At the Bottom of the Elevator
Created on Dec. 11, 2015, 8:08 p.m.
(Recorded below is the full transcript of the acceptance speech given by Leonid Brouchkov upon appointment to the position of Head of Physics at the University of Birmingham in 2015.)
It was in 1998, and I was attending Saint Petersburg State Polytechnic University when my brother passed away. Visiting him in the hospital in Vorkuta he spoke quietly and sadly to me and, as I seemed unable to ask him about himself, asked me questions about my studies and plans for the future. I remember well, that he asked me what I was looking for in Physics - a question that at the time I was incapable of answering directly. All I thought of was a single memory of the two of us as children.
It was a game we played around the ages of ten and thirteen - our father had been a teacher at the local high school, but he had also previously been a handyman of sorts so at the back of the garage had kept this huge metal chest of apothecary drawers. Each draw was carefully labelled and individually filled with the things he'd used for repairs, mechanics, and electronics.
The game went like this - my brother would rummage through the drawers filling his hands with whatever he could find - screws, bulbs, circuitry - anything. We would then exit the garage and climb up the brown slope that ran up from the back of our house to a small pine forest that sat peacefully overlooking the town. I would wait behind while my brother disappeared into the woods.
I'd sit on the hill watching the clouds drift overhead and the wind skate over the dirt. The town below would move slowly, cars pushing their way through the streets in silence.
After several minutes my brother would emerge and it would become my turn to be the leader. Under the cover of the trees I set about looking for these little mole-hill-like mounds. These were where my brother had buried the things he'd collected from the garage. Each item had it's own burial place - its own tiny pile of evidence. When I found a burial I'd start tearing at the earth like a dog, churning the dirt, trying to see what was buried below. My favourite moment was the first glimpse of the object. Perhaps the cylinder of a large golden nail, covered by a thin layer of soil, or the protrusion of several wires through the ground, attached below the earth to a motor torn from a ceiling fan.
Once all the items had been found we'd head back home. Dutifully we'd place each of the items into their drawers, returning to the warmth of the house, and often, dinner. The game was the same every time. We never switched roles. In fact it was only once, in 1998, that I did the burying.
Now as you have probably guessed from my accent I did not grow up in Birmingham. I grew up in northern Siberia, in a village located at the foothills of the Ural mountains, south of the coal mining city Vorkuta.
And, as anyone who has grown up in the middle of nowhere knows, there is something deeply depressing about living so far from civilisation. The lack of things to do can be countered by finding good hobbies, but to shake off that feeling of irrelevance is much more difficult. Like many others, I learned to cling to any kind of trivial speciality about the area - the nearby location of a military base - a local type flora or fauna - historical significance in some 17th century war.
In the case of our village - it had a few claims to fame which I quickly memorized. Locally it was known for the high school which attracted most of the young people in the area, but more widely in Russia it was known for being quite a picturesque location for holidays. It contained several beautiful buildings - built in the Imperial Russian style - quite a contrast to the Soviet constructions found in Vorkuta. Additionally it was rumoured that due to these nice buildings, during the war, the town had been residence to a host of Russian generals. At this time Vorkuta had been a particularly brutal gulag, with prisoners forced into many hours of hard labour down the coal mines.
Vorkuta is by all means a city that should not exist. It is located in the barely habitable treeless tundra, originally settled by 23 prisoners in 1931. It started as a small labour camp constructed during the building of the Salekhard–Igarka Railway. It quickly became populated by many more prisoners as the government attempted to exploit the natural coal resources of the area. After the second world war most of these labour camps shut down, and instead the workers mined on in perpetual darkness voluntarily, buoyed by communist propaganda and the belief they were leading heroic lives for the motherland - even while the price of coal plummeted across the country. By the fall of the Soviet Union the labour camps were shut down, and the area became populated by the new generation of children, and then people such as me and my brother.
I knew most of these things thanks to one of my brother's friend called Nikolay. He was interested in this kind of local history and had often teased my brother and I about the game we played in the forest. He said it was only a matter of time before we dug up something left over from the gulag - a murderer or a rapist preserved in the perma frost - ready to kill again. He had said that in the days of the war, when the top layer of soil had been washed away in the spring, fields of human bones, remains of the prisoners, sprouted up around Vorkuta.
I can't say these stories didn't have an impact on me. Looking back I believe they were probably what convinced me that the elevator in our town might have had some importance.
The elevator was more or less was exactly as it sounds - an elevator like you might expect in any multi-story building. The strange thing about it was that it was located outdoors. It was situated just behind the school and there was a small concrete path that lead to it from the back of the science building. But essentially it was just an upright metal box. It sat outside alone, exposed, unused.
It looked quite tragic out there in the snow. The metal was a horrible shade of dirty brown, rusted from years of abandonment. The carriage was guarded by two sliding copper trellis gates. Next to the carriage was a panel of ancient looking electronics.
Nikolay lived quite near the school, and from his attic it was possible to see the elevator. When my brother was around to see Nikolay I would often go up to the attic and sit by the window. I would stare at the elevator until the sky got dark. It became like an old friend - a constant of the town - existing apart from the real world, set in a calm rusted orange.
I asked every adult I could find if they knew anything about the elevator. Most said they suspected it was something to do with the school - that perhaps it had lead to some kind of the boiler room or storage area. Some suspected that once an additional school building might have stood over it and covered the shaft - but ultimately no one knew exactly what it was for.
I was almost fourteen before I finally got some idea about the elevator's purpose.
It happened at Nikolay's house. It was late into the evening and I was feeling restless so I wandered up to the attic and sat by the window. Out behind the school, settled into the snow was the elevator. I started to notice that there was a faint yellow glow coming from the slit between the doors. It looked like the lights were on inside the carriage. The buttons on the electronics panel were faintly lit up too. The box was glowing with muted yellow energy.
After a few minutes a large man in a black ski jacket appeared at the corner of the street. He was carrying a sealed cardboard box, shuffling it this way and that in an attempt to get a better grip. He appeared to be walking toward the elevator, clumsily stumbling through the snow.
When he reached the elevator he put the box down and pressed the call button. The doors opened and he placed the box he'd been carrying in the center of the carriage. Then he pressed and held another button for several seconds before turning away and lighting a cigarette. After a little while the doors automatically shut behind him and the carriage descended.
The man continued smoking several cigarettes. After perhaps 15 to 20 minutes the carriage returned. The man took out a small key from his pocket and inserted it into a hole in the panel of electronics. The lights in the carriage went out and everything dropped into darkness. The man in the black jacket walked away, his hands deep in his pockets, the glowing butt of his cigarette gliding through the air like a spark.
For almost an hour more I continued to sit at the window. I couldn't come to terms with an unwanted sense of purpose and agency that had fallen over me. It was like I felt some kind of supernatural responsibility to discover more about about the elevator. Also - I'd recognised the man in the black jacket.
He was called Mr Korsakov and he worked as the school's caretaker. I didn't know much about him but my impression was that he was a large quiet man who kept to his own company. He rarely spoke to any of the children and had an aura of unapproachability around him.
For several more years this was all I knew. This sense of purpose didn't disappear, but I simply had no way to act upon it. I was still a teenager - I still had to do normal teenager things. I had to go to school, eat dinner, see friends. I simply wasn't capable of questioning the school caretaker about why he had carried a box into an unused elevator.
But this time was not totally wasted. It was during this time that I discovered my love for Physics. I found I had a natural desire to understand the unknown, and good practical skills in mathematics. In fact I became quite the teachers pet. I ended up forming a friendship with the lab technician - a young man called Victor.
Victor was an awkward, lanky young man who had just graduated high school. Both me and Victor had nothing you could really call a social life, and so after school we would often stay behind to perform silly experiments. Victor's lab access was particularly useful for acquiring all the materials we wanted. It is also worth noting that the caretakers office was attached to the science lab which gave me a good way to observe Mr Korsakov's comings and goings.
One evening Mr Korsakov came though the lab to lock up. Upon seeing that Victor and I were performing an experiment he silently sat himself down at the computer in the corner of the room and started checking his e-mail.
By this time the internet had started to become a thing in Russia. Victor and I would browse for hours on the various chat groups, forums, and websites dedicated to unexplained phenomenon, government conspiracies. Victor had a particular penchant for "Numbers Stations" on the radio - but he seemed mainly interested in aesthetic values. He would consume science fiction at an immense rate. For me these stories were constant sources of worry. Most of all I was desperate to find some mention of the elevator, or at the very least something to do with Vorkuta. For many years nothing ever arose - until one evening, browsing on the home computer in the evening, I noticed a user called prizrak-veter posting in one of the forums I visited dedicated to the Russian space program.
Immediately I recognised the name - firstname.lastname@example.org was the e-mail address Mr Korsakov had used that day he had come into the lab and used the computer.
I frantically started stalking this name online - tracking down everything I could find on the internet posted by anyone called prizrak-veter. I remember that evening distinctly - the office resonating in light from a small desk lamp - the boiler clicking urgently - the flash of the monitor when a new page loaded. It took several hours of browsing, but eventually I exactly found what I wanted. On a forum called "scientific writings" there was a post by prizrak-veter titled "At the bottom of the Elevator..." which laid out everything I wanted to know.
It described a scientific lab, controlled by the KGB and linked to one of the nearby mines. The role of the lab was a long running experiment to drill a deep bore hole as close as possible to the bottom of the earth's crust.
The post explained that by the end of the 1980s almost all developed countries had stopped experimenting with deep drilling, but that Russia had continued in secret with the lab near Vorkuta. The poster claimed that he himself had gone down to the experiment and talked to the scientists. He said that he had found the focus had shifted and now the work was on developing technologies which could run at the high temperatures and pressures that were found at the bottom of the bore hole.
He described the scientists in the lab - a grotesque image of a crew of motley progressives, weak and disheveled from deficiency to sunlight, psychologically unstable from their time underground, and completely unaware and uninterested in the developments on the planet surface.
The poster did not give away his identity, stating he was scared that the KGB may track him down, but said he had been employed in some degree by the scientists - and had sometimes taken down tools, materials, and supplies.
For several nights I couldn't sleep. The description of the lab and the scientists was burned into my mind. I was desperate to go down the elevator, to find these bizarre people running their experiments and to experience life underground. In my imagination I was going to arrive at the bottom of the elevator and be welcomed by the scientists and KGB agents, congratulated on putting the clues together and discovering the secret experiment, and I was to be offered a role in the project due to my excellent grades in Physics. I felt that this was my divine purpose in life and that these clues had been handed to me to fulfill this role. I knew objectively - scientifically - that I had to go down the elevator. And then I was given the chance to act on these powerful thoughts.
It was a Friday evening and Victor and I had stayed back in the lab after school. Mr Korsakov had already been in earlier and hung his keys on the hook in the caretakers office. He'd asked Victor to lock up for him once we were done.
Halfway though the experiment Victor jumped up.
He was red faced, glancing at the door.
"I totally forgot - I'm meeting a girl. I'm already 15 minutes late. Will you lock up? You just need to lock up the lab."
I agreed and immediately he grabbed his coat and rushed out the lab in a panic.
The lab felt wholly quiet. I looked through the back window at the snow drifts behind the school. To the right I could see the concrete path leading up to the elevator and ahead Mr Korsakov's keys hung just a few meters away in the caretakers office.
I took the keys and turned off the lights in the lab, shuffling out of the back door and shutting it behind me. I walked through the snow up to the elevator, avoiding the path and looking around to see which houses might have had their lights on. At the elevator I ran the keys through my hands until I found a selection of small keys that might fit into the electronics panel. After a few tries a bronze key slid in perfectly. I turned it and the elevator carriage lit up. A small mechanical whirr started, echoing around the back of the box.
I pressed the call button and the doors quietly slid open. I felt the delicate bounce of the carriage as I stepped onto the floor. It was covered in a red mottled carpet. There were two buttons on the inside with arrows for up and down. I pressed the down button and the doors shut. The carriage started it's long, steady descent.
Once the doors had shut I felt an immediate sense of panic and regret. I was very worried that I had been deluding myself and that now I had no escape. To try and calm myself I lay down on the floor and took deep breaths, examining the carriage more carefully. Inside the carriage it was a lot darker than I'd expected. The only illumination was a ring of small dim bulbs inset into the top. The carriage was also somewhat fancier than I'd expected. On the inside it was actually quite nice - with wooden panelling and simple patterned wallpaper covering the metal frame.
I tried to think what my course of action should be upon arrival. I wasn't sure if should prepare some explanation for my infiltration into the lab or if the KGB were likely to kill me on the spot, and I should prepare my final words instead. I thought of my brother, and my family in the town above, slowly drifting away as if I was afloat on the ocean, and I thought of the bore hole protruding vertically down below the town, unbelievably deep, like an inverted tower, swaying and unstable in my vision.
The carriage stopped and the doors opened. Light flooded the room and I jumped up to turn to face it.
Outside the carriage was a a pair of double doors with large safety glass windows. Beyond was a long corridor with several doors and passages on either side. It was painted white, with blue trimmings and a plain green carpet spread over the floor. It was clean and had that antiseptic, institutional feel to it. The corridor was really like any other - like any ordinary corridor you might find in a hospital, or school, or police station.
There was no handle on the double doors so I pushed on the flat metal panel. The doors rattled aggressively but didn't swing open. They were locked. I searched the door frames for anywhere that a key might be able to be inserted, and took out from my pocket the set of keys I'd taken from the caretaker to look though the whole set. But after searching for a minute or so it was clear the doors were locked from the other side and it was futile.
I peered between the glass panes, trying to get a vantage of what was beyond - to see if I could spot anything of interest, but each door to the rooms along the side had frosted glass windows and it was near impossible to see within.
I started to feel quite hot. I was confused - how had I been beaten so quickly? Why had fate lead me up to a moment like this. I sat down with my back against the wall, picking at the white paint and trying to desperately think if there was anything I could do - any way around this set of locked double doors.
I examined the small stretch of corridor between the doors and the elevator for clues, looking into each crack and irregularity for something that might allow me to continue.
But eventually I had to admit defeat. I got back into the elevator and rode it back up to the outside. It was late now, and very cold. The night sky was a somber blue - no stars due to the cloud cover. I went back and locked up the lab, careful to replace the keys on the hook as I had found them. Dutifully I put away the things we'd been using for the experiment. And then after that I went home.
I have thought about the elevator many times. But after that night I have never returned to my investigation. To this day I still do not know what is at the bottom of the elevator.
Instead I finished high school. And then I was offered a scholarship to study Physics at Saint Petersburg State Polytechnic University. I accepted - the first child in my family to go to University. I missed my family but I was extremely excited to escape my home town and when I arrived in St Petersburg I quickly made several close friends that supported me throughout my time there. For most of the first year of studies I could not be happier.
Then my brother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He was given just a few months to live. During those months twice I made the epic journey back to Vorkuta and managed to see him before returning to my studies. In my mind there was no doubt about the cause of his cancer. As soon as he finished school he had started work down the mines. The constant inhalation of rock dust and chemicals had destroyed many worker's lungs. My brother was simply unlucky to have it happen to him so young - and foolish to get a diagnosis so late.
Initially the death of my brother affected my studies quite negatively and I was lucky to graduate. Then, for some unknown reason, after graduation I was hit with a surge of ambition that has stayed with me to this day. I worked a part time job in a paper factory to fund myself through a Masters degree. I got excellent grades, and was offered a placed on a PhD course at the University of Strasbourg run by the incredible Jean-Raymond Hullot - from there my career in academia was set.
I spent many years moving around Europe before settling at the University of Birmingham and I dare say in that time I saw a few different buildings dedicated to science. In those buildings I think it is again fair to say I saw my share of science labs. I must have seen hundreds of science labs, and thousands of different experiments - populated by an incredible number of clever and hard working scientists.
Generally these labs are connected by corridors - ordinary corridors - indistinguishable in my memory from the one at the bottom of the elevator all those years ago. And each time I moved University I was given a new set of keys, with access to these corridors. This time I visit the rooms and witness the experiments taking placing. Experiments vastly more interesting and important than anything I could have imagined as a teenager.
And now I am honoured to be made Head of Physics at the University of Birmingham. One of the honours that comes with this role is unprecedented access to the many corridors, labs, and experiments that are run by this department. In fact - I dare say I have greater access to these corridors than any other member of staff.
In each of the rooms there are many things that as a child I would have called treasures - things like those found in my father's garage - circuit boards, wires, screws, nuts, and many other things far more magnificent than I could have imagined at the age of ten - computers and chemicals I could never have understood. What I have access to now, and what I have achieved, is literally beyond my childhood dreams.
I have to thank the University of Birmingham for giving me a home. Settling here I have finally accepted a feeling that has always resided in me - a feeling that I think many of you may also share. It is something we must not hide away from - but that equally we must not let interfere with our lives as scientists. It is the feeling that somehow all of these treasures we have collected lack some quality, some special variable. The feeling that - without this property they are worthless. The feeling that the real treasures we are looking for are still buried somewhere far away - under the earth, in a small pine forest, at the foothills of the Ural mountains, south of Vorkuta.