A tap with a magnetic key and the front door creaks open. Sergey Prekrasnyy and Andrey Zolotov check for a security guard before giving me the go-ahead. We silently steal across the hallway to a lift that carries us to the top floor of a 82-foot, Stalinist apartment block on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, one of Moscow’s most desirable postcodes. As luck would have it, the hatch to the roof is unlocked. Minutes later, we’re outside with a commanding view of the cityscape below; Moscow City’s band of skyscrapers glitter in the distance to the north while Zurab Tsereteli’s Victory Monument rises in the south.
An impossibly tall ladder to a higher roof beckons and Prekrasnyy clambers up without hesitation. I follow, my legs trembling with each step, my heart thumping. My focus is sharp, my senses engaged. Once on top, we step through a tangle of wires until we’re behind a neon advertising sign, surveying the nanoscopic world beneath us. “When I first started roofing, I didn’t know the city,” says Prekrasnyy, a 20-year-old student. “But then I started climbing and began to understand Moscow. It was a new way of communicating with the city, of experiencing different smells, lights, sounds. When I climb, I talk to the city, I hear it. It’s a way of finding some space in a 24-hour megapolis.”
Prekrasnyy and Zolotov are “roofers”, a group of urban climbers who scale buildings, cranes, bridges and landmarks for breathtaking views of the city, which they capture on camera. The most famous Russian roofers have climbed Moscow’s “Seven Sisters”, a set of Stalin-era skyscrapers that mark out the capital’s skyline, as well as the Shanghai Tower, Cologne’s cathedral, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, without the aid of ropes or harnesses. Photos of their death-defying stunts on social media and in the western press — the British tabloids can’t get enough — have turned a handful into local celebrities. Published under headlines such as The Most Stomach-churning Thing EVER and The Crazy Duo that Scaled the World’s 2nd Tallest Building, Russia’s roofers seemed to appeal, at least as far as the media was concerned, to a desire to label Russians as fearless daredevils.
The style of photography used — high dynamic range or HDR, where several pictures with different exposure times are merged into a composite image — only serve to enhance the mythical status of roofing. The resulting photos imbue the sport with a hyperreal quality that make their exploits seem all the more heroic, winning them thousands of likes on Instagram. Videos of their deeds go viral, with the most popular clocking up several millions of views on YouTube. While snapping their escapades and posting them online initially allowed Moscow’s roofers to seek each other out and form a community, over the past couple of years it has inspired copycat climbs, transforming roofing from a fringe activity into a popular Russian pastime.
“When I climb, I talk to the city, I hear it. It’s a way of finding some space in a 24-hour megapolis”
A proliferation of trophy shots from the top of skyscrapers, cranes and historical landmarks coupled with a fairly lax attitude by the authorities has fuelled the growth of roofing, with an estimated 3,000 to 30,000 people taking part, including schoolchildren as young as 16. Unlike the “old” roofers who came before them — the intrepid climbers whose vertigo-inducing ascents include the Shanghai Tower — the “new age” are more interested in racking up climbs than adding buildings of towering significance to their list of conquests. “For the new wave it doesn’t matter what you climb, it’s about climbing as many places as possible,” says Zolotov, a 22-year-old freelance photographer. “It’s less about the quality.” With roofing moving into the mainstream, a number of practitioners, including Zolotov, are now offering tourists the opportunity to indulge in a spot of roof-hopping for a fee of around 1,000 roubles ($26). He even organises romantic rooftop excursions for couples, with a cosy blanket laid out beforehand. In St Petersburg, companies such as Sputnik and BeAbo offer a range of options that allow visitors to roam the rooftops of the city’s many baroque and neoclassical buildings.
Now, recent events threaten to bring an end to Moscow’s roofing scene. On the morning of 20 August, Muscovites woke up to discover that the pinnacle of Kotelnicheskaya embankment, one of the legendary “Seven Sisters”, had been painted in Ukrainian blue and yellow. Atop the building’s crowning star, a Ukrainian flag fluttered in the wind, a symbol of protest against Moscow’s support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. Incensed by this act of insubordination, the Russian authorities turned to Moscow’s roofing community for answers. Four people who were base jumping off the 176-metre apartment block around the time of the incident were arrested; more followed, including Kirill Vselensky, one of Russia’s most prominent roofers. Vselensky’s friends believe the arrest, on drug charges, was made to compel Mustang Wanted, the celebrity Ukrainian roofer who claimed responsibility for the action on his Facebook page, to turn himself over to the Russian police.
Taking to Twitter, Vitaliy Raskalov, whose motto “Victory or death” befits Russia’s most legendary thrillseeker, described the situation as “A complete fuck-up and a witch trial,” adding, “Don’t climb on roofs in Moscow now, and be careful.” Since the incident, a sense of unease has spread through Moscow’s roofing community with many steering clear of the city centre and non-residential buildings. “It means that roofing will be completely changed,” says Marat Dupri, a 22-year-old lawyer who has Moscow’s 98-metre Peter the Great statue and the Great Pyramid of Giza under his belt, among others. “I think it will become more punishable and guards will do their work more properly. I think the time of Russian roofing is over and that the Russian authorities will do everything to proclaim it prohibited. We will still have roofers but it will be much harder.”
Till now, Russian roofers have enjoyed a golden age with several years of relative ease compared to those in other countries. Although Moscow has a network of around 120,000 CCTV cameras, there’s little concern from roofers about surveillance. “In Europe, they’re actually watching the cameras,” says Roman Wershinin, a 22-year-old student. “Here, nobody’s watching.” Add to this security guards who can be found drinking on the job and police officers with an aversion to paperwork, and you begin to understand why tales of getting caught are recounted in a light-hearted, even boastful, manner; at best, roofers escape with a lecture or a 500-rouble ($13) fine, at worst, a night in a prison cell. “Sometimes you spend the night in jail, sometimes you pay,” says Maksim Krasikov, a 25-year-old engineer, with a nonchalant shrug.
The risks vary according to your level of ambition. Climbing to the top of one of Moscow’s numerous colossal apartment blocks is considered elementary compared to the “Seven Sisters”. These, in particular the heavily guarded Moscow State University on Sparrow Hills, represent the ultimate climb, both because of their epic size and because of what they were designed to symbolise: Soviet might. Built by thousands of prisoners from the Gulag and German prisoners of war, the formidable neoclassical buildings are an awe-inspiring sight, a combination of Russian baroque and American skyscraper architecture.
Roofing is just one of the many activities that makes up urban exploration, or urbex, a global movement that has spread from San Francisco to Seoul. Others include exploring abandoned buildings such as closed hospitals and military bases as well as construction sites, sewer networks, train tunnels, bunkers, cranes and more. While most of urbex is preoccupied with seeking out authentic spaces, nostalgia porn and the aesthetics of decay, roofing also involves “edgework”, a term coined by gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson to explain the need by some to test their limits by indulging in risk-taking behaviour. Writing in Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City, academic Bradley Garrett uses edgework to explain why roofers climb cranes, teeter on the edges of towering structures or hang from insanely high buildings.
Steering clear of politics has allowed Moscow’s roofers to escape serious punishment thus far; although much of what they do is illegal, the authorities have turned a blind eye to their activities, which they view as largely harmless. Despite this, a political undercurrent runs through their words and actions. With each climb, roofers exploit a city’s architectural flaws to provide an alternative narrative to the one of security and round-the-clock surveillance promoted by the state. “The process involves looking for cracks in the system, where it’s weak,” says Prekasnyy. “We’re hacking the city.” Zolotov adds, “I feel as if I’m reclaiming the city. When you break laws and you take the city back, you feel like Napoleon.”
By entering into the city’s forbidden territories, roofers are rewriting the rules of how and when city spaces should be accessed and by whom. Throwing into question notions of private and public space, roofers occupy the same bracket as skateboarders, graffiti artists and parkour practitioners, all of whom use the city for their own playful ends. Almost all of Moscow’s roofers speak of having a unique relationship with the traffic-clogged, cacophonous city of 12 million inhabitants. “When walking the city looking for new places to climb, you get to know the city, get to know every street, every house,” says Krasikov.
“The process involves looking for cracks in the system, where it’s weak. We’re hacking the city”
For roofing superstar Dupri, the buzz of roofing may have long worn off, but the appeal of connecting with Moscow has endured. “It’s the greatest chance to find yourself and to forget all your problems, a great possibility to see your city from a bird’s eye view, to chill, to relax and take some great photos,” he says. “It brings unforgettable emotions. It’s like a second breath in an overcrowded and polluted city and shows that every city can be beautiful from the top.” Back on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, my rush of adrenaline is soon engulfed by an overpowering sense of calm. That is, until I remember there’s still the climb back down.