The last tattered remnants of the Cuban nuclear program.
28 August 2015
Urban Exploration is nothing new. Although that particular term didn’t work its way into pop culture until the 1990s, when it arrived it simply described a practice that people had already been engaging in for hundreds – if not thousands – of years.
Moscow is one notable city where the practice of recreational trespass has a long and cherished heritage. Internet users today may be dazzled by the antics of Russia’s roof-toppers and urban climbers, with the Western media in a frenzy to report on the activities of what they’ll often describe as a very new breed of adventurers – but don’t be fooled. Both above and below ground, Russians have been taking risks, pushing the limits, and examining their cities inside-out for a very long time indeed; in reality it’s only the GoPro cameras and Instagram accounts which are new.
In this post I’m going to delve into the history of urban exploration in the Russian capital – examining its origins as well as some of the events that have shaped it. I’ll also be getting my hands dirty along the way… and sharing some of my own experiences of exploring off-limits locations both above and below the streets of Moscow.
Before all that though, perhaps the best place to start would be back in the 16th century.
The Lost Library of Ivan the Terrible
Ivan IV Vasilyevich, Tsar of all the Russias and commonly remembered as ‘Ivan the Terrible,’ was, for all his other accolades, a great lover of books.
Ivan IV personally led the massacre on Novgorod in 1570, killing thousands of people on the grounds of suspected treason; he (accidentally) killed his own son using a wooden staff, during a heated disagreement; supposedly, he even blinded the architects of St. Basil’s Cathedral to ensure they never again created anything so beautiful. But he is remembered also as a man of great learning, a student of philosophy, literature and additionally – according to some – a practitioner of the dark arts.
According to the stories, he inherited the early part of the collection from his grandfather, Ivan III. When the Turks sacked the Library of Constantinople in 1453, it’s said that a number of manuscripts were saved, and spirited away to Moscow. The tsar’s collection grew again with refugees after the destruction of the Library at Alexandria.
Ivan the Terrible added more books to the library, and it grew to become a unique and priceless collection of lost wisdom. It was said to contain manuscripts in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Egyptian and Chinese; some of them dating back as early as the 2nd century. They covered subjects ranging from history and literature to religion, philosophy, sorcery and black magic. Another legend states that Ivan’s scholars refused to translate the works into Russian for him; fearful of the power he would attain from these ancient volumes.
After the death of Ivan the Terrible however, the library too disappeared from records. Some believed it had been stored in the basement of the Kremlin, and was destroyed in a subsequent fire. Another theory, however, states that before he died the tsar had packed the books away in storage cases, and moved to someplace else.
Many believe the library survived in hiding; both Peter the Great and the Vatican would launch their own missions to discover it in later years. The search for this lost library also became the life’s work of Ignatius Stelletskii.
Born in 1878, Stelletskii was an archaeology professor and theologian who from 1912 onwards, headed the Commission for the Study of Underground Antiquities based in Moscow. He petitioned one government after another – first tsarist, then Soviet – for access to tunnels beneath the Kremlin. Tsar Nicholas II’s government refused him access; Stalin eventually permitted him to dig however, a year-long excavation beginning in 1933. Ultimately though, the search proved fruitless.
By the time Ignatius Stelletskii died in 1949, he had come no closer to discovering the library’s whereabouts. Nevertheless, he is celebrated by many as being Russia’s first documented urban explorer.
Diggers of the Underground Planet
Moscow is a city of many secrets. Whispered rumours like that of the Lost Library of Ivan the Terrible have motivated countless Russians throughout history to venture down into the undercity, the tunnels and drains and catacombs that have been layered over the centuries to form the intricate foundations of the Russian capital.
Such adventurers were active throughout the 20th century, as they explored the depths of the city; digging down through layer after layer of physical history. Aptly enough, the most prominent group of urban explorers to emerge in Moscow would call themselves The Diggers.
Russia’s ‘Diggers of the Underground Planet’ have been meeting under that name since 1990. Much like the cataphiles of Paris, or the Cave Clan in Australia, they spend their time exploring forgotten tunnels and off-limits subterranean spaces. In Moscow, a city with 850 years of history behind it – and tunnel networks that supposedly descend as deep as 12 levels in some places – they certainly have a lot to work with.
The Lost Library is something of a holy grail amongst Moscow’s Diggers, but it’s not the only legendary location beneath the city’s surface. There’s also Metro-2.
Metro-2 was supposedly built by Stalin as a clandestine military transport line connecting a network of sensitive sites around the capital. It stops off at the Kremlin, of course, as well as featuring other rumoured stations at airports, military bases, and even at Stalin’s former dacha in the suburbs.
A Russian friend of mine pointed out some air vents popping out of the ground in a park, as we walked through the city together one day. They were seemingly attached to some kind of heavy, subterranean machinery.
“Metro-2,” he nudged me. “The usual metro doesn’t come anywhere near here.”
As enticing as such a secret, subterranean facility might sound however, you won’t necessarily find Diggers in such a hurry to explore it. After all – if it exists, it would likely still be in use. Probably better to leave such sensitive sites well alone, in favour of other, less venomous mysteries.
Not that there is any shortage of those… the Diggers claim to have found human skulls and bones in the tunnels under Moscow, as well as jewellery, antiquated weapons and more. There are stories of criminal gangs living under the streets, and even cults who practice bizarre rituals at remote, underground shrines. Other explorers claim to have stumbled across forgotten Soviet military installations, bunkers, abandoned subway tunnels, mass graves and even torture chambers.
Another popular destination for Moscow’s subterranean adventurers is the city’s system of underground rivers and storm drains. Some of these have been buried for centuries, and in that time have developed a mythology of murder, deviance and lost treasures. Eager to experience the world of the Diggers for myself, in 2014 I headed down into the bowels of Moscow to wade through the murky waters of one of these ‘lost rivers.’
The Neglinnaya River
The Neglinnaya – or ‘Neglinka’ – was once an open-air tributary to the Moskva River; it flows down through the northern portion of the Russian capital, along Tsvetnoy Boulevard and curving around the Kremlin to pour out into the river to the south. When the Kremlin was completed in 1495, the Neglinka had served to provide a natural moat along its western side. It suffered the same fate as many natural waterways do in developing cities, however; and as Moscow expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Neglinka would be forced underground.
The river was prone to flooding and those flood plains limited the growth of the city: so management of the watercourse began in 1792, with the construction of a masonry canal to control its path. The floodplains were drained, new buildings went up, but the Neglinka was fast becoming an open-air sewer as it collected up all the filth of the capital. In time it became necessary to lose it altogether. The first tunnels were created from 1817-19, and soon enough the full 7.5 km of the Neglinnaya River had been buried, hidden from sight.
Over the following centuries the Neglinka became the focus of numerous urban legends. It was a place of refuge for those hiding from the law, a literal and symbolic underworld beneath the radar of the Russian authorities. There were stories of lost secrets and bloody murder committed in those tunnels beneath the capital; of ancient tombs unearthed, and hordes of hidden treasure.
It was only a matter of time before curiosity would lead people down below the surface, to explore and chart this ‘lost river.’ Vladimir Gilyarovsky was a writer and journalist in Russia, active around the turn of the 20th century. He had a fascination with abandonment and decay, and his first book, 1887’s The Stories of the Slums, was a collection of first-hand experiences with Moscow’s criminal underworld. Gilyarovsky was also the first journalist to write about his journey down to the Neglinnaya River.
After climbing down alone to explore the wet and dripping tunnels beneath the city, Gilyarovsky later wrote accounts of his adventures in the Neglinka; where he claimed to have discovered, “incredible quantities of dirt … and dead bodies.”
Following in Gilyarovsky’s footsteps, I was lucky enough to get my own tour of the Neglinka one night – courtesy of a veteran Digger, Moscowhite.
There were five of us in total, gathering after dark in a central Moscow park. We stood around a bench, as we dressed up in chest-height waders and high-vis worker’s jackets. The idea was to enter the tunnels in plain sight, dressed as road workers (á la Ghostbusters II); I can’t imagine we looked particularly convincing though and so I kept my head down, staring at my boots as we walked towards our designated entry point.
As he led us down the midnight streets, Moscowhite swung his industrial-sized crowbar like a marching baton; crashing against corrugated metal gates, or dragging it noisily along railings.
Don’t smile,” he told us as we walked. “Russian workers never smile.”
Moscowhite was tall enough that he stood head and shoulders above the rest of us. Dressed in our yellow jackets, and with the plastic waders and narrow pavements conspiring to leave us waddling along in single file, we must have looked like sour-faced, rubber ducklings in his wake.
We reached our destination and using his crowbar, Moscowhite popped open the lid to a manhole. “Down we go,” he said.
Inside the Neglinka, dark water rushed beneath our feet. A red brick trough extended off into the darkness in either direction, its curved sides slippery with silt and moss. Once we were all inside, down the crusty, wet ladder and Moscowhite had pulled the lid closed on us with an ominous thunk, he waved us on – “follow the water,” he told us.
Along the way, our guide pointed out the various sights of this lesser-seen region of his city. He showed us the original sections of the tunnels, as we passed. These drains were a patchwork of ages and styles, newer, Soviet-era extension tunnels inserted alongside sections of 18th century brick.
Around one corner, Moscowhite called our attention to a blob of expanding foam filler blocking a downpipe up above us. We were stood beneath a row of shops, he said, and one of those premises had decided to tip their waste down a convenient shaft to the Neglinka. While perhaps not exactly fresh, essentially this was clean – if a little stale – water, and it flowed directly into the Moskva River itself. Moscowhite and his friends, they hadn’t been impressed with this shop owner polluting their underground realm; and so they’d blocked his drains from below, presumably causing some kind of messy back-up in the shop itself. The vigilante justice of the Diggers.
Later we reached a waterfall, of sorts; the passageway dropped quite suddenly, the water surging down a slippery, stone slope which brought us toward a lower section of the tunnels. I had a sudden urge to slide, take a run-up and go headfirst down this centuries-old water slide. We hadn’t been in the drain that long though, and the thought of spending the next few hours with waders full of soggy clothes, boots squelching with every cold step, rather put me off the idea.
There was a rope fastened nearby and so we took the descent slowly, in reverse, as if abseiling down the slippery incline.
A little while after that, through twists and turns and a series of large, rectangular, concrete conduits, we reached our destination. Here the flow of water pushed from a wide chamber down steps into a circular tube, creating rapids and crashing falls that echoed far off down the tunnels. On either side of the steps, pillars rose that had been marked up with luminous white bones. Our guide told us that this was the final stretch, the last push of water down to the outflow on the Moskva; which placed us somewhere around Red Square and the Kremlin.
We may not have found the dead bodies that Gilyarovsky had described a century earlier, while by Digger standards, this stroll down the Neglinka was positively pedestrian; but just to stand here, surrounded by the crashing torrents in a strange, macabre underworld – whilst tourists flocked and shopped, and posed for photographs with Stalin impersonators above, oblivious – was no small exhilaration in itself.
The Stalker is Born
Towards the end of the 20th century two events – five years apart – would between them prove to have a radical effect on Russia’s urban exploration communities.
Of the two, the latter needs little explanation; after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the country would undergo radical shifts in all spheres of life. The landscape changed. State-funded construction projects were often abandoned in skeletal, semi-finished forms. Many Soviet military bases found themselves swiftly decommissioned, often subsequently falling prey to looters and vandals. But there were other cultural institutions too, which found themselves drained of life in the wake of the fallen regime. The Young Pioneers organisation was one such movement.
These Young Pioneers, the ‘Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization,’ were rather like a Soviet version of the Scouts – although perhaps with a little more focus on political indoctrination. In its heyday somewhere around the mid-1970s the organisation had as many as 25 million members, based at thousands of camps spread far and wide across the Soviet Union. Many of these camps fell to ruin post-1991 however, including this bizarre forest camp that I visited back in 2012.
It was the first of those two events, however, that would have the more subtle, perversive effect on the mentality of the USSR’s urban explorers. I’m speaking about Chernobyl, of course.
The accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on 26th April 1986 was responsible for creating a radioactive dead zone, a Zone of Alienation, which in time would become the ultimate post-apocalyptic playground for the urban explorer. More than that though, it provided a real-life counterpart – and reinforcement, perhaps – for a newly established cultural trope: that of the Stalker.
Lifted from the Andrei Tarkovsky film of the same name – itself an adaptation of the seminal sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – the Stalker was a scavenger who ventured into alien, hostile landscapes in search of otherworldly bounty. While the (primarily) Western cultural trope of the ‘urban explorer’ is traditionally that of a custodian, someone who explores discreetly without leaving a mark on the terrain, the concept of the Stalker was altogether different: this was an explorer at war with their surroundings, in a world filled with invisible threats, a sentient and thoroughly unforgiving terrain.
This mode of exploration earned a significant validation in the post-Chernobyl world; suddenly the invisible threat was real, and the very land itself could become a deadly, hostile environment.
The archetypal Stalker really came to the fore in the years following the fall of the USSR – with the abandonment of buildings, bunkers and bases, sometimes whole settlements reduced to ghost towns, the size and scale of which could give the impression of exploring a depopulated and altogether post-apocalyptic territory.
That the post-Soviet landscape was also often branded with out-dated political emblems, would likely only have added to the sense of otherness. Vandalism then, was more than simply destruction for its own sake. It became in many cases a symbolic retaliation; a disenfranchised youth striking out against the vestigial symbols of the very authors of their perceived misfortune. One idea fed the other, and for this post-USSR, post-Chernobyl generation of urban explorers who identified as ‘Stalkers,’ the invisible enemy alluded to by the Strugatskys, by Tarkovsky, had found its face in the symbol of the hammer and sickle; an extinct regime as the ultimate expression of the Big Other.
One doesn’t simply wander into the post-apocalyptic wilderness by accident, however. You won’t find sprawling Dead Zones inside Moscow. Rather, these Stalkers would more typically be drawn to the former industrial zones, military installations and depopulated ‘secret cities’ scattered far and wide across the Russian countryside.
After my first visit to Russia, I wrote an article about my hunt for an abandoned satellite communications facility somewhere in a forest around an hour from the capital. Our group never managed to get inside that time, outwitted as we were by an old man and a pack of rabid dogs. On a subsequent trip, however, a small group of us gained access to the site.
Those dogs were still around, somewhere – we heard them once or twice, barking in the distance – though we never met the guard, as we climbed the fence then crept in through the forest at the edge of the compound. This had been a military base, one time; there were broken guard huts amongst the trees, old, high fences formed from concrete and rusted razor wire. Like the oversized satellite radio receiver dish at its heart though, the security barriers too had seen better days.
By the time we finally reached the satellite dish, the object itself was something of a disappointment. It had looked majestic on the horizon, a white crescent rising above the treeline, but up close it was just a really big building that we couldn’t get into. There was a scaffold that clung to the outside of the structure – four floors of what looked to be offices and administration suites – but at the top, the gateway to the structure’s elevation gear, its control room and the dish itself, was firmly locked. Any hopes I’d had of running along gantries, climbing to the receiver area above the dish and re-enacting scenes from Goldeneye were dashed.
It may have been the dish that lured us into the site, but in the end we had far more fun exploring the other corners of the complex. There were strange communications devices scattered all over, dishes and pylons, antennae and retro transmitters that looked like oversized ray guns. We climbed the fire escape to the rooftop of one building, where another dish was positioned – and this time, there was nothing stopping us from climbing all over it.
Nearby, on the outskirts of the complex, we stumbled quite by accident across a fleet of rusting aircraft tucked away between the folds of a chainlink fence. Gutted chassis, broken propellers, twisted, sagging wings; landing gear in many cases lost beneath the oncoming foliage. The graveyard featured a range of fighter jets – amongst them the skeletons of a snub-nosed MiG 21, and nearby, the sleek, twin-engine MiG 29.
There is nothing that evokes the aura of the Dead Zone, the post-apocalypse, quite the same way as the sight of expensive war machines left lying in an overgrown field, broken, unmanned weapons beneath an angry sky.
I may not have been able to play James Bond on the satellite dish that day but at least I got to sit in the cockpit of a MiG 29.
As Russia moved into the 1990s, the change in regime would lay the foundations for a whole new generation of urban explorers. Massive state infrastructure, now disused; countless unfinished building projects; the skeletons of de-industrialisation and the politically charged ruins of former Soviet military sites.
Within the urban centres meanwhile, other sites fell victim to the crashes and booms of the 1990s, as Gorbachev led Russia into a process of democratisation fraught with economic uncertainty. Moscow’s Zenith building was one such victim.
Nicknamed ‘Bluetooth,’ this glassy, pyramid-topped structure rises to a height of 22 floors, towering over a suburb of the capital. Construction began in 1991, with the intention of creating a commercial complex that might also cater to business and educational uses. They nearly finished it, too – by 1995 the project was said to be at 95% completion, when suddenly it ran into funding problems. One story claims that the Italian financiers were investigated on charges of money laundering, and had their bank accounts frozen; whatever the truth of it though, the Zenith project ground to a halt leaving a fully formed structure of glass, steel and concrete only months away from completion.
One evening, we decided to climb it.
Unlike Western Europe – with its neighbourhood watch schemes, its constant CCTV coverage and its nosey neighbours – the Russians have a different way of doing things. When it comes to trespass, no one seems to particularly care what you’re up to; and provided you’re not climbing over their fence or into their home, pedestrians will gladly look the other way and pretend they didn’t see you.
It was still light when we approached the Zenith building, and the Brits in our group were trying hard to look unsuspicious; taking sideways glances at the perimeter fence, discretely sizing up security, preparing to walk endless laps around the complex as we pretended to have absolutely no interest in it. Meanwhile Angelina, our Russian guide, simply climbed the fence instead – in full view of the street.
“What are you doing?” she laughed at us. “Nobody cares.”
The entry hall of the building felt like walking into a cathedral. Level upon level upon level of concrete balconies peered down at us, folding up around into distant heights beneath the glass roof far above. In total, the Zenith building measures 100,000 square metres of floorspace.
The ground was littered with rubble, with strewn metal branches and with rubber seals torn out from window frames to lie and rot like dead creepers. Thick swathes of graffiti tags belied the building’s new ownership… and then suddenly, perhaps six floors above us, I caught a movement on the balcony: what looked like a face in a balaclava watching us intently for a moment, before it disappeared.
The sun was already beginning to set, and so we didn’t waste much time getting up to the rooftops – to the uneven glass prisms that rose like teeth to break the Moscow skyline.
We climbed the stairs, one level after another, passing trashed corridors, empty halls, and even, in a few spaces, evidence of past inhabitants – old blankets, books and bottles, the charcoal and ashes of fires long since burnt out.
Somewhere around the 18th floor – I’m guessing – we emerged onto the main rooftop. An open space broken by the shells of extractor fans, metal pipes glinting dully in the setting sun. The view was already impressive: a forest of residential towers bathed in orange light. The distant spires of the city centre. Immediately beneath us, meanwhile, rose a building site; we were able to look down on the workers from above, spy on conversations between the tiny figures in their luminous coats and hard hats, themselves stood on their own respective rooftop.
But we had further to go. Around the main rooftop space of the Zenith building, a handful of uneven towers broke out into glassy buds. There were two, perhaps three that we could apparently access from here – but we set our sights on the highest. We made a beeline for it, ducking back inside the building and heading towards the stairs.
A few more flights of dark, dusty concrete, and we climbed out into the last rays of daylight. This uppermost tower terminated not in a balcony, a viewing platform, but rather in what felt like an open-air equipment room. At the highest point a winch and crane arm folded over us, attached by cables to a gondola.
Eventually we realised what it was – a window cleaning platform that could be raised by the crane and tipped over the edge of the building. Climbing up on the mechanism, I peered over the edge of the building; 22 floors of dusty glass tumbled away to the tarmac far below. It wouldn’t have been a quick job.
We climbed up onto the crane arm, all of us, then balanced there at the highest point of the structure to look down on Moscow at our feet. The Zenith building was perhaps the tallest in this district, so that our view was unblocked, an expansive panorama that looked out over apartment blocks, commercial estates and factories in one direction, with a glimpse of distant forests far beyond. Looking the other way we saw the towers of the CBD, the distant stars perched atop the spires of Stalin’s neo-gothic skyscrapers.
Immediately beneath us the other glass prisms of the Zenith building glittered like crude diamonds – and glancing down, I saw a movement on one. That balaclava again; this time looking up at us from a lower balcony.
There were two of them now, dressed as if for guerilla warfare as they looked out from their rooftop perch. One watched us with curiosity while the other heaved a canvas bundle up and over the edge. It fell, they took a corner each, and that’s when we realized our fellow explorers were hanging some kind of banner from the tower. From this angle, it was impossible to see what message the stunt was intended to convey – pro-Ukraine, anti-Putin, whatever else – the only thing we knew was that it was a really big banner.
One of the things I like best about Moscow is how alive it feels, how gritty and real and relevant; I’ve written previously about how I’d gone out to watch a military parade one day, and instead got caught up in a heated anti-Putin demonstration. This, however, was perhaps a little too real for my liking.
Rather than watching a protest from the side line, here we had been unwittingly implicated by its authors. Beneath us, there were crowds of pedestrians waiting to cross at a grassy intersection. I watched as one-by-one they noticed the flag, they glanced up, then glanced across at us – suddenly, no longer invisible. It was like we’d had a target painted on our heads.
By now, these agents provocateurs had disappeared; their work complete. We followed suit, eager to be out of the building before it attracted any more attention.
Reaching for the Stars
Decades after the economic slump of the 1990s, the culture of urban exploration in Moscow is changing once again. The age of social media and the rise of the ‘Instagram Generation’ have injected new energies into the scene; and where the Diggers had searched for lost history, the Stalkers, perhaps, for political reconciliation, Moscow suddenly began to see an increase in urban explorers who were motivated by other factors altogether.
Most of these young Russians will tell you it’s all about the adrenaline; but there has always been an element of adrenaline inherent to urban exploration. The thing that really sets this new breed apart is their access to a global audience: the fame, the sponsorship deals, the Facebook likes.
Vitaly Raskalov and Vadim Makhorov are perhaps the epitome of this new, web-savvy generation of Russian explorers – the pair who rose to notoriety with a series of daredevil stunts such as their illicit climb up China’s Shanghai Tower in 2014. They now enjoy sponsorship from The North Face, Vans and other popular brands, their names printed in bold across newspaper headlines the world over.
Climbing cranes and rooftops is nothing new for Moscow’s urban explorers… but now an increasing number of them are doing it armed with DSLR cameras, and with GoPros strapped to their foreheads. This heightened visibility leads to heightened security measures in response. A guard has been posted at the Peter the Great statue that stands atop his ship in the Moskva River, after numerous night climbers filmed themselves ascending this 98m effigy of the tsar. Meanwhile, touching the stars that adorn the city’s iconic Stalinist skyscrapers – the ‘Seven Sisters’ – has become something of a rite of passage for up-and-coming Moscow Climbers.
I tried reaching one of those stars myself, one night.
Of the Seven Sisters, two are now hotels. Moscow State University occupies another, and was allegedly under close watch after recent attempts by students to climb the spire. The Red Gates building serves administrative purposes while another houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – I didn’t much fancy my chances of sneaking into that one.
That left two, the buildings at Kotelnicheskaya Embankment and Kudrinskaya Square, both of which feature high-end residential apartments. These seemed like a safer bet.
We got to the 160m Kudrinskaya Square building at 10pm. According to one local rumour there was a hatch somewhere around the back of the building, which would lead down into the basement; from there, it was possible to get all the way to the star at its top through unguarded maintenance stairwells. After 15 minutes searching the rear alley by torchlight though we gave up… and decided to simply walk in through the main entrance instead.
Of course, we timed it carefully – waiting until the lobby guard had disappeared out of sight, before pushing through the doors and making straight for the nearest elevator. Our quick dash across the carpet was then negated as we stood awkwardly in the lobby waiting for the lift to travel down to us from the 16th floor.
Still, we made it unseen. One luxurious lift ride up to the topmost floor, and from there we’d need to find the exit to the first roof level of the building’s central tower. After that would come the spire itself, a service ladder leading all the way up to the star at its dizzying height above the city.
Getting out onto the roof, however, proved more difficult than anticipated. There was a guard about somewhere – we saw open doors, lights left on in a small security office, and one time even heard a voice off down one corridor, speaking as if on a walkie-talkie – but after much skulking about, lurking in stairwells and shadows, we made it to the roof door. It was fitted with a heavy padlock.
“That wasn’t here last week,” Angelina said simply.
Deep down, a part of me was almost relieved to give up, admit failure. After all, I’d been in two minds about trying to reach the star at all – it wouldn’t have been an easy, nor a pleasant, climb. It was one of those things that I knew I could do, and I knew I’d make myself do it when the time came; but I didn’t expect to enjoy it. Not until later that is, when I’d climbed back down, settled my nerves, and sat reviewing my photographs from a safer distance.
Of course, Angelina had other ideas: namely, to break the lock. “I can get hold of bolt cutters,” she suggested, but the rest of us declined. We were foreigners, after all. It was one thing to visit Russia and sneak about in places we weren’t meant to be in; quite another, however, to actually damage private property in order to get there.
And so we left the Kudrinskaya Square building behind, unsuccessful. We clearly didn’t have what it takes to join Moscow’s elite strata of star-straddling urban climbers.
It seemed to me there was something inherently political about the practice of urban exploration in Moscow. From the tunnels that once gave access to a secret world below the radar of the law, to the abandonments that themselves were symbolic of a changing political landscape. Other places, like the Zenith building, had been repurposed as platforms for political counter-messages.
The rules felt different, too. Compared to the West, Russian explorers seemed more willing to force an entry, to cut locks or smash their way through barriers. In response, the authorities too would be more heavy handed in dealing with intruders; and thus, a kind of balance was maintained.
This blurring of politics and urban exploration continues to steal headlines. In August 2014, against a backdrop of conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the star atop the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building – one of the Seven Sisters – was painted overnight to the turquoise-and-yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag. The stunt was pulled by a prominent urban climber from Kiev. He even made a statement to the press, dedicating the act to the glory of Ukraine.
This act of political vandalism was endorsed by Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, Arsen Avakov, and the climber in question even won the ‘Troublemaker Award’: given annually to someone who had defied “social conventions to effectively help a large number of people move to a better place.” If they’d dug a little deeper though, they would have found that this same individual had previously also expressed his support for the Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist movements; which is why I won’t be naming or linking to him here.
Personally, I prefer the work of another Russian rooftopper, Marat Dupris. While his images invoke the same sweat-inducing heights, they feel more like art than the cocktail of politics and bravado served up by many of his contemporaries.
I tried to arrange a meeting with Marat last time I was in Russia, but sadly it was not to be; instead, I spent a night in the company of the Moscow Transport Police (though that’s a story best told elsewhere). I later asked him though, whether he felt there was a natural link between politics and urban exploration.
“I think there is no link between them,” Marat said, “and I hope they will never be connected. Some explorers love to take part in politics to gain attention… but it’s bad for the whole [scene], because people start thinking that all of us do it for political reasons. I am afraid [urban exploration] is getting more popular because it attracts attention and brings popularity.”
But here was the problem – even if it was just a minority of urban explorers who were involved in the politicisation of the pastime, nevertheless, it was these people who were making the most noise. I thought back to our visit to the Zenith building: five people sneaking quietly about inside, while another two dressed in balaclavas hung great big attention-grabbing flags from a rooftop balcony.
I should confess, however, to having had my own five minutes of fame in Russia’s news headlines… or by association, at least.
I had been in Moscow briefly in early 2014, shortly after the Ukrainian Revolution. I was there on business; a commitment which clashed with my previous invitation to visit Ukrainian friends in Kiev.
My friends seemed a little offended at first, that I would apparently prefer to spend time not with them, but rather with the country they perceived as invaders. Understandable, maybe. But I explained the situation and they let me off, on one condition: that I took a Ukrainian flag with me to Moscow, and hung it somewhere visible to show my support for their country’s struggles.
I bought the flag on eBay, and carried it with me into Russia. Things got worse while I was there, though. There were statements of war, a worsening situation in Eastern Ukraine, and suddenly I felt very much out of my depth. I mentioned the idea to a few of my Russian friends, and they’d laughed, but I still hadn’t brought myself to do anything with the flag.
On the day I was due to leave Moscow, it was still packed away at the bottom of my backpack.
“You still have that flag?” Angelina asked me, that afternoon. I nodded.
“Alright. Leave it with me.”
A week later she sent me a screenshot of a news story in the Moscow press. Alongside the text was an image of Moscow’s Crimea Bridge. Hanging high above the road, attached to the arches, a Ukrainian flag fluttered in the wind.
Exploration doesn’t have to be political, though. The most fun I ever had in Moscow was when it was simply exploration for its own sake. No flags, no paint, no banners… proving that sometimes a rooftop is just a rooftop.
One night I snuck inside a building site in central Moscow with a group of friends. There were staff working around the clock, it seemed – but the place was massive, and we had no problem avoiding them as we crept around stacks of pipes and girders to the scaffold staircase. Up one floor then the next, I was aiming for a construction crane that rose above us, its arm hovering somewhere in the darkness over the highest levels of bare concrete. I thought the others were behind me… though when I later stopped to catch my breath, I realised they’d veered off to explore the levels of unfinished building. Nevertheless, I kept on climbing; hungry for the view from the very top.
I climbed through a gap in the grill, into the shaft of the crane. One flight of rungs then the next, ladder after ladder, I climbed until it hurt. The air was cold, my hands went numb, but I kept on climbing.
Eventually I got level with the top of the building – 120m above the centre of Moscow. The hatch through the turntable, up to the operator’s cab, was locked; but by climbing out through the grill, onto the outside of the crane, I was able to get up and over onto the very top, onto the crane arm itself.
Just don’t look down, I kept telling myself. Hold on tight and don’t look down.
I took out my tripod and tried setting up to take a photo. The wind was rocking my camera though, and everything came out blurred. Holding it steady made no difference, either – my hands were shivering too much to be any help. Instead I simply lay there on the gantry for a while, and took in the view with my own eyes. One week earlier, I had stood in a tunnel somewhere beneath Red Square; now I was looking down on it from high above. The lights, the traffic of Moscow, it all blurred together into a glowing mist beneath me.
Meanwhile, my friends had made it to the roof of the building itself; I waved across at them, as I climbed down again. They waved back and then later we snuck out of the construction site together, and soon after sat laughing and comparing stories in a nearby 24-hour café. No politics, no agenda, just exploration purely for the thrill of it. A bunch of people having an adventure and enjoying some of the best private views in the capital. There was something very pure about it.
For an urban explorer, getting noticed is the easiest thing of all. Keeping out of sight though, staying off the public radar – now that takes skill. To my mind at least, the most accomplished urban explorers are the ones you’ve never heard of.