Moscow (AFP) - Since he was 10, Sasha has taken the train everyday between Moscow and his home in the suburbs. Only instead of sitting inside with the other passengers, he runs on its rooftop as the train hurtles along.
Like Sasha, a growing number of young Russians risk their lives for an adrenaline rush by defying speed, the elements and the authorities.
They call themselves "zatseperi", from the Russian word to cling, and take pride in their risky feats.
"I no longer count how many kilometres I've ridden on the roof of trains. When I began, I 'surfed' day and night and didn't go to school," said Sasha.
Barely 18, Sasha's face still bears boyish traits and he speaks with youthful bravado, saying there is no risk "as long as you don't drink".
"I returned one evening with a friend who had been drinking a bit. He fell off the train and was killed instantly," said Sasha. "I stopped surfing for a week, but then I started again."
Sasha's friend Vladimir, 14, has been surfing for a year.
"Being on the roof of a train and watching everything roll by, that's freedom and no one stops us."
Their feeling of impunity is due in large part to the laughable fine the zatseperi risk if caught by police: 100 rubles (2.50 euros, $3.50). This should soon jump to the theoretically more dissuasive amount of 5,000 rubles, as the national rail company RZhD has sought for years.
"That will change nothing," said Sasha. "On the contrary, it will make us pay more attention to avoiding the police instead of concentrating on our safety and that could cost us our lives."
Two weeks ago Misha, 16, was surfing when Moscow police began chasing him as the train stopped at a station.
"I tried to lose them by jumping but I landed on my head on the pavement. My face was covered in blood," he said.
When Misha returned home his parents simply said "to be more careful."
- 'Adrenaline rush' -
"But now I am bored with the suburban commuter trains. They're too easy. There's no more adrenaline rush. I may try the Sapsan," the high-speed train that links Moscow and Saint Petersburg which hits speeds of 250 kilometres per hour (155 miles per hour), more than twice the speed of the commuter train.
The "zatseperi" not only run along the train tops, they also jump from carriage to carriage and swing out on curves with just one hand holding onto a rail.
The craze exists elsewhere, notably in South Africa and Australia, with deaths and serious injury not uncommon. Web videos of surfers abound and many countries, including Australia, India, Russia and the United States, have outlawed the practice to dispel any idea that train-surfing is "extreme sport" or heroic behaviour.
"That is neither sport nor a way to defy authorities," said Alexander Tarasov, a well-known sociologist who studies Russian youth.
"It's a way to kill time for youths whom no one looks after, not the state, not society, not their families."
"During the Soviet era, the Komsomol (the Communist version of youth groups) took charge of young people and organised sports and artistic activities for them. Today there is nothing for our children," said Tarasov.
President Vladimir Putin, who often waxes nostalgic for the USSR, has sought to fill this void by reviving the Soviet-era youth fitness programme "Ready for Labour and Defence", which should begin when students return to school in September.
"That's just trying to pull the wool over our eyes! That will not stop youths from surfing the trains," said Tarasov.
"You have to attack the real problem: their social milieu. You have children coming from poor families with alcoholic or drug-addicted parents who came of age in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and did not have a firm upbringing," he said.
At Chukhlinka, a small station southeast of Moscow, only a few passengers pass though the turnstiles. The vast majority -- adults as well as adolescents -- hop over instead of paying the fare.
"I'll never stop fare dodging and surfing -- paying to be cooped up inside the carriage -- I just can't do that anymore," said Sasha.
"And now I know the entire Moscow region by heart: the train has become my home!"
- Society & Culture