Lifestyle & Belief

Being a 'roofer' means seeing Russia from a whole different perspective


Lenin Square and the dome of the opera to the right in Novosibirsk.


Nikolai Konyev

Nikolai Konyev walks straight up to the door of a newish 20-story apartment building.

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He pulls out a magnetic door key about the size of a coat button, and inserts it into a magnetic lock. But the metal door doesn't open. 

Nikolai blows on the key. And tries again. This time the intercom beeps, letting us in.

Nikolai is soft spoken with a slight lisp and curly, strawberry-blonde hair. He looks like a college kid coming home to see his parents.

But Nikolai doesn't live here.

“These are my universal keys,” Nikolai says. “They are the best friends of a roofer.”

We take the elevator to the 17th floor, one floor shy of the top, because Nikolai doesn’t want the guards watching the elevator to think he’s headed to the roof. Then we go up some stairs. At the top of the stairs is a heavy iron gate. Nikolai scans it. Shakes it. It won’t budge.

Nikolai isn't discouraged. He pauses for a second to think — and we’re off to find another rooftop.

This is called "roofing." The English word has been co-opted by young Russians to mean anyone who sneaks onto rooftops. And it's really popular.

You can find hundreds of photos online of Russian kids standing on the railing of a roof, balancing on the arm of a construction crane or basking in the sun atop a Moscow skyscraper.

Nikolai says when he was “younger” — he’s 19 now — he climbed drainpipes and rusty ladders, dangled his feet over icy ledges. “I don't do that now,” he says. “I'm scared to stand on slippery places.”

But a lot of kids do. And in the past few years, several roofers have died, falling through glass ceilings or slipping off bridges, trying get good photos. And roofing’s illegal, though the punishment is really a slap on the wrist, a paltry $14 fine. Some officials are trying to make the punishment for roofing more severe. There’s talk of charging roofers with hooliganism, which can involve jail time.

But for most roofers like Nikolai, roofing is worth the risk — whether it’s the fine or the danger — to escape the city for a moment. And to take great pictures.

“It's hard to explain,” Nikolai says. “When I get to the top, I have this feeling that I did something impossible; that the whole city is in the palm of my hand.”

Nikolai and his roofer friends, like Vadim Makhorov and Vitaly Raskalov, have a code. They don't go up on roofs alone. They don't vandalize. They don't drink while climbing. For them, roofs are like massive camera tripods that let them focus on the city.

“Especially these winter landscapes, like we have here in Siberia, these kinds of sharp evenings. The sky is clean,” Nikolai explains. “Landscape painters should come up here.”

We get to a second building close to sunset. It’s in a newly constructed apartment block. We get to the top floor. This time there is a window with no handle; probably to discourage roofers. This happens a lot, and Nikolai’s prepared.

He roots around in his bag for a spare window handle. He finds the right size and quickly opens the window.

And here we are, 23 floors up, in the center of Novosibirsk. Below, the city is lit up by streetlights and the taillights of cars.

You have to live in the present, Nikolai says. Then he checks his phone to see when the sunset will be and sets up his camera, facing west.

Nikolai says he's bored with the roofs of Novosibirsk — the highest is a measly 27 floors. He’d like to visit bigger cities. Like Icarus, from Greek mythology, Nikolai wants to get as high as possible.

Though, of course, without getting burned.

This story was produced thanks to a fellowship sponsored by the US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange. It's administered by Eurasia Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC.

  • NikolaiSnaps.jpg

    Russian 'roofer' Nikolai Konyev looks out over Novosibirsk, a gritty industrial city in Siberia.


    Ashley Cleek

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    A view of a highway and the Ob River, Novosibirsk.


    Nikolai Konyev

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    The grid of Novosibirsk lit up at night.


    Nikolai Konyev

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    Sunset, Novosibirsk.


    Nikolai Konyev

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    Center of Novosibirsk.


    Nikolai Konyev

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    Fireworks in the center of Novosibirsk.


    Nikolai Konyev

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    The central street of Novosibirsk, Krasny Prospect.


    Nikolai Konyev

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    Highway through the center of Novosibirsk.


    Nikolai Konyev

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    Apartment blocks, Novosibirsk.


    Nikolai Konyev