Barometer (n): An ingenious device for telling us what kind of weather we're having.
$55,000 (n): About how much it costs to hire someone in Moscow to tell you what kind of weather you're having.
No, you weren't hallucinating last week. In the middle of the biggest socioeconomic crisis to befall Russia since 1991, reporters from several major news services, as well as the Moscow Times, published lengthy features on-you guessed it-pukh.
Far eclipsing even the Mir Space Station, pukh-the annoying white shit that falls from trees one week a year here, making journalists sneeze- has long been recognized by foreign editors in Europe and America as the Ultimate Article Subject for Russia-based reporters. Editors love pukh because it boasts all the qualities that make a truly saleable Russia news article.
For one thing, in the endless parade of "Those Russians have a different word for everything!" foreign-color stories which allow reporters to avoid complex or unwelcome news (like the financial crisis), pukh reigns supreme as the dumbest, least informative, most defiantly irritating news option out there. pukh is more irrelevant than falling icicles, more distracting than Mir, and every bit as cliche as the birch branches Russians beat themselves with in the banya to "improve the flow of blood." It's literally the ultimate puff piece-an easy score for a hack looking to get out of work early.
Pukh stories also give reporters a chance to castigate Russians for their stupidity (the excess pukh in Moscow is a result of a Stalin-era urban planning mistake, in which too many female poplars were planted) and to gloat over American dominance of Russia (the offending species of poplar comes from America).
The mileage newspaper editors get out of the pukh story is an amazing testament to the grotesque laziness of their reporters. Instead of leaving their offices and going out in search of facts and revealing material, reporters will take pukh, an insanely dull story topic that literally drops in their laps, and embellish it with 800-1000 words of 8th-rate lyrical wordsmithing. Here, for instance, is a passage from a recent story by the AP's Maura Reynolds:
"Although it looks and acts a lot like it, it's not snow. It's 'pukh.' And it marks the arrival of summer in the Russian capital as surely as its colder cousin marks the winter."
Wow...that's deep. Folks, this is journalism on the level of local TV live sports standups. As in: "Well, Chet, some fans here at the Delta Center feel the Bulls are going to win tonight's game. Others, however, feel they are going to lose."
(Bronwyn McClaren of the Moscow Times even out-banaled Reynolds in her pukh story, the Times's third in one week, with the line, "It seems, however, that for each pukh detractor, there is a pukh supporter.")
Reynolds didn't do much with her subject, but she at least left some clues as to where she got her story idea:
Whose cup was that, Maura? The rest of her piece was pretty much standard pukh literature: quotes from complaining pedestrians, the "weren't the Stalin-era-communists-stupid" historical background, the assertion that pukh this year is worse than ever (if you look back, you can find this element somewhere just about every year), and the tried-and-true straight-press tool, the "One thing's for sure: Life goes on" conclusion:
Well...that's great. If you're wondering what you're supposed to do with that information, you're not alone. It almost makes you glad that some writers, like the Knight-Ridder service's Inga Saffron, took the time out to be offensive in addition to inane:
"MOSCOW -Mention these things to a disaster-weary Russian and you're likely to get no more than a shrug: Chernobyl, nuclear subs rusting in Baltic Sea fishing grounds, fountains of dioxin- laced soot spewing forth on Russian towns, drinking water that makes Geiger counters ring like lost alarm clocks. "Of all the environmental catastrophes the communists foisted upon this suffering land, the one that really gets Russians going is `pukh,' the cottony spores of the female black poplar tree."
Okay, so from this we're supposed to infer that Russians are more upset about pukh than they are about Chernobyl and irradiated drinking water. That is, the ones that survived, right? Actually, this passage is almost correct, except Saffron has her subject wrong. Substitute "Western journalists living in Moscow" for "Russians" in that last sentence, and you've got a solid piece of reporting there.
Saffron goes on to prove that even a story about pukh can be a fitting vehicle for heavyhanded hack propaganda and stereotyping:
Even here, under all this pukh, we're slipping in a line about the mythical middle class! Imagine a Russian version of the same passage: "Sometimes pigeon shit lands on my forehead, and when I try to brush it off, it just smears," said Ricardo Lopez, a taxi driver who makes extra money chauffeuring the wealthier members of New York's acquisitive yuppie class. It's ridiculous, isn't it? Of course, even Saffron didn't go as far as the Moscow Times's Jean MacKenzie, who last week lapped the pukh field with her boldly hyperbolic puff piece, "A Riddle Wrapped in Pukh." That piece began:
"Better minds than mine have struggled with the question of what makes Russia the way it is. Just what combination of historical, geographical, meteorological and anthropological conditions formed the popular id?"
The answer to that question, incredibly, is:
MacKenzie goes on to maneuver pukh into the role of proving that Russia is a "nation of extremes", where it is too hot when it's hot, and too cold when it's cold...rhetorically, this moves the narrative on to a quote by a MacKenzie friend, who then says that Russians should "cherish the golden mean - but instead we put it in jail or drive it into exile."
Pukh, responsible for the purges! Woodward and Bernstein couldn't have solved it better. Then again, they didn't have so much free time...