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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chimney Sweep Wields His Brush Again

MTZakharov working last week on the roof of an apartment building in St. Petersburg.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Alexander Zakharov stopped wearing clothes with buttons to work years ago. There is an old Russian superstition that by tearing off a chimney sweep's button, you can ensure a lifetime of happiness.

"After I lost about 10 buttons like that, I decided there should be some other way I could make people happy," Zakharov said with a smile. "If you want to be happy or rich, just touch my belt."

On a recent day, Zakharov peeled off his heavy jacket and stepped confidently out onto the slippery, snow-covered sloped roof of a five-story downtown building in St. Petersburg. Wearing dark blue overalls and a broad belt with a bright bronze buckle, he lowered a rope with a weight and brush attached into the nearest chimney. "My record is seven buckets of soot from one very dirty chimney," he said with a grin.

Zakharov, 53, is one of about 100 chimney sweeps in St. Petersburg, and their numbers look set to swell further. After a rocky spell in Soviet times, the profession has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years.

"We went through a period of stagnation in the 1960s," said Sergei Kurnosov, 44, another chimney sweep, who works together with Zakharov and about 20 colleagues in a company called Artel Trubochistov, or The Chimney sweeps' Guild.

Kurnosov speaks ruefully of that time, when many city buildings were reconstructed and old stoves and fireplaces were removed as central, hot-water heating was added. City flues were switched over to venting gas rather than smoke. "It is frightening to think of how they broke up those beautiful old tile stoves, handmade by craftsmen," he said. "Today it costs thousands of dollars to make such a stove."

However, changing times bring new tendencies. As the new rich began buying up and renovating downtown communal apartments in the early 1990s, interest in fireplaces and the humble chimney sweep picked up. "That's when the demand for our services shot up," Kurnosov said, adding that, by that time, city chimneys were in desperate need of cleaning and repair. Many, in fact, were beyond repair.

Kurnosov said that dealing with chimneys is not a matter for amateurs.

"I know one family that installed a fireplace in their apartment and caused the death of a neighbor downstairs because they blocked the ventilation for their neighbor's gas water heater," Kurnosov said.

Like most taxi drivers, every chimney sweep has a thousand stories.

"You can never tell what you might find in a chimney," Kurnosov said. Over the years, he has found gold necklaces, drugs, wine and even a pistol.

Zakharov was once called in to look for a diamond ring. "Apparently, a woman had an argument with her husband and, in a fit of temper, she threw the ring into a vent," he said. "However, after tempers cooled, they called me in."

After sifting through two buckets of soot, Zakharov found the ring.

"You never know what mission you'll be called in for," Kurnosov said.

One time in the early 1980s, Kurnosov was called to check the chimney of a communal apartment. When he arrived, he found a poor, elderly woman who lived there and a well-dressed man who was driving a fancy car.

The man ordered Kurnosov to break into a ventilation shaft in the floor. After a few attempts, they found an antique box, which the man would not allow Kurnosov to open. "I later found out that the man was a member of an old Russian noble family that had hidden its treasure in their former apartment. The box contained 96 pre-Revolutionary gold coins," Kurnosov said.

Other times, chimney sweeps are called in to help the police. "Once, I spent two months and searched 120 chimneys in order to find some things hidden by a criminal," said one chimney sweep, who asked not to be identified.

The chimney sweeps occasionally have to work on the roofs at night, since places such as hospitals and restaurants often cannot shut down their cooking and heating equipment during the day.

Zakharov says that he is not afraid of heights and doesn't worry about falling off a roof. "I've been doing this for 30 years," he said. "Like most of my colleagues, I used to be an athlete."

There isn't any formal training program for the profession these days. However, Valery Lavrukhin, head of Artel Trubochistov and a former pole-vaulter, said that there are plans to organize a school now that demand for their services is so great. "There are several requirements for applicants. They can't be afraid of heights or addicted to alcohol. They should be able to sketch and communicate well, and should be in good shape," he said.

For now, training is often passed on from generation to generation.

"This occupation often forms dynasties," Kurnosov said, adding that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all chimney sweeps.

"I started when I was 21, right after I got out of the army," he said. "Now my son is 22 and he is working with me."