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Russian skywalkers look upward for escape

The daredevils, who call themselves roofers, scale buildings, monuments — anything high — and post the pictures online. From up there, life in Russia doesn't seem so bad.

January 28, 2013|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
  • Alexei Nazarov enjoys a sunset view from the roof of a skyscraper in Moscow.
Alexei Nazarov enjoys a sunset view from the roof of a skyscraper in Moscow. (Artyom Lakhtionov, Los…)

MOSCOW — They have discovered a world where no rules or laws apply, where they can be heroes, if only for a few terrifying minutes.

They are skywalkers, or roofers, as they proudly call themselves. The craze, which is believed to have started a few years back with a couple of young Russians, now has hundreds of followers here and thousands of others around the globe.

It works this way: The roofers climb a skyscraper, a construction crane, a tall monument, a tower or a bridge. When they get to the top, they balance themselves — sometimes on the tiniest of ledges — and take a lurch-in-the-stomach picture of the view hundreds of feet below. Then they post it on the Internet.

PHOTOS: Russian skywalkers

For these young men (and most are men), skywalking offers an escape from the constellation of problems that beset modern-day Russia, such as finding a job or choosing sides in the war between the Kremlin and the opposition.

"Human problems seem insignificant when you are hanging out on a star," said Artyom Lakhtionov, 19, a college photography student. "Even traffic jams that paralyze your life down there don't seem so hopeless.

"It seems scary," he said, "but it is a situation which you control, and if something goes wrong it is your fault, whereas in the ordinary life down below, anything can happen to you because you have little or no control of this ordinary life."

It's a form of escapism that also cries out for attention and recognition, a Moscow psychologist says.

"These young men try to compensate for their acute sense of their own vulnerability and [lack of] self-sufficiency in real life, but they are not to blame for this," said Alexander Kolmanovsky, head of Our Life, a social psychological rehabilitation center.

"It is not surprising at all that so many of them are in Russia, which is still struggling with the aftereffects of a social cataclysm of global dimension [the break-up of the Soviet Union], which broke most of the old cultural and social traditions without yet creating solid new ones," he said.

Alexander Remnev, an 18-year-old Moscow computer programming student, usually skywalks with a friend or two for company. They use no mountain-climbing gear, no harnesses or ropes. They wear everyday clothes to make the point that they "are just ordinary guys like you and me and not some boring professionals."

Remnev says it all began five years ago when he and a friend found an open door to the roof of an 11-story house in downtown Moscow.

It was liberating "to be up there suddenly separated from all your previous life in an entirely different world all to yourself," Remnev recalled as he sipped tea at a Moscow cafeteria with a couple of his roofer friends, in what he now calls "the old world down below."

Since then, Remnev, lean and graceful, with a somewhat shy but open smile and a mane of unruly hair, has made hundreds of climbs on roofs and structures in the Moscow area and other parts of Russia.

"You use stairs or the elevator as far as you can go, like an ordinary citizen, and then up there you need to look up for ways to get on the roof, by breaking locks, bypassing obstacles and finding a way to outsmart alarm systems," he said. "Sometimes we just break in — or rather out — ignoring the alarm that goes off in some office down below."

And what do the authorities think of that?

"More often than not, they are violating law by breaking and entering," said Mikhail Pashkin, head of the Russian Police Trade Union, "but if they don't cause serious damage, they can only be subjected to an insignificant fine."

Pashkin seemed to harbor a grudging respect for the skywalkers: "I think the state should pay some attention to this group and use them for their and the state's benefit, like challenging and testing security systems … and finding vulnerabilities in those systems with the help of these daredevils."

Remnev and his friends won't disclose how they outsmarted state security officials to reach the roof of the famed GUM department store, which is heavily guarded because it's an ideal place for snipers who might want to target Red Square. They'll say only that they made it and saw the Kremlin towers' red stars and its churches' golden cupolas glowing in the sunset light.

They've also been up four of the Seven Sisters, Stalinist-architecture skyscrapers built in Moscow in the early 1950s. They climbed the spire of Moscow University. They reached the top of one of the tallest — about 1,000 feet — office towers of the new and growing Moscow City complex.

Remnev's friend and fellow roofer Alexei Nazarov, 20, a computer student, hitchhiked thousands of miles across Russia last summer, a journey that took him a month and a half, to climb to the top of the soaring new bridge that links the eastern port of Vladivostok and the island of Russky.

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