Moscow's Olympic summer: rumors and 'snow'

It's high summer in Moscow, but it's a summer with a difference. On top of high temperatures and tropical downpours, worse-than-usual fluffy "summer snow" from shedding poplar trees, and noise day and night as traffic races past our buildings on the 12-lane main ring road, there's the final countdown for the Moscow Olympic Games July 19 to Aug. 3.

It has a become a game of one-upmanship for Muscovites and foreigners alike to find the best story or rumor about the preparations -- and like the "summer snow" ("pookh" in Russian) the stories are flying around.

"Now's the time to commit a crime in Tomsk," one Russian told me. "All the KGB agents and militiamen [police] have been brought into Moscow for the games."

The "pookh" is the long, cotton-ball-like seed from a type of female poplar, trees planted in great numbers here because Stalin liked them.

For about a month it literally fills the air with white "snow," collecting in drifts on the ground, impossible to keep out of windows, dropping into food on dinner plates, sticking on faces. It is one month late this year and has hit Moscow as preparations for the Olympics swung into high gear.

The "snow" sticks fast to the new paint being splashed around town. The clanking of scaffolding going up and coming down is as natural a sound in Moscow these days as the bell on the main Kremlin clock tower. Some of the work is beautiful, other buildings weather badly.

When people meet, they ask, "Are you on an Olympic route?" If so, their apartment houses and offices have probably been painted. Rarely before have so many worked on so many projects. Roads are being resurfaced. Tunnels, markets, telephone boxes, park benches, the sentry-type boxes used by police to stand 24 -hour guard over buildings where foreigners live . . . all are being painted and patched up. It's the show of the month.

Varnished log cabins in wood playgrounds have suddenly appeared in parks for the few children left in Moscow. At the end of May busloads moved to summer camps outside the city as usual at this time. The new playgrounds look good (but children report they splinter).

Grass median strips and open spaces are being motor-mown -- usually they are scythed once a year. Flower plots in the shape of the Olympic symbol "Misha" the bear are coming into bloom.The drive out past Moscow University to the Olympic Village is green, lush, and cared for. Even the pigeons and Moscow's huge gray crows look cleaner as they splash in the puddles left by incessant street-cleaning trucks.

Everywhere there are militiamen, driven around in buses, standing in clumps of four where before none or one would normally stand. Most have been brought in from out of town. They throng the Olympic souvenir store on Gorky Street to see what they can take back home when it's all over.

And the militiamen are stopping cars.

A Russian friend told me about a friend of his who was driving when a militiamen raised his black and white baton (nicknamed a "pazhalsta" stick after the Russian word for "please") and waved him to the side. The driver wondered what he had done.

The officer saluted, looked into the car, and demanded. "Where is your first-aid box?" (By law all Soviet cars must carry one.) The driver, shaken but relieved the trouble wasn't worse, found it and pulled it out from under his seat.

The officer frowned. "Show me the bottle of iodine," he said. He checked it and found almost all the iodine had evaporated. "Aha," the policeman said -- and promptly removed both front the rear license plates from the car for what he declared was a breach of regulations.

"You see," my friend said, "another car less to worry about at Olympic time."

Rumors fly about what will happen when horders of tourists arrive from Europe in their cars. Muscovites fear no private Soviet cars will be allowed on the streets -- or very few: only those with special passes or special white Olympic license plates.

One friend was philosophical: "We don't want traffic jams like you had in Lake Placid [at the Winter Olympics]," he said. "Anyway it's only for two weeks and we can all use public transport."

But Tanya, another friend, worries, "We're going to be dull. Police threaten to take off the road any car that's dirty or has a bump. That'll leave only black official cars. No one will even know we make cars in different colors!"

The Moscow subway now has English-language announcements for the stations and warns, "Mind the doors, please" -- after the doors have closed. New buses and trolleybuses sport orange bands and Olympic symbols.

Cultural events are gearing up, starting now at 8 p.m. in Moscow instead of the usual 7 p.m. Ticket prices have gone up. Outside you can line up to buy Pepsi-Cola at bright red, white, and blue stands put up last autumn but rarely open until now.

White jeans and jeans skirts are the most sought-after summer fashions. Although they are sold only in special stores for foreigners, a lot of Russians get them somehow.

It is a summer none of us who live here will forget.

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