Urban Exploration in Ukraine | Where The Wild Things Are
How has Ukraine become a hotspot for urban exploration? We talk to the crew behind the exciting new TV series Insiders Project...
Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos courtesy of The Insiders Project
Squeezing between reinforced concrete and rusting metal pipes, a shaven-headed young man in a tracksuit makes his way down the darkened tunnel. Shaky GoPro footage, illuminated only by the milky light of a torch, shows him contorting his body to bend it through the increasingly tight gaps. Despite the griminess of the surroundings, he moves with the skill and dexterity of a professional climber scaling El Capitan. Finally, he drops down a ladder to arrive in front of a thick steel blast door.
“We’re right underneath the factory," he whispers breathlessly to the camera. “Listen, you can hear the workers bustling around above. And this," he says, turning towards his objective, “is the entrance to the nuclear bomb shelter."
“Like explorers of old, they map out the uncharted urban wildernesses they discover - using mobile phones and GoPro cameras instead of sextants and charts."
Dimitri ‘Dima’ Gromov is an urban explorer, one of a new breed of adventurers who spend their time uncovering the hidden secrets of cities. Climbing tall buildings or diving down tunnels, they discover places that ordinary city-dwellers never get to see. Like the explorers of old, they map out the uncharted urban wildernesses they discover but they use mobile phones and GoPro cameras instead of sextants and charts.
If you’ve been anywhere near a computer in the past ten years, you’ll have seen some of their exploits online. The videos of their dangerous escapades - crazy climbs without ropes or safety nets, or frantic scrambles through subway tunnels - are viral gold. They’re often featured on mainstream newspaper websites as well as being shared thousands of times by awestruck viewers on Facebook and Youtube.
As a result, urban exploration has become a global movement, with people like America’s Kostennn and the UK’s James Kingston earning thousands of followers on Instagram and Youtube. It is at its biggest in the former Soviet Union however. Vadim Makhorov and Vitaly Raskalov, the men behind the vertigo-inducing Shanghai crane climb that’s been watched more than 50 million times on Youtube, are Russian. The man known as Mustang Wanted, one of the scene’s biggest names, hails from Kiev. Ukraine is also home to Dima Gromov, Nikita Stryzhevskiy, Angel Angelov and Artem Baburin, a team that goes by the name Insiders Project. This is also the name of an exciting upcoming TV series. The show will be one of the first times urban exploration has made the leap from laptop screens to people’s living rooms.
So what is it about this part of the world that makes it particularly suited to these kinds of crazy exploits? “There’s a lot about Soviet architecture that makes it ripe for urban exploration," Gromov explains on a Skype chat from Ukraine. “The aesthetics of it, it’s sort of mental. And the history, the Soviet heritage, makes it very interesting for urban explorers."
But it’s not just that. “I have this idea that urban exploration is kind of a hobby for the poor," Dima says. “You get into it at an age when all teenagers become adrenaline junkies but in Ukraine many people don't have money - you can't snowboard, you can't skydive, you can't do all the crazy shit that people in the United States can do, or in the UK. Ukrainian people still want the adrenaline so that's how people get it, though urban exploration. You just find adrenaline where you can."
If money isn’t readily available to many young Ukrainians then internet access usually is. The country is only 48th in the global GDP rankings, but boasts the 8th fastest broadband speeds on the planet according to a 2011 survey, and as in the rest of the former Soviet Union, the percentage of the population who are connected is impressively high. This makes it easy to share videos of urban exploration with a large and eager audience of similarly frustrated adrenaline junkies.
Dima himself got into urban exploration as a schoolboy, having previously been a prize-winning acrobat. “I used to go by bicycle through the city to school," he explains, “and one day I found this hole. I took a torch and went inside, like Alice in Wonderland," he laughs. Although he didn’t have access to a computer as a very young kid, it wasn’t long before he discovered the “forums and blogs for people who are into this kind of thing". He met Nikita Stryzhevskiy, the director of Insiders Project, online.
“We were filming in this underground river tunnel and the water started to rise. We narrowly made it out alive."
“I was looking for a location for shooting a music video," Nikita explains. “I found Dima on one such forum for urban explorers. He told me that he wanted to make like a video blog or something like that. And I said: ‘Why not let's make it more professional and take it to the next level?’"
Stryzhevskiy roped in Angel Angelov and Artyom Baburin, a DOP and sound designer he knew who were also interested in urban exploration, and the four of them set to work filming. They scaled buildings, walked thousands of kilometres of underground tunnels and had several narrow escapes. “We were doing photography in this underground river tunnel," says Dima “and we were around 100 metres from the exit."
“If it rains heavily outside then there is a wave created within like three or four minutes. It started raining and we didn't even realise, we just saw the water start rising really quickly. We had to run back to the exit and got fully submerged on the way. We narrowly made it out."
On another occasion, Nikita fell onto a concrete floor from “about three or four metres up", just missing several “big bits of metal sticking out".
“If I fell on one of them I could’ve died," he says, “and even if I just broke my body it would’ve been bad. We were in an abandoned factory that was closed off and the only way to get out was the way we got in - a little window over three metres high."
Angel chips in: “He nearly died but at least we have a video of that from two cameras." The pair of them laugh, but the dangers they’re chuckling about are deadly serious. For these guys however, the risks are worth it for the reward. And the reward is considerable. They got some incredible footage in the process.
“‘I fell about three or four metres onto concrete,’ says Nikita, just missing ‘the big bits of metal sticking out. If I fell on one of them I would have died.’"
Kiev is not short of amazing locations to shoot. “People come to visit these places even from outside of Ukraine," says Gromov. “The buildings are kind of crazy." It’s not just that totalitarian Soviet architecture provides epic background it’s that many of them have incredible stories behind them too.
The sudden collapse of the Soviet empire left Ukraine littered with Cold War military installations that there was no longer any need for, or any money to fund. Many of them were simply abandoned - locked up by the last soldier to leave in the early 90s and left to rot.
In the nuclear bunker video, one of the Insiders Project episodes, Gromov wanders around an abandoned civil defence shelter that’s still stuffed with everything the workers in the factory above would’ve needed to survive in the event of an atomic attack.
There are old military radio sets, medical kits containing anti-radiation pills and boxes and boxes of gasmasks that have never been used. At one stage he finds a whole load of hand-painted posters explaining how to administer first aid to fellow citizens in the event of an attack. There’s even a letter written by a bored soldier to his girlfriend.
Anywhere else in the world relics like this would be in a museum. In Ukraine they are just left lying around for people to discover, if they’re intrepid enough. As Gromov himself says: “It’s like a museum where you can touch all the exhibits, but only if you can get here."
What sets Dima, Nikita, Angel and Artyom apart from other Ukrainian urban explorers is the attitude they take to this history. Gromov is disparaging of people who just break into places for the sake of it, or climb buildings to post selfies. “Many people do urban exploration in Ukraine but most of them are not serious. They are teenagers who just put some videos on Youtube of climbing and stuff like that."
Proper urban exploration, he explains, involves investigating the history of a place and really understanding it. “You can't really ignore the adrenaline bit of [urban exploration]," he says.
“Of course that's one of the driving forces but it's also about discovery and touching the history as well. It’s a chance to preserve history." Nikita adds: “We are telling people about those places so they can understand what it was like." It was these attempts to truly understand the stories behind locations and tell them properly that made their proposal catch the eye of TV producers, and led to Insiders Project being commissioned.
“Ukraine is littered with abandoned Cold War military installations. They were locked up by the last soldier to leave in the early 90s, and left to rot."
You might think that the global viral potential of urban exploration would make it an obvious subject for TV, but so far mainstream broadcasters - even in the hotbed of talent that is Russia and Ukraine - have largely stayed away. Kateryna Vyshnevska, the producer at Ukraine’s biggest studio FILM.UA who commissioned Insiders Project, explains why: “I’d come across short clips of urban explorers before, and yes they're doing things that other people cannot do, going to places other people cannot go. But normally what you have is people who are just showing off for the sake of showing off.
"I love parkour but where’s the story there?"
When she first saw footage from Dima and co. however, she realised it was something different. “They go to these amazing locations, like the highest building in Kiev, but with all of those locations the idea is not just to conquer it, it's also to tell a story. They love history, they really are interested in the background of each object. And I like that they have these ethics - I think many urban explorers have these ethics but not all of them - these guys would never destroy anything that they touch."
Not only that, but Kateryna and her colleagues were blown away by the quality of the visuals that the guys were producing. “They're not just urban explorers, they know how to film. They have a proper education when it comes to this kind of thing - they are directors, producers they do their own sound engineering, they do post production. They came to us with a couple of episodes they'd fully self-financed and filmed. They showed us those and they just looked beautiful."
Even with all this, the project would probably never have got the green light elsewhere. In the UK or the US, worries about health and safety or insurance would probably have killed it off before it even began - it’s hard to imagine a production company in the west condoning someone climbing a skyscraper without any safety equipment. Thankfully for the crew, attitudes to these things are slightly more relaxed in Ukraine. “It's not illegal [what they’re doing] says Kateryna, it's kind of a grey area.
“It’s like a museum where you can touch all the exhibits, but only if you can get here."
“We get permits where we can but some of those locations don't officially belong to anybody so there is no-one to ask. Also, there’s no damage done. In one episode they climb a bridge and you'll see that at the end there's a police unit waiting for them when they come down. The police couldn't really charge them with anything, as there's no damage. At most it's an administrative fine. We just left the scene as we found it. Watching the police fume with frustration is priceless in itself."
If a unique combination of factors - the architecture, history, economic situation and the readily available broadband - has made Ukraine a hotspot for the urban exploration movement, then its laws (or rather the lack of them) have added to the mix to make it one of the few places where you could make a decent TV show about it.
Having said that, it’s not like anything goes. There are times when even the crew themselves admit they’ve been lucky to get away with it. “I read this one script where the guys are going down into the metro," says Kateryna, “I read what they're planning to do it and goes like: ‘OK we have 30 seconds, now we need to make it from this point to this point before the next train comes. I kind of freaked out a bit."
“We accessed the aviation centre three times. Two of those times we had to run away from soldiers with weapons. They chased us through the tube tunnels and into the metro."
Their objective, Dima explains, was a military bunker that was actually still manned. “It’s an old aviation command centre but there are still people working there. So someone could just walk through a door at any time and we’d have to duck into cover."
“We accessed the aviation centre three times, and two of those times we had to run away from soldiers with weapons. They chased us out from that bunker through the tube tunnels and into the proper metro." They’re laughing as they tell me the story. But it could quite easily have ended badly. “We actually don’t know what would happen if we got caught," says Dima. “There are eight people, other urban explorers, who went to prison for this kind of trespassing."
In the face of these dangers, I can’t help asking: What do their mothers think? “Well parents..." Nikita starts, and the whole crew laugh. “Well, they get nervous when we go to a new location, but ultimately they are very proud of what we’re doing. By default a lot of people are prejudiced against urban exploration because they think these people are just low lifes, getting on top of roofs. But when they actually see what we do and the pictures we take and the approach to the whole thing they go like ‘Oh wow, we didn't know that existed, it's so cool.’"
Dima chuckles: “Yes, my mother and even my grandmother, they look at the photos and video and they're like: ‘Woah, that's my Dima! Check it out, it's Dima.’"
Perhaps, I think as I hang up the Skype chat, it’s this as much as any of the socio-economic factors that explains why Ukraine is such a hotbed for urban explorers, and why this particular group are able to push the boundaries in the way they have. Maybe this is the final piece of the puzzle - they have very understanding mothers.