Our hotel was about two miles from the Square; a colleague gave me directions. It was basically one turn and then head straight, passing through two underground tunnels.
The air was cold, not cold enough to freeze eyelashes, but cold enough to make me run hard for the first mile. The boulevard was lined with high-rise buildings that flashed purple and red neon. On one building, white neon lights gave the illusion of snowflakes falling. Almost no one was on the streets.
After the second tunnel, I emerged near one of the entrances to the Square, and ran under an archway. Ahead, two groups of people wearing fur coats and fur hats took pictures; one woman held an iPad. In front of her was the eternal flame of Red Square, commemorating those who died from World War II.
The two groups faded away and I made a turn up a hill on an uneven brick path. At the top, another section of the Square opened up: a giant white dome, which covers Lenin’s Mausoleum, now closed to the public for repairs (though the body of Lenin remains inside) because of a roof leak; and the Saint Basil’s Cathedral, which literally stopped me in mid-stride.
The structure is a fantastical collection of almost whimsical spires, or domes, painted in vivid blue and white, red and green, yellow and green, and red and white, to name just four. Near the tall red walls of the Kremlin, back lit by flood lights, and with the only others in the Square a few soldiers in the corners, I walked toward it spell-bound. I’d never seen anything like it.
Nearly alone in the Red Square, I stopped, just taking it in. A few minutes later, a chill ran through my body. Cold crept in. I gave Saint Basil’s one last look and then returned back.
I ran past the eternal flame, past the archway, and past tall red walls until I came to a major highway. This didn’t look right. I didn’t remember a highway. I stopped and looked around. I ran to a couple of walkers and asked if they spoke English. None did. So I retraced my steps to look for the tunnel, my way home.
I ran back to the eternal flame, and then slowly followed the line of tall walls. I ran for 10 minutes, maybe 15. I started to worry. Our meetings back at the hotel were starting soon. I was lost. I saw a Russian soldier and ran to him.
He spoke a little English. I showed him my room key card. He didn’t know the hotel. He said something over his walkie-talkie. He waited. No reply. To my right, I saw a gate open – it looked like a tunnel entrance. I thanked the soldier, and started running to the tunnel. He yelled at me.
“Stop! Stop! That’s the Kremlin!”
I stopped and walked back to him. I started to pantomime running in a tunnel. The soldier said, Metro. I said maybe. He said, “Look for M.” He drew the letter in the air, and then he pointed the way, toward the eternal flame. I followed his directions, found an M, and ducked into the tunnel. It was the way back. I almost crossed myself.
The tunnel was a maze, and it was busy now with commuters and bread sellers, but I danced among them and emerged on a street that looked familar. Soon, I was running along the neon-lit high-rises, making a turn, stopping to stretch at my hotel. I looked at my watch. Ninety minutes – double what it should have taken. I didn’t care. I was no longer lost in Russia, I had run to the Red Square, and a Russian soldier had set me right.