Monday, September 05, 2005


When I visited St. Petersburg last summer, I was told to bring toilet paper, nice soft American toilet paper, especially if I planned on using a public loo. Now, I don't like using the public facilities in America, so I avoided any problems in Russia by keeping my problems at home. There, in the room I rented at the Herzen University dorm, I had not only a toilet bowl but a toilet seat. Private too. This, I learned, was a luxury not to be taken for granted, for while touring St. Petersburg and its environs I saw so many seatless toilets I thought the Kappa Alphas must've followed me over and committed a rash of pranks. But no, it was more devious than that, though I learned of this only upon my return home, when my first Russian professor told me of his year studying at a Russian college. "The students stole the seats from the dormitory toilets before the first class even began," he said. These seats were then spirited away and hidden beneath a bed or inside a closet, guaranteeing the owner's bum a warm welcome on a cold winter's day.

The head may be a Communist, I thought. But the bottom is always a capitalist.

All this, I'm afraid, proved to be only half of the problem, and the less troubling half at that. For then I came upon Leningradsky Station, where Lenin first emerged from his sealed boxcar to lead the Reds in revolution. It was here that I found my first squatter, which looked only slightly better than this one from China. Now, Leningradsky Station is a place of deep historical significance, a place akin to our own Bunker Hill, and though I've never been to Bunker Hill, never even been to Boston, I think it safe to say that the Senior Senator from Massachusetts wouldn't have me setting my feet against the tread marks of even the fanciest squatter and steadying myself over its hole.

How is it that more than ten years after the fall of Communism the toilets at Leningradsky haven't been improved? And for that matter, how could they have remained that way even in the 80s? I imagine President Reagan arriving at the station and being met by Gorbachev, the Gipper saying he just needed to duck into the little boy's room, and then Gorby saying he'd do the same. And then what would happen? What would you see? Gorby and The Gip squatting over two adjacent squatters, with nary a door nor a Secret Serviceman to shield them from view.

These toilets, I'll tell ya: Few things have instilled such fear in me. This is a device that belongs in Tora Bora, hidden in a cave as it speaks calmly into the camera and describes the death and mayhem it will bring to men and women and children and small dogs. I didn't dare use it, if only because I didn't know how to use it. Was it broken? Were my hamstrings strong enough? Had someone stolen the throne? And what was that brush and bucket doing in the corner? Was that there in place of toilet paper, because I sure as hell didn't see a roll hangin yay-high with the paper facing down, rather than up. You asked the question first Lenin, now let me give it to you. What's to be done?

I'll tell ya, these toilets: Few things have left such a lasting impression on me, and so it is now, less than a week before I arrive in Ukraine, that I must confess to all and sundry: I may just hold it.


Kevin McMahan said...

I feel I need to add my 2 cents...
As you've written, I spent 2 years in Ukraine, in the Peace Corps.
And, boy did I see some "good" examples of "bad" tualetes.
The one at the mayor's office... Let's just say I couldn't imagine the mayor of Davis using this "1 hole wonder."
And, then there was the toilet at my office.
In the bathroom, there were 3 toilets right next to each other, spaced about a foot apart, with no walls! I never understood if they expected 3 people to be squattin' in there at the same time...
Good luck, Kevin McMahan

c said...

Could it be the alcove itself is the problem? It seems a little small, though I can't tell if that basket is to scale.