Postcards from Russia: The pukh menace around Moscow

Editor's Note: This is the first of Sam Borden's Postcards from Russia, in which he shares his observations, fears, joys and travel stories from the 2018 World Cup.

MOSCOW -- Hello from Russia! I'm in Moscow ahead of Wednesday's FIFA Congress, at which the votes will finally be cast on whether the 2026 World Cup will be held in the United States (and Canada and Mexico) or in Morocco. The first match of this World Cup, between Russia and Saudi Arabia, follows on Thursday night.

I arrived in Russia late Sunday, which means I've been here for only about 36 hours, but I still must confess: I'm already afraid of the pukh.

I know, I know: I should be afraid of my phone being hacked or, possibly, hooligans mauling me, but no. For me, it's the pukh. (I think it's pronounced "puke.")

What is it? It's basically white fluff, which doesn't sound terribly intimidating, granted, but there is a lot -- a lot -- of it flying all over the city. My friend Patrick, who lives in the apartment where I'm staying here, calls it "summer snow," but that's far too benign. This stuff flies through the air when a breeze hits; when it's calm, it blankets you as if, suddenly, a feather comforter had exploded directly above your head.

The pukh knows no boundaries, either: It gets in clothes, pockets, eyes, noses, ears and, in one particularly difficult incident that I'm not yet ready to talk about, a mouth when it's open -- a normal, natural, perfectly reasonable amount, as is customary when breathing.

If you think I'm exaggerating about this, look at the pictures. This image is better (or, really, worse). There was even coverage of the pukh in The New York Times! This is real stuff, people. The pukh is legit.

After a bit of research, the best way I can describe it is pukh is sort of like dandruff from poplar trees, though it seems to come only from female poplar trees, which is amazing to me mostly because I didn't know that there was such a thing as male and female poplar trees. Turns out, there is, and -- wouldn't you know it -- Russia, in particular, has a mess of the female kind.

Why would someone choose to plant a female poplar, which sheds this vile white poison, as opposed to a male poplar, which doesn't? No good reason, frankly, and the general blame for the pukh is directed toward Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, former Soviet presidents who at different times were responsible for rushes of agricultural development in Moscow. Because poplars grow quickly, they were a popular choice, and, well, decades later, I'm worried about getting hit by a bus as I cross the street because my eyes are swollen shut after inhaling a face full of something that probably came from Satan's lint tray.

Lest you think I'm not (sort of) serious, read to the end of that New York Times piece. Years ago, a U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union had to be evacuated to Germany after suffering a severe allergic reaction to pukh, an episode that prompted him to refer to the pukh as "Stalin's Revenge."

Over the next four weeks or so, I'll be detailing my travels at the World Cup through these postcards. I'll fill you in on what I've seen and where I've gone, what has been exciting and what has been surprising.

I'll also tell you about what frightens me. For the moment, that is pukh.