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Former Boston Phoenix staff writer Ellen Barry wins Pulitzer Prize

Before ELLEN BARRY became a world-famous Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, she spent a couple of years as a features writer for the Phoenix. Given that she just won the Pulitzer this afternoon for hard-news reporting in one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist in the world, you could say we wasted her talent. You could say it, but you'd be wrong. When she joined the Phoenix in 1996 she'd just come back from a couple years reporting for the Moscow Times, and, for us, she promptly wrote "Generation Nyet," a fantastic account of Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign as seen through the eyes of the first generation of post-Soviet emancipated teenagers. It's still one of the first things that long-time Phoenicians remember when Barry's name comes up. It begins in Red Square

The summer solstice is approaching, and this particular night is hot, hot, hot. Some of the girls climb onto their boyfriends' shoulders, where they wave thin arms over their heads to the pounding bass of Malchishknik, Russia's answer to the Beastie Boys. They are massed -- some 100,000 Russian twentysomethings -- from Saint Basil's Cathedral across the Kamenny Bridge to the other side of the Moscow River, and there are girls waving their arms for as far as the eye can see.

 

This season in Moscow, the girls are wearing mesh shirts, or half-shirts, or mesh half-shirts, or shirts that they tie up around their ribs. At any rate, there is a lot of midriff in Red Square. Their boyfriends aren't wearing any shirts at all.

Eighteen-year-old Lyolya dances near the stage with moves that are half hip-hop, half Cossack. Just then someone charges through the crowd with a large portrait of Boris Yeltsin. Lyolya and his friends, who are drinking out of bottles swathed in newspaper, erupt into a boisterous chant: Borya, Borya, Borya.

It's the sound of an electorate waking up.

Barry went on to write about Boston goths and romance novelists and race and a comatose, possibly miracle-working teenager in Worcester -- applying a literary voicing to the kind of discplined reporting that marked her career at the Globe (she eventually reported for them from New England and Central Asia), the Los Angeles Times, and finally the New York Times.

Near the end of her tenure at the Phoenix, I managed to talk Ellen into carting my ass to New Hampshire on what was supposed to be a joint assignment. We had a few thousand words to kill for our summer guide, and we concocted some scheme to get out of the office that involved a one-day road trip to New Hampshire. With her at the wheel, and me feeding '80s thrash-metal cassettes into the stereo, we worked our way up Route One, eating terrible diner food, contemplating bad tattoos, and sneaking onto the grounds of a nuclear reactor. The highlight was a trip to a firing range where, in addition to out-target-shooting me with a .38 and a .45, Ellen almost got us fired upon by the proprietor, who had to explain to us that when approaching the ammo counter, you're supposed to let the cylinder hang free of the yoke. Which is to say that, after a few near misses, it's no surprise to see Ellen finally winning a Pulitzer: she's always been a good sport, a crack shot, and a hell of a writer.

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