Walking briskly, Ivan Kuznetsov leads Kirill Vselensky and Vasilisa Denisova out into the courtyard of a 30-story building in Moscow's business district. He turns and perches alertly on his heels, anxiously looking for a security guard like a bird watches for a garden cat. There are none, as far as Ivan can tell, and he continues to the entrance of the underground parking garage and down a sloping driveway. He's searching for a way to the building's roof — then a way to get off it.
Past a few parked cars, the trio head for a service door. It's locked, but with one solid shoulder slam it flies open. Everyone is now inside the building. So far, so good. They've done this before.
Behind the service door are service escalators and stairways and weary workers who pay no attention to the three young people, who find an elevator and ride it as far as it goes, to the 16th floor. They exit and quickly climb 14 flights of stairs. They are now where they wanted to be, where they aren't supposed to be — on the roof, taking in the illegal view of Moscow's old and new city stretching out before them. Skyscrapers loom imperiously, and the Moskva river winds its course through the heart of the city.
Ivan, a slim 19-year-old student with dark hair and an air of blissfully ignorant confidence, steps to the edge and peers down to the street below. "One hundred meters," he says, eyeballing the distance to the ground.
He spies a needle-like shard of metal jutting out from a parapet. With no safety harness nor net, no rope nor hesitation, he steps onto it. There's just Ivan, a thin piece of metal and the sky.
Ivan, Kirill and Vasilisa are "roofers," a loose-knit group of insanely non-acrophobic daredevils who scam and sneak their way to the tops of Russia's highest buildings. Once they get up there, they perform death-defying tricks — hanging by their fingertips, standing on one leg — that they capture in photos and videos that frequently go viral, garnering multiple millions of YouTube views and widespread awe and disbelief at their vertiginous Instagram photos, a heap of which could lay claim to being among the most dangerous selfies ever taken.
Like any good Internet celebrities, the roofers are now eager to monetize the attention they've received. So far, Ivan and Kirill's attempts to do so have proved trickier than trespassing. Ivan hawks photos of sunsets to British photo agencies. The most he's sold one for was 8,500 rubles, or, roughly $240. From time-to-time Kirill arranges couples' dinners on roofs, sneaking lovers into sites where they can enjoy some tepid soup and a privileged view. These interludes don't always work out, "If the wind is blowing," says Kirill, "you can see on the girl's face that they are thinking, 'This is romantic?'"
There have been, Kirill claims, bigger paydays. He says a Russian advertising agency paid him to film himself sucking on a Chupa Chups lollipop on top of a bridge in Vladivostok. Unfortunately, he couldn't find the candy once he got to to the city. He scaled the bridge's girders anyway, and made do with a knock-off Chinese sucker.
And there was the time, in 2012, when Kirill climbed a signal tower in Moscow dressed as Spiderman to help promote the web-slinger's cinematic reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. (See him in costume at 1:33 in the video below.)
Kirill also says that he was asked to give a lecture on roofing to Russian Nike executives, and that the sportswear giant now gives him free clothing to wear.
But Kirill, Ivan and Vasilisa were roofers before they knew anyone was watching them, before they even wanted to be seen. So while money is a good motivation, it's not the only one. "Why do we go on roofs?" wonders Ivan hypothetically. "We want adrenaline. We're like junkies; we can't live without it. You want to test your possibilities and take everything from life. You try it once and it is very hard to stop."
Ivan muses for a moment. "I will stop one day when I have wife and kids. I can't do it all my life."
Kirill, 21 years old and with more than 40,000 Instagram followers, nods in agreement to his colleague's thrill-seeking explanation, but also offers a more romantic perspective.
"Every new roof is like a new investigation into your city," he says. "I know Moscow very well as I see it from above. As a kid I used to love to visit people as every time there was a new view from the window. It is an easy way to find adventure in your own city."
Vasilisa, a slim blonde with an infectious laugh, has her own take: "I prefer," she says, "the less higher buildings."
In Russia anyway, doing illegal things on rooftops is nothing new, but the roofers have taken it to a new extreme — not that the authorities care.
"Nobody stops us," explains Ivan, the wind whipping his hair on the roof. "Even if they catch us they usually let us go. They don't want to deal with the paperwork."
In roofer jargon, the tower we're standing atop is a bayan — an easy roof to get up on. Kirill and Ivan specialize in the tallest and the riskiest buildings, though they had to develop their mettle. Ivan, who began roofing after seeing some photos of other climbers online, started with a building that was a mere 12 stories tall. From there, he worked his way up to a 50-story building that required him to climb up the side via a service elevator in order to make the final ascent.
"My knees shook," says Ivan about that climb, speaking a few days earlier at a café in a Moscow mall. "But I knew I could do it."
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