A walk atop the Russian wild side

With a carefree motion that belied the peril of a misstep, Peter Kozyrev scampered up a steep, rusted ladder, then onto the rooftop. Oblivious to the dropoff to the courtyard below, he walked lightly across a short stretch of metal roof to an abandoned turret, and beckoned his guests to follow him, out of view from the windows of the top-floor apartments.

This is urban mountaineering, the curious brand of tourism that Kozyrev has devised to show off the marvels of St. Petersburg from a unique, breathtaking, offbeat, perspective. This is also trespassing, which is why Kozyrev’s rooftop excursions come with a caution: The guide frequently tells you to keep quiet and stay out of sight.
“Stay behind this wall here,” Kozyrev instructed. “There are lots of people looking out the windows, and you don’t want anyone to see you.”

From this clandestine vantage point, Kozyrev pointed out a vista that would be spectacular in any other city. To the east loomed the walls of the St. Peter and Paul Fortress. To the south, over the roofs of Art-Deco apartment buildings, rose the gilded onion domes of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, and much farther off, the massive shape of St. Isaac’s. To the north, a Greek temple sat incongruously atop a 19th-century office building, as if someone had transported a piece of the Acropolis to the spot.

The tours are made possible by the coincidence of several architectural quirks of central St. Petersburg. Unlike other Russian cities’ quarters, St. Petersburg’s older neighborhoods are well-maintained and unspoiled by modernity. The city’s compact 18th-century layout, with buildings close together because Peter the Great, the city’s founder, liked it that way, has been preserved. And unlike many European cities, the roofs are metal and covered with railings and walkways, so that city workers can go up and clean off the snow that builds up in winter.

Also unlike cities in Western Europe, where most buildings are privately owned, entrances to apartment buildings in St. Petersburg are often unlocked. Only after mysterious apartment blasts killed nearly 300 people across Russia in 1999 did authorities start to close entrances and access to attics.

And then there is Kozyrev, a 28-year-old freelance journalist and a self-described advocate of alternative tourism. An avid backpacker, Kozyrev devised the rooftop tours to show off his city to tourists on a budget.

“This is not possible in Paris or Rome,” he said with no small portion of pride. “There, people lock the doors. Here, that will not happen until people get some money and some sense of privacy.”

Peter’s Rooftop Tours, as Kozyrev calls his business, offers an interesting perspective on the problem of privacy.
Even though there is no way to say “privacy” in Russian, people here would like to enjoy a little now and then. But what kind of privacy can there be in a city of 4 million people, where most buildings, and nearly all the land, is municipal property?

The rooftops provide one answer. Young people have always congregated there. St. Petersburg has no skyscrapers or hills, so if you can get up high enough, you can see the whole city. But no one on the ground can see you, unless they look for you.

Russian police occasionally do just that. Midnight raids on drug users and illegal attic dwellers are common, so Kozyrev tries to do his tours by day. Even so, he occasionally disturbs residents. On one occasion, residents tried to trap Kozyrev and his tourist in an attic.

“We found another way out,” Kozyrev said, shrugging. “There’s always another way out.”
Once, a man wielding a rifle told him to get lost. He did.

To avoid such encounters, Kozyrev asks his clients to try to avoid bumping into things too loudly as they blunder through dark, cluttered attics on the way to the rooftops.

Even those precautions cannot prevent occasional meetings with nude sunbathers looking for a little privacy of their own.

St. Petersburg is very beautiful in the rain, but raindrops and rooftops do not mix. This particular tour ended quickly, with no encounters with the topless or the trigger-happy.

Later, on the street, Kozyrev looked up longingly at a tower he had yet to conquer.

“Finding a new roof, figuring out how to get up there, this is the height of the art,” he said, gazing up. “Then once you’re up there, it’s all worth it.”

© Boston Globe, May 27, 2001, by David Filipov. This story also ran in Minneapolis Star Tribune on July 1, 2001.