had been in place for approximately 2.1 billion years.

The report concludes by noting that further research will be necessary before drawing any conclusions as to the nature of this incident, the provenance of the hemisphere, the contents of the other containers, or how such artifacts–including some of manifestly recent design–could have been underground for so many years. Mention is made of a forthcoming follow-up report from a second expedition, but a record of this report has not yet been discovered in the declassified literature.

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One final note should be made concerning the aforementioned “babbles” made by Cholokashvili in the final hours of his life. Apparently thinking that the spelunker may have been speaking in his native Georgian, Academician Lermontov ordered that his utterances be recorded on a Chaika reel-to-reel tape recorder for later translation. Whilst that hope proved forlorn, the recording is still extant, and it was recently discovered—quite by accident when attempting to play this recording—that one of Mr. Cholokashvili’s utterances was, however improbably, intelligible in English when played backwards.

The statement was: “This is not a place of honor.”

It is not known whether the subterranean dome and its mysterious contents still exist today.

Credit : Queen Iacomina

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