No one can say I’m not romantic. On Valentine’s Day last year I took my partner away on a surprise weekend to a mysterious and exotic destination, a place of wonder and surprise.
“Moscow?” she said at the airport as I presented her ticket. “In February?”
“You brought your coat, right? I told you to bring your coat.”
Who wouldn’t love Moscow? Furry hats and horse-drawn sleds with silver tinkling bells, shots of vodka before a log fire, snowflakes gently falling on the onion domes of St Basil’s … what could be more romantic?
“You can’t make ‘Russia’ without ‘us’,” I said suavely.
As we came into the city there weren’t any gentle snowflakes. There was a vicious pale sleet and the lights of the tall buildings glowed through the greyness like the lights of a sunken ship. It felt like midnight, but it was two in the afternoon.
“I can’t feel my toes,” gasped my partner.
We trudged up to Red Square and shivered in the winds that swept down through from Siberia to seek out and snatch away our souls. The Kremlin looked unwelcoming, and so did Lenin’s tomb. We trudged back to our hotel and I studied a city map while she tried to defrost in a hot bath.
“We’re not far from the Lubyanka!” I said excitedly.
“Is the Lubyanka somewhere nice for dinner?” she called back. Her spirits were lifting because she had found some mini bottles of vodka in the fridge.
“Wait,” she said a few hours later, as we marched up Nikolskaya to Lubyanka Square. “You’re really taking me to see a prison?”
Not just any prison, I explained excitedly. It was the headquarters of the KGB, the nerve centre of the Soviet police state! And there it was – a yellow brick building the size of a city block, featureless and frozen in the centre of the city, the blank, implacable face of power on full, unmissable display to its citizens.
We stared at it with that thrill of fear you get when encountering a lion in the wild, even when you’re safe in your vehicle. “What’s there now?” said my partner.
“Something called FSB,” I said. “Probably some sort of bureaucratic department. The KGB was disbanded with the fall of communism.”
“Can we go get dinner now?” said my partner.
“Just think,” I told her, putting my face to a window and peering inside, “twenty years ago if I did this, someone would come out and take me down to the cells for interrogation.”
“There’s a pelmeni place not far away,” she said. She was on her phone, looking for restaurants.
“I wonder if there’s a back entrance!” I said.
She’s a good sport, my partner. She trailed after me as I led her around the perimeter of the building, trying doors to see if they were unlocked. I thought she was still looking for a restaurant on her phone, but as I was trying to clamber up on a windowsill, she said, “Do you know what FSB is?”
“It’s the new name for the KGB. They didn’t disband, they just changed the letters. I think that’s a surveillance camera.”
We hurried back around the block, hearts thudding. As we came to Nikolskaya she took my arm and pointed at the sidewalk. Up against the wall of the Lubyanka was a single red rose, its stem wrapped in tin foil. It wasn’t there the last time we’d passed that spot. Someone had stopped a car, placed the rose and driven away while we were circling the building. We didn’t know if it was a rose of remembrance for someone who’d been inside years ago, or if it was a Valentine’s Day offering for someone there now.
We took each other’s hand and walked slowly away. No one can say I’m not romantic.
Getaway, February 2019