MOSCOW — A young man pushed several buttons on an outdoor intercom, and after the piercing sound of the lock release, he vanished, like an experienced thief, into the cool shadow of the building’s lobby. A few minutes later, he stepped onto the roof and gazed down at Moscow.
From 14 floors up, the metal roofs of the city center shade into green islands of parks and then the grayish factory chimneys of the suburbs. Birds scream, and from below comes the muffled sound of traffic. He sat at the edge of the roof and nodded at the vista.
"This is what roofers are looking for," he said.
His name is Dmitri Yermakov, 18, and he is part of a youth subculture that has taken shape around this low-slung city. Its adherents are called roofers, and they delight in gaining access to Moscow’s buildings not for criminal intent, but to scamper up to the roofs to gape at the surrounding landscape.
They are a secretive caste, with the serene aura of having had a privileged glimpse of something extraordinary. Most of the front doors of buildings in Moscow have locks controlled by electronic or manual numeric pads. Committed roofers crack the codes, often by trying various combinations of the most worn buttons.
Sometimes they bluff their way in, using the intercom to call apartments and introducing themselves as letter carriers or neighbors who have lost their keys.
However they enter, they are often reluctant to share their secrets with others, fearing an influx of visitors will draw too much attention. The police are another concern; trespassing is prosecuted as hooliganism, and carries a fine.
"Roofing really gets under your skin, and helps you to break out of the daily routine," Yermakov said, explaining that he appreciates the solitude of the roofs, far from the hectic streets of Moscow, which has more than 10 million people.
Another roofer, Oleg Muravlyov, 17, said the atmosphere on the roofs was almost spiritual.
"It’s too bad that people are mixing us up with vandals," Muravlyov said. "We aren’t doing any harm to buildings. Our goal is not destruction. We are driven by a wish to think about what’s really important in our lives, outside of the hustle of business. It’s a delusion that today’s youth are cynical. We have the same spiritual values as previous generations."
Because roofing is an individual, illegal diversion — in additional to hooliganism, it often involves breaking and entering — there are no precise numbers on the size of the phenomenon. Most roofings happen in intimate groups of two or three.
But there are several popular online communities, the best known of which has nearly 3,800 members, about half of whom profess to be roofers.
Moscow is not an obvious city for the vertical explorer. Since the days of the czars, its skyline has been forcibly restrained. Through the 18th century, there was an informal ban on surpassing the Kremlin’s tallest bell tower, which is roughly 265 feet tall, said Natalya Bronovitskaya, an architectural historian.
Informal restrictions continued during Soviet times and remain today. The center of Moscow looks nothing like the skyscraper grove of Midtown Manhattan, for example. Aside from the occasional monument or spike of an office tower, the view most roofers get for their trouble is an endless prairie of medium- and low-rise buildings.
But it is also true that the landscape of Moscow, in the age of oil and gas profits, is constantly changing: One week a building exists, the next it is gone. This in part may explain why roofing has taken off here, growing over the past several years from a clique into a subculture of people who want to see the city evolving.
Roofers exchange stories and photographs over social networking websites and blogs, chatting in a slang that for reasons that remain obscure is largely filched from English. They call themselves "roofers," while a building concierge is a "konsa" and the paddy wagon that hauls away roofers if they are caught is a "party bus."
Most roofers seem to be in their late teens or early 20s. While they come from all walks of life, their attraction to the activity is often rooted in a new age spirituality.
"I was stressed out because of problems at home and at school, and people around me irritated me," said Kseniya Nesterova, 19. "I knew I would face obstacles, like a concierge or a locked attic door, but I had beginner’s luck: It turned out the roof of a building in my neighborhood was open. I felt proud of myself that I managed to reach the roof and pleased that finally, I had an opportunity to be alone for awhile."
Something larger than life draws them, said Anna V. Tikhomirova, a psychologist who has researched Russia’s teen subcultures.
"They probably haven’t grown up yet," she said. "They still have a demand for a fairy tale romance, and the vista of the twilit city meets their requirements perfectly. When a young man is standing on the edge of a roof, he feels he is more important, experienced and older. He is asserting himself."
Some roofers have turned these adventures into a moneymaking enterprise. A group from St. Petersburg offers tours to foreigners of that city’s best roofs, charging between $13 and $80 a person. Others have arranged rooftop birthday celebrations and weddings, operating with formal permission of the buildings they use.
But to those like Nesterova, the thrill is personal.
"You have to somehow take after famous explorers of unknown territory," she said. "You should resemble Columbus, Magellan, Amundsen and other explorers in their desire to pioneer and investigate."