Extreme Urban Sports: Climbing to the Top of Moscow’s Tallest Buildings

PHOTO by Georgy Lanchevsky / MOSLENTA
Moscow's “old school” roofers who have been conquering the skyscrapers of the Russian capital for over a decade talk about the past, present and future of roof exploration

Rudex, a team of Moscow roofers, people who climb to the tops of buildings and take photographs, opened a free photo exhibit on Mar. 5. The majority of the works in the collection are cityscapes taken from overwhelming heights.

The aptly named Not Found Gallery provides Muscovites with easy access to the roofs of Moscow, Paris and Hong Kong, as well as to other places hidden from the public eye such as metro systems, factories and other urban fortresses.

Closed Doors and Broken Locks

Almost all of Moscow’s roofs have already been climbed, yet they still remain inaccessible to the public. Roofers access them and public utility services then close them off, the cycle continuing for decades. As far as surveillance goes, it’s not very efficient even if it exists.

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A view from the roof of the GUM department store on Moscow’s Red Square

“There’s just one thing we don’t know, and that’s whether someone made it to the roof of the White House,” Georgy Lanchevsky, the leader of Rudex, joked. “We did venture out to the adjacent buildings. The view from the GUM department store [on Moscow’s Red Square] is great, just like from a postcard. Too bad we could only take a couple of shots before the Federal Protective Service, or FSO, guys sent us packing. They gave us quite a speech and delivered us to the police, who gave us a fine of 500 roubles ($9). We managed to get to that roof through a small window on the store’s top floor.

“It’s not about destroying things,” Evgeny Khalkechev, a fellow roofer, said. In general, roofers try to keep a low profile.

Even if no windows are conveniently open, getting to a closed-off Moscow roof is not much of a problem. Khalkechev claims that all you need are a few tools and several minutes to get onto just about any roof.

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A view of Moscow City from a railroad bridge

Stalin’s Vertical: A Roofer’s Journal

Georgy Lanchevsky

It was the Leningradskaya Hotel, one of the so-called Seven Sister skyscrapers built during the Stalin era. You need to look like you belong to get in, as it’s a Hilton Hotel nowadays. We wore suits, entered the building and went upstairs. The doors to the spire were closed with some sort of a latch that we opened with a screwdriver. We continued to walk as close to the wall as possible to hide from any alarms and eventually got into the spire at the top of the building.

It’s not very comfortable inside and it’s quite dark. The only flashlight we had was on a phone, so we stumbled around for a couple of minutes and eventually made it to the ladder, which led us straight to the star. Security never showed up. We even came back the next day to reshoot a few photos. The view from there is stunning.

I now have shots from all these skyscrapers, save for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2016, I climbed the Oko Tower in Moscow City, which is almost 350 metres tall. They caught me that time and afterwards invited me to work for them as a photographer. I did a few photo-shoots for them.

Evgeny Khalkechev

What’s it like to be in the star at the top of Moscow State University? It’s okay. It’s quite sizeable; a mid-size van would fit in there. Students regularly climbed up to it in the past and scratched their names on the surface along with the year they were there. The markings are still there. The star is a bit run-down, actually; it looks great from the outside but it’s missing some of glass on the inside.

I climbed Moscow State University’s main building in 2012, although it’s not clear whether I was the first to do so or whether it was Vitaly Raskalov. It doesn’t matter, really. At the time, the last video shot from that location was made 50 years before.

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A roof at Smolenskaya

I prepared for a month and a half, even going so far as to study biochemistry. I asked a student by the entrance to write me a note granting me access to the building and that’s how I got in. I pretended to be a student who was supposedly tasked with taking sulfur mustard readings from the atmosphere. It was a one-man job but I had a colleague waiting by the phone ready to impersonate a dean and sell the story if I needed assistance.

I needed to show a measuring device, so I brought a simple electric meter and hoped that people wouldn’t know any better. The security staff assigned a person to supervise my activity but he was too lazy, so he gave me a key and told me to call for him when I was done.

I was able to take my time filming the sights. However, as soon as the video hit YouTube, I was in trouble. I moved to St. Petersburg for a while to lay low.

Grigory Shukhov

This building (editor’s note: this is one of the Stalinist skyscrapers, although we have been urged not to reveal which one) can be accessed via an entrance hall or through a bomb shelter. However, we entered through a regular door. The residential floors have seven maintenance floors on top of them where there’s a security guard, elevator engineer and someone else. It’s not easy to go unnoticed.

There’s only one entrance to the spire and after opening the door, we stood there waiting, but no one came for us. We decided against using the spire’s lift and climbed the stairs instead. When you’re climbing the spire, you need to cover over 150 metres. At the top, you can see the platform, which has a round deck that I would guess is used to maintain the star. And that’s it – there’s the star. It seems from the ground that the stars can’t support anyone but they’re quite comfortable in reality.

By the way, we met a guy from the Federal Security Service and chatted with him for a bit. He apparently was the one who asked to have the door to the spire opened. He had brought his friend there to show him the view but they remained on the roof while we climbed higher.

From Above, Down Below

Photos from Moscow’s and other cities’ metro systems are part of the exhibit. Despite the fines for illegally accessing the Moscow Metro having increased to 5,000 rubles ($85) for the first offence and up to 30,000 rubles ($515) or ten days in jail for repeat offences, intruders are not uncommon.

“It’s relatively easy to get into the tunnel,” Lanchevsky said. “I just jumped on the rails and ran. You have about 40 seconds to get to a safe spot.”

He risked danger in order to get a beautiful shot. According to Lanchevsky, you can hide along the service lines, the railways that are used to transfer trains from one line to another. “In 2016, we took photos of the Minskaya station’s construction, even though the fines then were already outrageous,” he said.

Khalkechev shared a different tip for getting through the tunnels: grab the back of a train. However, those taking Khalkechev’s advice and jumping onto the back of trains, be it in the metro or above ground, face some serious deterrences. Last spring, experts, governmental officials and law enforcement officers discussed the possibility of labelling this practice a felony. Meanwhile, the Moscow City Duma has adopted a law that introduces criminal liability for parents whose children ride on the roofs or backs of trains, facing fines of 5,000 roubles ($85).

Rudex’s exhibit, which is at Grizodubova ulitsa 4-4, entrance six, floor 16, will be open to visitors for at least a month. The roofers –Lanchevksy, Khalkechev, Shukhov and Konstantin Drykin – say that anyone is welcome to visit. The guys will also speak to visitors about the history of roofing in Moscow, overseas adventures and talking with photographers from around the world.