Hanging out at the top of the world with Moscow's death-defying "roofers"
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."
When he's not scaling buildings, Ivan is enrolled in hospitality school. But he doesn't much want to talk about that. Instead, he keeps pulling out his iPhone to show photos and videos of the gorgeous sunsets he's captured from high-rises, as well as other shots that show him smiling and mugging from dizzying heights.
Roofing isn't all vertiginous fun and games. Kirill tells of a frosty autumn attempt to climb the cooling tower of a Moscow power station. He tripped an alarm and was chased by guard dogs, security sirens blaring, the evening air stinging. The smoke coming out of the power station's chimneys, says Kirill, was "hot but [the night] was cold then so we warmed our hands on it." Still, he managed to get where he wanted to go.
Kirill and Ivan have, on occasion, drawn notice from on high. In 2012, around the time of Putin's presidential inauguration, a couple heavies from the FSB, the successor to the KGB, came knocking on Kirill's door. Not to arrest him, he says, but to ask, firmly, that for security reasons he stay off roofs for a while.
As long as the roofers stay politically neutral, authorities will likely view them benignly. Kirill says that during the 2013 Moscow mayoral campaign, members of the anti-authoritarian opposition movement asked him to help hang banners. Kirill refused. "I didn't agree with their politics," he says flatly. To do so would've been to invite more FSB scrutiny.
Mostly, though, Kirill sees roofers' ability to climb unmolested as evidence of a particularly Russian live-and-let-live (or die) mindset. "If you are in the West," he says, "and you go over a fence, passersby react nervously. It is not normal. When you do something illegal in Russia, you can do anything unless you start to beat somebody up and nobody will pay attention. That it is the mentality of Russia. We have a society that doesn't care."
Russian youth seem to be especially adept at seeing their environments as an opportunity for extreme adventure. The roofers are part of an urban exploration culture that also includes kids who explore the many tunnels underneath Moscow, as well as those who break in to abandoned houses and factories. Vasiliya used to explore Moscow's subway system. It's easy, she explains. One can lift up a manholes and go down that way or just jump off the train platform. "That is the most lame and scary method," she says, adding that exploring the metro lines makes "you get really dirty and smell."
A more prevalent, and dangerous, form of urban adventure is train surfing, where people try to stand on top, or "ride," high-speed trains. In 2011, the last time official figures were released, 100 people were said to have died from attempting the stunt. Train surfing, like roofing, has become a popular YouTube phenomenon. Just this past, April, a Moscow teenager died in the Moscow metro after he tried to surf a train. (Russian teens have also died while trying to ape roofers' exploits.)
Ivan estimates that there are about 50 serious Russian roofers, and part of the reason why this country might be amenable to such dangerous behavior is simply because it's logistically easier to do in Russia than just about anywhere else. There's been a building boom in the last few years, and, as his friend Kirill said, apathy — or maybe it's fatalism — is widespread. Security at the large number of construction sites in Moscow is often lax and consisting of underpaid and undertrained guards. Even if they were to get caught, a roofer faces fines of 500 rubles (approximately $14). The only real deterrent is the roofers' own fear.
To Ivan's knowledge two roofers have died as a result of climbing. One fell through a glass roof in Moscow and another slipped off a roof in St. Petersburg. He doesn't like to think about them. He can't afford to. "Certainty is the most important thing," Ivan says about climbing. "If I am not certain then I won't go."
He's had some close calls. During a trip to Shanghai, Ivan's eyes lit upon the massive Shanghai Tower skyscraper. He and Kirill climbed to a crane at the top of the aforementioned structure. Ivan got more than 600 meters off the ground, onto the crane, when something happened.
"I was five meters from the end," Ivan says, "and the crane turned on, the engine. There was snow and I thought what should I do? I, at the moment, to be frank, shit myself."
He was able to eventually slide himself down the moving crane and get to the cabin, where he made eye contact with the operator inside. "We looked at each for a few seconds," Kirill says. "He nods. I say hello and asked if I could film him and then I went back down."
A trip to Egypt was similarly hairy. Kirill illegally climbed the Great Pyramid of Giza after hiding in a nearby cemetary for five hours. A tourism official demanded an apology, saying "What would have happened if they were terrorists or are planning a terrorist bombing?"
Trespassing laws aside, roofers, like most subcultures, follow a set of rules. They go to enjoy the view, get a thrill and document their adventures. They are careful not to break anything. (Or, says Kirill, "that's what we tell journalists.") They also have their own slang, in addition to bayan there is viselnik, which roughly translates to "hanged man" and is a term for a roofer who hangs by just his or her fingertips.
The most famous viselnik is a Ukrainian who calls himself Mustang Wanted. His compilation video, seen below, has earned more than five million YouTube views. If you google "Mustang Wanted" one of the autocomplete suggestions is "Mustang Wanted Dead," which is a perfectly reasonable query if you've seen said video. Ivan dismisses his Ukrainian rival as "an acrobat" not a roofer. "He is extreme," says Ivan. "He goes on roofs not for the beauty or the photos but to hang there. The only people who call him a roofer are kids who don't know anything."
Despite their carefree approach to, you know, their own lives, it's clear that Ivan and Kirill take their pastime seriously. Listening to them talk about prepping for a climb is like eavesdropping on planning for a military operation. "You need to go round the territory," explains Kirill, "see where security are, where the cameras are, if there is a way in. To go in via underground like a car park, which is usually badly guarded, or you can go above? Are there heating pipes to crawl in on?" He notes that the most common method for gaining access to a building site is also perhaps the simplest. "Over the fence at night," he says. "Security guards work irresponsibly. They are usually asleep at that time.
And it is security guards, rather than plunging to one's death, that are the roofers' greatest source of anxiety.
"We're often asked what are we most scared of?" says Kirill. "To fall? The biggest fear is to be detained," said Kirill.
Ivan thinks back to a night when they were nabbed by security guards. "They beat us a little bit," he says. He's being bashful. "By beat a little," he continues, "I mean I was covered in blood."
For safety, roofers climb in pairs and often with a girl in tow. "The best team to go up is two lads and a girl," says Vasilisa. "Two can help each other and the girl can soften the situation. We say, 'we have an anniversary.' We think something up. It really helps."
Prior to Moscow's current construction mania, the most famous high rise buildings in the city were the so-called Stalin Sisters — vast buildings erected between 1947 and 1953 and whose gothic modernist architecture was inspired by Manhattan skyscrapers that Soviet engineers had seen decades earlier. The Sisters housed the party elite as well as the country's top university and the foreign ministry. Standing atop the 30-story building they've just climbed, Kirill, Vasilisa and Ivan can see six of the seven sisters — the same six that the two boys have already climbed.
Getting the sixth is a feat of which the Kirill and Ivan are proud. They went as far up as they could legally go from the interior of the tower, telling guards that they were students coming to test the area for background radiation, then as one lackluster guard slipped off to drink, says Ivan, "we broke the door went up to the spire." When they came back down, he continues, "[the guard] was still there drinking."
The tower housing the Russian foreign ministry is the one missing Stalin sister from the roofers' collection. It's also the most heavily guarded. They tried to get in once, via nearby drain tunnels, but hit a dead end.
They vow to make it to the top someday. They vow to conquer the seventh sister. "We have," says Ivan, grinning, "a plan."