MOSCOW, January 23 (Dmitry Vinogradov, RIA Novosti) - Over the long New Year holidays, some amazing videos found their way onto social networks: on December 31, just hours before the New Year, a group of young people managed to scale the star atop the Moscow State University (MSU) skyscraper. These "roofers" – what people who climb tall buildings call themselves – consider this Stalinist skyscraper to be one of the most challenging. The top floors of the building are guarded by security personnel.
A RIA Novosti correspondent met up with the roofers and discovered how they trick security guards, how they get to where they need to be, where they are not allowed to go and what makes them take up this dangerous hobby, which can result not only in spectacular photographs, but also in tragedy.
How to land a role in a horror film
In broad daylight, taking no notice of passers-by, Ivan the roofer, a student at one of Moscow's most prestigious universities, goes up to a closed door of the Imperia Tower skyscraper at the Moscow City business park and tries to open it. The door is locked. Ivan goes up to the next door and tries to open it, but that one is locked too.
"I don't like to give up," Ivan says. "I have to get inside somehow."
He soon finds a door where the lock looks a little unstable. All he has to do now is stick a screwdriver into the gap between the door and the frame and bend back the catch of the lock. But there is a problem: a few meters away there is a guard post; we could be spotted at any moment. While Ivan fiddles with the lock, another roofer, Gosha, also a student at a well-known university in Moscow, and I try to distract the security guard. We go up to him and ask how to get to the VTB office. "We are engaged in criminal activity," the voice of reason whispers in my head, but is suddenly drowned out by a wave of adrenaline. All thoughts of the consequences evaporate for now.
It's in the Federatsiya skyscraper, the security guard explains. And while he is talking, Ivan manages to pick the lock. He is already inside the building.
A minute later we go up to the door and Ivan lets us in. We are in a long, empty office corridor. I feel like a hero from some computer game or horror film: any minute now Star Wars robots will start pouring out from behind a corner and we'll have to shoot them. And we have nothing to shoot them with. Or, at the very least, the security guard will approach us and ask what we're doing there. But no one comes, neither the security guard nor intergalactic monsters.
We walk along the corridors and find an elevator. Now we can reach the 40th floor, that's as far as the elevators go. We reach a landing sprinkled with discarded cigarette butts.
We have to climb another 20 floors. By virtually every door on the staircase that's slightly ajar we freeze, afraid of running into the rightful owners of Imperia Tower. To add to the conspiracy, we take off our jackets and hide them in our backpacks. At last the staircase takes us to the door leading onto the roof. This door is, of course, locked as well, but the guys use the screwdriver again. If Gosha and Ivan weren't just 18 years old and if I didn't know which universities they attend, I would think they had acquired these skills by breaking into other offices and apartments.
We are finally on the roof. But the adventure isn't over yet. "Now run along the fence and take an immediate left. There are security cameras everywhere, so we have to be careful not to come on the radar," Gosha orders. So that is what we do. I now feel like a guerilla warrior running in virgin snow, where there are no other footprints. I don't know whether the camera has seen us. But nobody is following us. We are already at the very top of the skyscraper. The only thing standing between us and a 300-meter abyss is a little fence that you could easily overstep. Which is precisely what Gosha does. He is standing on the snow-covered, icy edge of the roof and taking stunning panoramic pictures.
"Gosha, be careful, at least hold on to the fence!" I can't stop myself from shouting. "It's nothing, it's not that far to fall," he laughs, as if flaunting how crazy he is. A hundred and thirty feet below Gosha, the roof protrudes a bit. If you fell, you would be crippled. For a split second I think what would have happened if Gosha had climbed up here on his own (and roofers do often climb alone) and, God forbid, fell or twisted his ankle. Nobody would even know where to look for him. All in all, it’s foolishness and courage.
The view does take your breath away, though. On one side you can see half of Moscow, from Hotel Ukraina to Sparrow Hills. On the other side are the skyscrapers of Moscow City. "I've climbed almost all of them," says Ivan. No glass separates us from these beautiful panoramic views of Moscow, and only a gentle breeze blows against the fence.
The guys look across to the next building, the orange skyscraper Mercury, which will become the tallest building in Europe. "That figure over there, is that a Chopik?" Ivan asks, looking worried. "Chopik" is what roofers call security guards, their number one enemy.
So we'd better come down. We go back inside, making sure to close the door behind us, and get in the elevator. Now, as another traditional roofing pastime, we have to "pick raspberries." When the elevator accelerates downward, we have to sit down and slowly get up, so that you start feeling lightheaded.
Roofing and getting caught
Roofing is the new fashionable activity among the youth. It is the unauthorized entrance onto the roofs of tall buildings. It cannot be said that in their roofing activities, Gosha and Ivan have never been caught.
Ivan's most unpleasant recollection is related to the Mirax Plaza skyscraper, where the security guard caught him after spotting someone on security camera footage. The experience was traumatizing: the guard hit Ivan on the nose to make him talk.
What puts security guards on particularly high alert are any kinds of tripods that look like they could be a sniper's weapon. Ivan was literally forced to strip to his boxers while being searched. "So you're really not hiding anything?" the security guards concluded, once they realized they weren't dealing with terrorists, but merely young adventure seekers. The roofers were then let go, having been advised not to show their faces again. "Next time we'll be having a different sort of conversation," the security guard told Ivan.
"So what did you do?" I ask Ivan. "What did we do? We went back there a month later. What can they do to us? The most they can do is beat us up, if they catch us," Ivan laughs.
Gosha has a more dramatic story to tell. He was caught when he went to capture the sights of St. Petersburg with some friends. They had an ambitious program, including the Admiralty building and other famous St. Petersburg landmarks. However, the tour was cut short at the very first stop, the famous Cathedral Mosque. The young men were spotted as soon as they climbed the dome and prepared to tackle the minarets. "The dome is incredibly slippery, it's covered in tiles, you don't notice how slippery it really is," Gosha says.
They ended up sliding straight into the arms of the patrol and inspection service. Police officers thought they were witnessing some kind of an anti-Islamic provocation. "You'd do better walking on the ground and photographing the sights from there," the officers laughed when the misunderstanding was cleared up. "But we get bored taking the same pictures as everybody else," Gosha says.
That time Gosha and his two friends, also under 18 years old, had to wait 40 hours at a special detention center until their parents managed to travel from Moscow to collect them. The other roofers, who were over 18, had to go to court and pay a fine of 500 rubles ($17).
"We live the way we want to. The security guards are just jealous of us, because they are just stuck in the same rut all the time," Ivan concludes.
Too well off for their own good
Renowned lawyer Dmitry Agranovsky is convinced that roofing "without question poses a danger to society," and should be punished. "Roofers are not only risking their own lives, they spread all this stuff on the Internet, set an example to others, and they generally don't take any precautions."
Agranovsky once represented a young communist, Armen Beniaminov, in court. On November 7, 2003, Beniaminov illegally climbed the State Duma building, removed the Russian flag and hoisted the communist red flag in honor of the holiday (a former Russian public holiday to mark the October Revolution). Very much like a roofer.
"He was motivated by a higher ideal, but roofers risk their lives for no reason. You could say they're too well off for their own good," Agranovsky says. "I can understand when people risk their lives for some kind of idea, or for their families or country. But roofers don't have anything like that."
The lawyer believes that roofers can be charged under Article 20.17 of the Administrative Offences Code, "Violating Access to a Guarded Building." "It's irrelevant who is doing the guarding, the Federal Security Guard Service or someone's grandmother. What matters is that the guarding is legal and you can see that the building is being guarded, and you still decide to try to gain access," Agranovsky says. However, the fine set out in the article is only 300 to 500 rubles ($10 to $17), which is hardly likely to put off these hooligans, the lawyer acknowledges.
The Criminal Code also covers more serious offences, like hooliganism, trespassing, and damaging property, the lawyer warns. However, neither he nor the roofers themselves know of any cases where the punishment was greater than a 500 ruble fine.
Stalin's fearsome skyscrapers
Ivan, 18, took up the dangerous hobby of roofing just six months ago, but he says that ever since he was a child he has been drawn to heights. He only decided to give roofing a try after seeing pictures on the Internet that had been taken from the astounding heights of Moscow's skyscrapers.
In his six months of intensive roofing activities, Ivan has become one of the most celebrated roofers in Moscow. "I have four stars," he boasts, meaning that he has conquered four of Stalin's high-rises, one more than his nearest rival.
An important aspect of roofing is rivalry: who can climb higher and who can conquer the most closely guarded building.
"I have a dream, a fetish, I want to climb all the stars of the Seven Sisters. I love them," Ivan says. "And not only to climb up to the stars, but to sit right on top of them."
That is not always easy and is always dangerous. For instance, at the Stalinist skyscraper at Kotelnicheskaya Embankment and at the Leningradskaya Hotel, the stars are cast iron, which makes them extremely slippery.
Roofers do not use any kind of safeguards. That's considered “uncool.” They wear helmets only to deceive security guards, and not as a safety accessory.
It comes as no surprise that roofers suffer injuries, and sometimes worse. In April of last year, in Balakovo in the Moscow Region, a 12-year-old schoolboy fell from a five-storey building after he decided to imitate older roofers. In Saratov, a roofer fell from a bridge straight into the Volga River. And in June, 18-year-old student Aleksei Podchufarov, the same age as Ivan and Gosha, fell from the roof of the Main Post Office in Moscow after the glass gave way under his weight. He fell straight into the main hall, which was full of customers.
All these incidents resulted in the deaths of the extreme sport enthusiasts.
How to conquer the Moscow State University building
The Moscow State University high-rise is considered a big challenge. A staircase leads up to the star on top of the building, but getting to the spire is virtually impossible.
Getting into the building itself if you're not a student is simple. "You just borrow a student ID card from one of your friends who's studying there and walk past the security guard. They never look at the photograph," Ivan says.
Then the difficulties start. The reason is simple: the top floors of the skyscrapers are home to security service offices.
"The thing is that our building is the second tallest in Moscow after the Ostankino Tower," head of security for MSU Gennady Ivashchenko tells RIA Novosti. "That is why the security services are so interested in us." He says that on the top floors of the building, there are cellular communications transmitters, TV antennae and "lots of interesting stuff." That is why they are not guarded by university staff, but by state security forces.
A special elevator leads to these secret floors; a key card is needed to enter the elevator. The roofers have learned how to hack the elevator, but it doesn't get them very far.
"If you go up in the elevator, you run straight into a security guard in uniform. They usually push you straight back inside and press the button for the ground floor to send you back down," Ivan says. "Every roofer hates it when that happens."
To deceive the professional security guards, roofers launched an entire operation, in which four brave souls volunteered to take part. They specifically chose December 31 as the date for the special operation, knowing that everyone would be in a festive mood and the security guards would be less likely to be vigilant. They got hold of a device for measuring electromagnetic radiation. If they ran into a security guard, they could say they were there to measure the radiation — there were so many antennae around there. The device looked pretty convincing, so the security guard let them through. He was not even bemused by the fact that the device runs on some kind of sorcery the boys were using to power it without plugging it in.
The security guard went into his room, but popped his head out from time to time to check on how the "readings" were going. While he wasn't looking, the guys managed to unlock the door leading out to the spire.
"I was amazed how rusty everything was," says Ivan. "In some places the spire appeared to be completely rusted through." After walking up the stairs inside the spire the boys reached a door, which was also locked, but with their experience getting it open proved easy. Inside the huge star, "as big as three rooms," there was a metal frame that one could climb up using one of the beams. Orange glass was attached to this frame. "Again, I was amazed that it was crumbling. The glass hasn't been intact for some time. There aren't enough pieces, they must have fallen onto the heads of the students and teachers," Ivan says.
The roofers managed one by one to climb the star of the MSU building right under security guards’ noses. "I think this situation will now be reviewed, and not by us," Gennady Ivashchenko, a spokesman for the university, promised.
No concept of death
"I'm not planning on being a roofer all my life," says Ivan. "When I get a job and start a family, I'll settle down."
"To get somewhere where there's nobody else, and photograph the scene. To admire Moscow, which is in fact a very beautiful city, that is why we do this," he tries to explain. "Those who condemn us or don't understand us...they've just never tried it themselves!"
And, the roofers admit, they get a buzz out of getting one over on the Chopiks and working out routes for getting to the "stars." Every time, it's like robbing a bank or playing a computer game.
The fact that this isn't a film or a game is something these young people seem not to understand. They also seem oblivious to what their dangerous pastime is doing to their parents and those close to them.
Psychologist and teenage psychology specialist Konstantin Olkhovoi says the roofers are driven by a typical teenage desire for risk and an adrenaline rush. "Young people in this age group are going through a phase of hormonal change. They simply have to have this adrenaline rush," he says.
"In our fairly stable and peaceful times, teenagers are looking for some kind of thrill. It's an understandable teenage desire. For instance, a few years ago it was all the rage to ride on the roofs and coupling units of trains," the psychologist recalls.
An important aspect of this hobby is that it is illegal. "Whatever is illegal is more interesting – forbidden fruit tastes sweeter. If roofers were allowed to get onto roofs legally, then they wouldn't do it," Olkhovoi claims. In his opinion, teenagers are trying to assert themselves, to determine the boundaries of their individuality and potential, and to make a stand against the adult world.
In addition, the psychologist says, young people have no concept of their own death. That realization only comes after the age of 20 or 21.
To lure young people away from roofing, worried parents can suggest some more legal and less dangerous pastimes, says Olkhovoi. For example, extreme sports. "Or even if they just jump through turnstiles, it's not legal either, but a lot less dangerous," he says.
So what do the roofers think of jumping through turnstiles as an alternative to admiring the views of Moscow from 300-meter-tall buildings? Not much. Jumping through turnstiles just isn't "cool."
We can only wait for the roofing fad to pass, as it happened with riding on the roofs of trains, wait for young people to lose interest and take up something else, something less dangerous.
Wait and hope that the next assault on a skyscraper in the search for adrenaline and spectacular photographs will not result in another tragedy.