Bane of babushki: Moscow's not-so-popular poplar

Some call it ''Stalin's snow,'' others ''Roosevelt's revenge.'' Pookh - the cottony seed of poplar trees planted, local legend has it, on Franklin Roosevelt's advice to Josef Stalin - has suddenly blanketed Moscow in fluff.

The plague comes every year, usually around late May or June, in that snapshot instant known locally as spring.

It's as if someone far above has shaken an enormous box of Q-tips; torn a huge goosedown coat; or punctured Goodyear blimps full of cotton.

The pookh goes everywhere. In small bits, it climbs stairs. It sneaks through cracks in closet doors. It weaves itself into pedestrians' hair, sticks to car exhaust pipes, alights on ice cream.

''The ice cream is one of the main problems,'' says Viktor, a balding pedestrian evidently unaware he is sporting a pookh-y halo of white. Around him, near Moscow's central farm market, pookh falls like some Hollywood snowstorm.

Lyudmila, a husky female office worker, says her gripes are these: ''Pookh sticks to my face. It makes my nose tickle. It gets in my hair.''

Still, not everything said about pookh is bad.

Two lovebirds holding hands on a park bench are quick to aver that they, personally, feel pookh has gotten an unfairly bad name.

''I like it,'' says the young girl. ''When the pookh really starts falling it is like snow. I like the idea of having snow when it's not winter, and when the city is green.''

Her boyfriend, the academic type, adds: ''Pookh comes from the poplar tree, only the female poplar. It's a tree that provides lots of oxygen, which is important in a big city like Moscow.''

A gaggle of young kids demonstrates that once pookh lands it tends to settle in cottony bunches on the ground, especially if there's been a bit of rain. Then you can light it with a match and it goes off like a sparkler on the Fourth of July.

A sidewalk fruit peddler offers this additional nice word about pookh; ''It actually cleans the air. It attracts the dirt from the air.''

As often in Moscow, the truth speaks through the babushka, the omniscient granny.

''Cleans the air?!'' huffs one solid specimen. ''That's absurd. Pookh dirties the air. It's a nuisance!''

She does accept the idea that pookh's parent trees are good for the city environment. And they're nice and green, another plus.

But pookh is just pookh, and once it comes, the best any self-respecting Moscow babushka can do is hope for a quick, torrential rain.

''You know,'' says a second babushka, ''one problem is that there are more and more of these trees every year. They grow like crazy. You can take a branch of one of them and stick it in the ground, don't even water it, and next year you'll have a poplar tree! That's why almost every tree in the city is a poplar.''

''If you cut them down, you pay a fine of 300 rubles, even if the tree is about to climb in your window!'' offers Lyudmila the office worker, adding, prudently, that she's never taken hatchet in hand and tried.

But another woman chimes in: ''In some of the newer regions of town, they don't plant these trees anymore.'' Another differs: ''They plant them, but they trim the top branches, so there's less pookh.''

So, when did all the trees get planted, anyway?

The legend speaks of something of a triple-play combo: Roosevelt to Stalin to pookh. On the surface, this makes sense, if only because the poplar in question seems to be the good old North American cottonwood.

But babushki, who should know, say the legend is all wrong: poplars and pookh came before Roosevelt and Stalin.

Still, the tale is too nice to ignore just because history may get in the way.

Besides, if one assumes Moscow's poplars date to around World War II, one might even write in a bit part for Churchill: Winnie the Pookhm.

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