Toilet Paper Usage in the Former Soviet Bloc and the Transition
This collection of data arises from a debate over the social impact of the transition in Russia and the former Eastern bloc. Section 2 sets out the request that first appeared on H-Russia an internet discussion group of historians of Russia - largely based in the USA and the UK. Having posted the query there it was then put on 'Johnsons Russia list' which goes to most specialists on the former Soviet bloc. The result was that replies literally flooded in for a week or so detailing the most obscure information about the problem in Russia, the successor states and parts of the former 'Eastern bloc'..
The question of the use of toilet paper has a serious point which I indicated in the original request and which is well taken up in the first responses that appear in section 3. Very briefly what might be called 'human sensibility' has a historical element to it. This was famously discussed by Nobert Elias in his book The History of Manners and his related discussions about what he called 'the civilizing process'. This process reflected social development, shifting class forms and changing moral codes. He was fascinated by different forms of personal behaviour that are the topic of everyday conversation when the appropriate codes are not met but which are rarely discussed in academic work except by anthropologists and ethnographers.
As the contributions that follow make clear there is a fascination with the issue of toilet paper and there is a history to its development and adoption which varies between societies and over time. In the case of the former Soviet bloc today, however, other issues are also raised and not the least of these is that of how people respond to poverty and how they cope with crisis and the indignities that this may or may not inflict in their daily lives.
No less it points to the difficulties that outside observers have in trying to assess the texture of every day life. Not only do they come from different backgrounds which can lead them to perhaps ignore, sometimes misinterpret, or sometimes even be oversensitive to differences but they may not simply even know. For me, perhaps the saddest part of the discussion that follows (amongst the jokes and the fine information) is the evidence of the lack of knowledge of 'experts' about key areas. Since I am as guilty of this failing as other people I cannot be over critical but simply draw attention to the VERY serious points made by Rob and Sarah. These points also make me grateful to those people who were and are natives of the particular countries who replied to the original request for information.
In the end of course the responses themselves become evidence not only of the situation in Russia and beyond but of the way the respondents responded to the original request. Just because of this I have left their replies basically anonymous .....
2. The Request
This is request for information about toilet paper usage across the ex Soviet bloc. In a research seminar I was involved in a sharp debate over the degree of impoverishment created by the transition not just in the ex URSS but across the old bloc. Somewhat bizarrely it centred on toilet paper. The speaker condemned the transition for the way in which it impoverished people. From the floor came the reply that under the old system people couldn't even be sure of getting toilet paper. Back came the reply - yes now its available but how many can afford to use it? To which came the reply - its in common use by everyone. To which the speaker exploded 'Nonsense!'
These were wild generalizations but since then I have been having an on-going discussion with colleagues because what the question exposes is the lack of knowledge of how most people live from the inside. Clearly availability and use in hotels and the homes of middle class professionals is one thing – but what of the mass of the population, workers, peasants, unemployed, regions etc.
The discussion got even more bizarre. I have a clear recollection that in our British family until the early 1960s (when my parents were still quite poor) we used cut up newspaper. My colleagues who came from better off families said they could never used cut up newspaper - they could only ever remember using manufactured toilet paper. A colleague from East Germany said that when she was young there was never a shortage - just problems with the quality and in any case she did not think her Communist Party grandfather would have approved of her wiping her bum on the communist party newspaper. But she did remember as an East German student when she went to Russia being told to take a year's supply .............which, of course, was often the advice for those from the west too.
Since this raises basic questions about poverty and perhaps even human dignity I would appreciate responses that throw light on this matter and if the discussion gets interesting I will happily collate the replies!!!
3. The Replies
A Couple of Informative Replies that Illuminate and
Develop the Significance of the Problem
From: Sarah : a Chicago Sociologist working in Novosibirsk
As it happens, my husband and I frequently discuss this very subject in re Novosibirsk, where we are currently living while I conduct dissertation research.
I agree that toilet paper usage sheds light on at least three subjects 1) human dignity 2) habit 3) lack of knowledge outside Russia of daily ordinary life. My dissertation (in sociology) is in part about daily life, and how people solve those problems which arise in that daily life, so I hope for at least a small audience to address the third point above. The other two I cannot cure but can only comment upon.
First some background--I lived in Moscow June-Dec 1994 and now in Novosibirsk, Russia from Sept 1999 to June 2000 (will be returning to US shortly).
When I was in Moscow, the economy (at least in the capital) was starting to turn around. Everything was available in the stores and on the street corners, including toilet paper. Americans who had been there in 1992 and 93 told stories of going to people's homes and there not being toilet paper. I usually (though not always) found toilet paper in homes but ALWAYS carried some with me when I was going out in public. Although to tell the truth, I avoided using public facilities whenever possible for their unsanitary conditions or unsavoury smells (and they told me the men's facilities were on the whole much worse).
Five years later in Novosibirsk (the third largest city by population in post-Soviet Russia, population 1.5 million), toilet paper is everywhere. Like every other consumer good in post-Soviet shopping, it comes in a wide range of quality and price. In this city, this year, the cheap toilet paper is sold at open air markets, in many kinds of stores, for somewhere between 2 to perhaps 4 rubles per roll (single-ply). Some rolls are large and could last a long time, others are smaller. (Exchange - roughly 28 rubles per USD). In Western style supermarkets, they sell imported brands of toilet paper of US or European quality. These range from 35 rubles per 4 roll-pack (two-ply) up to perhaps 60 rubles for a fancy 2-roll pack (2 or 4 ply). Americans tend for the expensive imported brands or similar quality, as well as perhaps also the "novie russkie".
In Novosibirsk, the official "prozhitechnoi minimum" (sort of a minimum consumer basket) is considered about 1,000 rubles a month. Most pensions are below that, ranging 300 to 700 rubles per month. Teachers, cleaners, non-specialist doctors or other health workers, and people who sit in little booths (vahkt), make somewhere between 300 and 1000 rubles a month, on their official salary. Earning more than 2,000 rubles per month (for one person) puts you in a kind of a "middle class."
I could go on, but the basic point is that the 2,5 rouble toilet paper (of which a family of 3 might need 4 in a month) is relatively affordable and readily available. I have visited many people in their homes in this past year and almost everyone had some kind of toilet paper (not newspaper) in the bathrooms. However, public restrooms are an entirely different matter. Here the question is not of availability or affordability but speaks to the issue of human dignity. Roadside or public park toilets continue to be unclean and unsavoury. That they have no toilet paper is not surprising. However, even relatively (by Russian standards) clean and somewhat maintained toilets almost universally do NOT have toilet paper. The academic Institute in which I work has never had any toilet paper in 9 months. The public schools, both secondary and higher education, have public toilets with no toilet paper. The public toilets in government office buildings have no toilet paper. Ordinary soviet-era business buildings have no toilet paper. Most surprising of all, the Ballet and Opera Theatre, considered the crowning jewel of Novosibirsk, to which foreign guests are always trotted off, has no toilet paper. And not very clean bathrooms either.
Even most of Western style restaurants, with European quality toilet basins and remodelled plumbing and nice new tiles, do not have toilet paper. We can argue that public schools have no money, but the lack of funds is not true for these Western-style restaurants that have menus including 100 ruble dishes. They cater to the new middle and upper classes, and even to Westerners, but not all of them have toilet paper.
This we must attribute to habit. At some point, the Soviet government decided it needed to economize on paper and quit producing toilet paper. Soviet citizens became accustomed to not using toilet paper, or at least not using it in public places. Now, when everyone but the public schools has enough money to purchase at least the cheapest variety, there is still no toilet paper.
Which says something about human dignity. People become accustomed to dirt, become accustomed to living with dirt, and being treated by their "father figure" government like dirt themselves. The message "you are not worth it" eventually becomes internalized.
Another fact which you can add to the lack of human dignity is that old and new bathrooms alike are build without seats on the toilets. Homes all have seats (plastic toilet seats are sold at the markets and in home supply stores) but public places universally do not. Again, habit. New bathrooms are built in the image of the old, including no toilet seats and no toilet paper. People live with what they have become accustomed. Habit.
Perhaps longer than you intended, but that is a current report of toilet paper usage in Novosibirsk.
From: Rob another sociologist whose work addresses the issue of everyday life
My view is that the development and usage of toilet paper has a much neglected 'cultural', as opposed to crudely 'economic', aspect. I remember using something called 'Izal' - a sort of hard, crumply, medicated affair, prone to splitting under excessive pressure. It was clearly designed and manufactured by an anally retentive Methodist sworn to clean living, clean air and clean bums. It came in boxes especially designed to keep use of paper to a minimum. Each sheet had to be withdrawn singly and was usually the devil's own job to extract. Sort of thing one found in the lower middle class household of Stalinist persuasion that I inhabited during my childhood years.... It never did me any harm, honest.
On a more serious note I can't help you on bog paper front but I wrote a bit on 'living standards' and the western (and Russian) academic's inability to understand the dynamics of survival in Russia when I did my thesis. It's a bit outdated - 1995/6. But I suspect many of general points still hold.
My main observation was that many employed workers in Kuzbass, despite non-payment, would use cash sums (when they finally were paid or borrowed) to buy one off items of long durability with low cost-use-lifetime ratio. i.e. fridge, TV, video, etc Essentially white goods, electronics, or a long lasting winter coat, hat etc. This would often totally mislead sociologist who would walk in to workers' home and exclaim 'See they've all got videos'. Actually so have many single parents on Britain's housing estates, and the dynamic of poverty is similar. Cinema, fairs, outings and holidays can no longer be afforded. GoldStar TVs and even videos are a cheap option in long term. Figures on allotment use and food consumption are also revealing. Massive increase in consumption of bread and potatoes etc.
And when it comes to diet, the cost of the crisis really hits hard, as can be seen in meat consumption figures etc etc. Other indicators too - fall in birth rate, principally due to dread at cost of childrearing. And everyone complains that they can no longer lay on the 'vecherenka' the celebrations of yesteryear.
I suspect the 'bog paper debate' will be rather unproductive and almost impossible to determine. However, a survey of changes in diet, (and the allotment labour required to produce it!), and life's daily routines would be very revealing.
I'll dig up the stuff on living standards and daily life and send it to you if you're interested.
Maybe someone can dig up figures on bog paper production and imports!!
1. Some Mainly Historical Reports of Toilet Paper Usage in The Soviet Union
From: Harold: a senior British academic
As a member of the NUS delegation to the USSR in the spring of 1954, I remember being bemused by the large cotton-wool pads for use in the bathroom of my suite at the Metropole in Moscow. In the hotels we stayed in elsewhere the toilet paper made no lasting impression, so presumably it was not very different from the hard, shiny Bronco toilet paper then commonly in use in the UK ( and at St Antony's College until 1969 when the Bursar was compelled by popular protest to dispose of the huge supply he had bought at a knock-down price and find something less offensive. In the early 1990s, a British livestock dealer who spent most of his time on farms in Ukraine, assured me that the wipe of choice was corn-cobs, after they had been stripped of their corn. I have no first-hand knowledge of how workers deal with the problem, though it was always said that the pages of Pravda were their first choice.
From: "Walter : a senior American academic
When I was in Leningrad for ten months, Sept. 1959- July 1960, toilet paper was extremely difficult to obtain. My strong impression was that in homes that we visited, and in the dormitory where we lived, most Russians used cut up newspaper. In later years supplies of toilet paper improved somewhat, but I doubt if the use of newspaper ended.
From: Jack in Leningrad
On my visit to Leningrad in 1959, I was fortunate enough to visit the apartment of a well-off Russian family. When I made use of the facilities, I was surprised to find cut up pieces of Pravda where a roll should be. I thought it a most excellent use for Pravda.
This sounds like an intriguing research question. Anyways,
in the good ole Soviet days, newspapers were the way to go even in the
"middle class" families. Probably this explains the high circulation
of the Soviet press as well as the high awareness of an average individual of
the current events.
Well, times change and the political literacy of the Russian population is slumping, maybe exactly because of the advent of textless toilet paper. Yes, it actually exists in Russia and people seem to be using it the same way as elsewhere. As to the quality... come on! It's been less than ten years since the transition started!
From: "Inna" who makes an interesting historical contrast between Russia and China
I feel very interesting this discussion. My mother (born in 1914) grew up in Moscow's downtown in a big communalka where lived ex middle class people after October revolution. As she remembers, she had never seen any toilet paper in 20s, 30s and 40s before she came to China (married to my father). What about me, I was shocked in my childhood by these cut up newspapers after coming to Moscow and being used to the toilet paper in China. Maybe it sounds strange, but in China I've never passed a shortage of toilet paper including the time of "cultural revolution" (although it was a kind of very ugly and hard yellow paper which was given for example in Qingcheng prison). I wonder what's the origin of this toilet paper phenomenon?
So my question is: when did the manufacturing of toilet paper begin in Europe and USA? Was there any manufacture of toilet paper in Russia before the October Revolution? I believe that the toilet paper and its manufacturing was a innovation brought by Europeans to China (may be in 20s?)And after that the production has never stopped.
From: Kosta on child labour
Bill, you missed something. Back in USSR there wasn't enough toilet paper produced. I was told by my friends that some lucky ones had connections that gave them access to toilet paper. I remember seeing on the streets people walking with enormous quantities of toilet paper rolls. The lines that people had to stay in to buy it (when rarely it has been sold) were huge -- you'll stand for a couple of hours.
So people like my parents and I used newspapers. When I was a kid, it was my work to cut newspapers for my family.
Now in cities most can afford to buy toilet paper, but I suspect that some people in villages and even some people in cities live without it.
From: more from Kosta and Bill
Yes kost but the point that an analyst was making was that the situation is worse now. I don't agree do you? he said that although there were shortages in Soviet days--now people cannot afford to buy toilet paper so they don't use it. That is the opposite of my experience. What do you think??
Bill, you are right. Much more people use toilet paper now than before. In other words, a social base of toilet paper consmers is much wider these days than in 1970-s and 1980-s.
From: Willis – an historian in Canada
I suspect that you will acquire a whole roll of responses to
your plea for toilet paper intelligence. And soon it will spread to paper
napkins, the small triangular size and quite differing quality one often got at
a restaurant (but rarely was visible at a stolovaia) seems just as suggestive.
But it gets worse. I lived at MGU 1964-66, and recall that my roommate in the
second year had a 'preferred' newspaper (Sovetskii sport). Since he was highly
interested in athletics, however, that may
have affected his scientific judgment.
Does all this sound ripe for a round table panel at the next
AAASS? There have been worse uses of our time. Other random thoughts: Soviet
trains that travelled into EE/West, by my recollection, were more far more likely
to carry toilet paper than the hard cars within the Soiuz. By the way, I still
have a partial roll of the gently corrugated toilet paper style if you ever
need a visual aid. My great shame is that I allowed a student to make off with
my prize visual aid--a sheet that wrapped a packet (not the rolled variety) of
toilet paper: I used it to show all the perfection of censorship, since the few
lines reporting the factory and number of sheets of course included the
zakaz/censor's order/approval number.
Finally (for now), a colleague to this day admits that he is beholden to me: when you lived there for an extended period, you always carried your own. On one occasion I gave mine to a desperate fellow stazher, and he has mentioned that act of kindness often since.
From: Lawrence - a former senior member of the US military
While I do not pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of
toilet paper use through the FSU, I can provide you the following insights
based on firsthand experience:
1. My first trip to the USSR
occurred in 1967, when I studied at LGU (Leningrad State University). We had
been warned to either bring our own toilet paper or reconcile ourselves to
using makeshift alternatives, since the Soviet product -- when available at all
-- resembled waxed paper. The warnings were accurate, except that I would say
"single-sheet waxed paper." Routinely, Russians and foreigners
resorted to newspaper, a more than fitting use for Pravda. Of course, I am
referring here to the men's facilities; I do not know what amenities the women
enjoyed. (My guess, based on the paternalism of the society, is that the women
fared better than we did and may have actually had something usable.)
2. During much of my military
career (1968-95) I dealt with Soviet forces in the field and in garrison. I can
confirm to you without hesitation that what troops and officers alike employ in
the toilets is recycled newspapers, letters from home, and scrap paper. And
naturally, the further into the "sticks" you go, the fewer the
amenities. In some special facilities, such as guest houses for senior
officers, you can find real, third-rate toilet paper resembling
bottom-of-the-line brands occasionally sold in Western supermarkets for a
couple of cents per roll. But such "luxuries" represent the
exception, not the rule.
3. Naturally, the hotels where
foreigners could stay in Moscow and Leningrad had real paper -- my last visit
was in 1994, so this information is
not current -- but its quality was, as noted above, poor.
4. You mentioned in your JRL piece a colleague from the former GDR, who provided you with insights based on her experiences. I would caution you not take comments on life in the GDR to be directly applicable to the USSR; the differences were great. I spent 3-1/2 years in East Germany in the mid-1980s as part of the US Military Liaison Mission to the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany and came to know East German reality fairly well. In fact, we knew more about the GDR than many East Germans did -- not to mention the West Germans, for whom the country might as well have been located on the moon. Just as a chasm separated the living standards in the GDR from those in the FRG, something similar can be said about a comparison between the GDR and USSR. On average, the East Germans lived far better than the Russians -- esp. after Brandt's Ostpolitik, one of the principal goals of which was to ease the burdens of daily life for the Deutsche im Osten. Thus, for instance, Bonn insisted on having the EEU (at the time) treat the GDR as a member of the Common Market for purposes of tariffs and (non-CoCom) trade, meaning that Western consumer goods could enter the GDR in far greater quantities and at lower prices than elsewhere.
From Lindsay: who worked for Progress
My first visit to the USSR in 1969-70 (as a 3rd year undergraduate) involved a whole year away from home working for Progress, the foreign languages publishers, and sharing a flat with a fellow British student, with no access to the Embassy shop -- a rare experience in those days. Getting hold of such defitsitnye items as toilet paper became a near obsession. Once our supplies from the UK ran out (how on earth could one carry a year's supply?!) we searched in vain until we discovered that the place to find the said item was a stationery (kantseliarskii) shop or department. Even then, the quality was not what we were used to in the UK (which in my experience lagged behind countries like the USA and Germany in matters lavatorial). This remained the situation for the next couple of decades. In the Progress offices on Zubovsky Boulevard the toilets were well stocked with cut up paper from galley and page proofs. The translated works of Soviet poets featured for several weeks, but the various editions of works of Lenin in English, which were constantly in production in Progress, were never used for this purpose.
With regard to the present, during visits to Moscow and St
Petersburg in autumn 1999 and spring 2000 I found that two- or four-packs of
soft toilet tissue (imported) were readily available, for example on market
stalls by metro stations, but at 40 roubles plus would be regarded as a luxury
by many Russians. The visitor to the new public pay WCs, one of the better
manifestations of private enterprise, are expected to tear sheets from a roll
before entering a cubicle, no doubt reflecting the fact that business would
suffer if clients were allowed a free hand. I'm sure I don't need to elaborate
on the often deplorable state of the lavatories in libraries and archives,
which is where most of us spend most of our time (in the reading room, I mean).
As far as people's homes are concerned, foreign visitors cannot be certain that
facilities to hand reflect normal usage. Some Moscow friends actually decorated
their bathroom in anticipation of my arrival.
2. Toilet Paper and the Russian Transition
Moscow/ St. Petersburg and General European Russia
From: Ira on Moscow
In 1994 I spent two weeks in Moscow, living in the apartment
of a highly educated, but impoverished married couple. Their bathroom was never
stocked with anything other than reasonably decent quality (by US standards)
toilet paper. I have no reason to believe this was supplied for my convenience.
Afterwards I spent another two weeks in Petersburg, in a private apartment, and again, the toilet paper was altogether "normal" by USA/European standards.
Educated friends (those who consider themselves members of the intelligentsia), in an attempt to be gracious hosts, cut the wafer-thin printed-tissue dinner napkins into little squares for their houseguests. A curious twist: they can afford to provide these lovely napkins as toilet paper for their guests, but cannot afford manufactured toilet paper. I am certain that they themselves use newspaper.
When I arrived in Russia in 1993, tp was not always readily available and was of poor quality. It was such a hot item, that in public places equipped with bathroom, the "dizournaia" in charge of the WC would hand out a few sheets of paper to visitor, sometimes only against a few kopecks. Quality tp is most often an import product, hence it is expensive for the poorest segment of the Russian population.
From: Susan re: situation in capitals in first half of 2000
Having spent the past four months in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I can attest that some 4-roll packs of t.p. cost 40 roubles, but a much denser, if less soft and less colourful, and completely acceptable roll can be had for 2.5 roubles. At that price, it seems to me that households that don't use it do so by choice or habit. I have also found that institutions, from archives to theatres to libraries, increasingly provide it.
From: Mike in the UK
Thanks for an interesting read! I saw your query which was included in the latest Johnson's Russia List.
As you mention the problem is that most of the people met in Russia by us visitors are 'middle' class. The only anecdotal evidence I can give you is from my first visit to Kazan in April 1992. I was invited by a serving military officer (officially by his fiancé) who had been a pen friend for 3 years. During my visit we went to visit the assistant pastor of the unregistered Baptist church who had a low paid job and ten children (of whom the eldest also worked). My military friend commented on how poor the family was, by Russian standards, and I remember seeing newspaper available for use there. I have a feeling that I also saw some somewhere on a later visit but certainly all my middle class friends used toilet paper. I'm sorry this is not much use as it was a one off visit as I did not call on the pastor on my later visits.
I will forward your query to a friend who has done anthropological research in many rural parts of the FSU.
Incidentally, when I was a volunteer in Kenya in 72/3 there was no running water and we had a 'long drop' toilet. The three mzungu's on site used newspaper like the locals, much to the disgust of the local shopkeeper who had bought in four toilet rolls to sell to us and which remained on his shelf unsold. I remember that the cuttings my mother sent me from the Times were best, the airmail Guardian Weekly was softer but liable to disintegrate.
From: John on class differences
For Mike Haynes who is asking for more detail on differences of TP between various social classes, regions, etc: My observation 91-98 has been that the main difference is between something and nothing. I always carry a roll with me in my day pack with film et cetera, plus a fair amount already prepared in my pocket because outside of hotels I haven't seen much if any. Well in the Simpheropol airport one time the duty lady handed me a couple small squares of newsprint, but I had my own.
One day I had an 'emergency' while driving around Moscow and
the driver stopped for me at a private house (well inside the ring road) and
asked if I might use the facilities. The hoaizin and his wife were picking up
cherries in front of their wooden home. Turned out the facility was an outhouse
in the garden with zero amenities. In 92 and 93 I took groups of historians for
special tours. There were no facilities to be found between cities - for
instance on the Smolensk - Moscow road - so we had a 'rest' stop along the way
every few hours - ladies to the right gentlemen to the left - and everyone
dependent on their prior preparation. In 97 I and two friends stayed in an
apartment we rented
in Sevastopol from a naval captain whose wife came in each day to prepare meals and do laundry etc. There was the well-described paper all right, but the wife was quite happy when we left some extra rolls. Likewise found paper that was like a brown industrial type kitchen roll at friends' apartments in Kyiv and St Petersburg. Have never found paper in trains, travelling not only between Moscow and St Pete but also Moscow -Kyiv - Sevastopol and back both ways and Kyiv - Kamianetz.
For anyone taking all this in as preparation for practical use, I might mention to be prepared for "Turkish" style set up even in some hotels and certainly in rail stations. Same goes for what public lavatories I found in Volga cities Tver to Samara and back. On the other hand I found an immaculate and 5-star western style set up at the 'tasting room' of one outstanding winery in Sevastopol - Inkerman. Guess they expected visitors. On the other hand what was most amazing there was that after several hours of tasting a wide variety of fine wines with the whole group highly primed to buy and buy it turned out the winery administration had not conceived that anyone would actually want to buy, so there was none for sale.
From : Diana who despite being in a hurry …………
I shouldn't be writing this as I should be doing one of the
million things I have to do before I go back to Russia next week for a year . .
. but, just yesterday, I had a conversation with Sveta in my US kitchen as she
was tearing out the pages of some college catalogs so she could recycle them. I
said, "you would never do that in Russia unless you were tearing it up for
toilet paper. She said, "In Soviet times we used newspaper, never paper
like this." Her family lives in a small town in the Russian Far East and I
have visited their home many times. Her mother is a newspaper editor and her
father is an engineer at the hydropower station and last year didn't get paid
for months and months on end, but they still have toilet paper these days. When
I go to that city, I stay at the municipal hotel and she charges
it to her business. She or another of my friends brings a roll of toilet paper. My usual room has been rewallpapered and repainted; the wooden toilet seat is not attached to the toilet, and it is two rooms. If I end up at the hydropower station "B & B" there is paper present automatically and plentifully.
In the Russian Far East, toilet paper was evident even in the Khabarovsk airport two years ago, until the financial crisis, then it disappeared again. Mind you, the research is not scientific as I didn't check every stall. Toilet paper does simply run out now and then everywhere in the world . . .
No toilet paper now in the Krasnoyarsk airport and there never has been any in the Blagoveshensk airport that I have ever seen . . . .
In the hotel in Blago where I recently stayed, tp was rationed in small wads, but if you needed more, you could ask the floor woman . . .
Perhaps you could expand your research to include the type
and/or quality of toilet paper. Last year when I lived in Blago for three
months, the young Russian woman who lived with me would agonize because she
couldn't find the "right kind" of toilet paper. She hates that brown
stuff with no core . . . somehow it offends her. However, it seems to me that
it is available everywhere now, whereas the stuff with the cores can only be
found in a few glass cases in the Yarmarka once in a while and it looks a
little dusty because it is too expensive. However, when I stay at the Central
Bank apartment, the cored paper is present. Even so, they keep it locked up and
I hide a roll of the brown stuff in my drawer because they will never give me
an extra roll even if the present one is near the end. Nonetheless, since
there are three toilets, there's no problem finding some paper, you just might have to go up or down stairs as it is a two-story apartment! It always strikes me as additionally absurd when I am staying there and the hot water or the water in general stops working . . . nothing like having a jacuzzi tub with no hot water . . .
These days, when I am in the US, I can barely stand to throw away a paper napkin and have to laugh at myself when the "paper pocket" of my sumochka gets completely full from this napkin saving habit that I needn't utilize in the US. And, consider the cultural responses to no toilet paper . . . if there is none in US, there is a sense of being offended; in Russia, eto normalno . . .
Two years ago when teaching in Zeya, we used an old German textbook in the locked teacher's restroom--newspaper-like pages . . . but, when there was a big education meeting, I laughed when I went in and found coreless brown tp, cloth towels and bars of soap. I was privileged to have the only private key to the toilet, everyone else had to go to the coat room to get the key, go back up to the second floor to use the toilet and back cown to return the key--my classroom was on the third floor and my friend "stole" the key and made a copy. When I left I presented it to the woman who had kidney disease and told her she must drink more water.
I have never seen a shred of toilet paper in the orphanage where I visit--200 kids who go to the banya once a week and have no toilet paper and no laundry soap to do their laundry by hand . . . I try not to think about it for too long and try to scrounge money for medicine and shoes which are "higher" necessities . . .
WE could further expand the conversation to why people don't drink much water in Russia . . . because the water is terrible, or because there aren't enough public toilets . . . ?? I figure the majority is walking around in a state of chronic dehydration but they just don't know it . . .
And then there's the question of how to tell whether you can put the toilet paper in the toilet or in the ever-present basket (seemingly in the toilet room out of habit, even if you don't need to put your toilet paper there). . . if they've just emptied and cleaned this lovely plastic basket in anticipation of your visit, how are you supposed to tell if the plumbing can handle the toilet paper or not? And how do you know if they are still putting the paper in the basket out of habit or superstition rather than good reason . . . I have tried to have this conversation with more than one of my good friends and I still don't feel I have mastered this question, despite four years of wondering . . .
Nonetheless, I never waste money on small packets of tissues any more as I know I will always scrounge enough solfyetkii on the plane or in some restaurant in my travels, or I salvage a few clean but slightly used ones from my own kitchen . . . either there are more napkins and toilet paper now over four years ago, or I've changed and don't worry about it so much any more . . .
OK, I'm procrastinating. Good luck with your research. If you can keep organized, I would love to have a copy separate from JRL as I don't always have time to read it when I am trying to survive daily life in Russia . . .
From: "Annette on Moscow
I must say that I have had great time reading about "the toilet paper issue." I thought perhaps I could add my experience to the list. I lived in Moscow in 1990-1991. I shared a private flat with a Russian scientist, downtown Moscow, just a few blocks from the Kremlin. I suppose we were lucky, there was a bath and a half. In the full bathroom there was a "bidet." While I brought a year supply of toilet paper with me (past trips made toilet paper #1 on my list), there was always "regular" toilet paper ("regular" ranging from brown sandpaper type to see - thru tracing paper) available in the stores I shopped. I can also say that friends in both dorms and flats always had toilet paper as well. The problem came when using public facilities, and I carried my own in my day pack. I do remember that when the 50 ruble bill was changed overnight, a picture came out in one of the newspapers of a "toilet paper roll" of 50 rouble notes; and I will add that I knew some who used the old worthless bills as such. The oddest thing I ever saw used was a torn out page of an American Passport....my friend's response was that there was nothing else and what was she ever going to do with page 20?
Public restrooms ranged from a normal standard in nicer restaurants with an attendant, to a wooden platform with two holes in the ground in outer villages, and of course there was always the forest on long trips.
All this talk of toilet paper has brought back many memories and a few laughs, and makes me thankful for my ability to pick between many brands of toilet paper at my pleasure.
From: Oskar on the general situation
The subject of personal hygiene in FSU (and elsewhere) could be (should be?) a subject of a large study. These are just a few notes. The happiest were the summers in the country. There were no toilets, but there were bushes which provided shelter and there were leaves. One soon learned to select the best variety for the purpose. In a town (pop.40000) the "toilet" (crudely sheltered hole in the ground) was some distance from the house. At -50C and below it was not a pleasant exercise. The only paper we could find were pages from books. One had to be careful not to use party propaganda and never anything by the Great Leader, though they were readily available. We located a series of books on the history of warfare. I could not force myself to use them before reading them. Newspapers were not available. Small numbers of Pravda and Izviestia, weeks old, were for sale at the market for many times their nominal price, but were quickly snapped up for the use as cigarette paper. At a university college in a large city conditions were trying. The toilets were often out of order, particularly in the winter, when the sewerage pipes froze. One had to organise small posses, go to a park, where one of us served as a look out and the others did their best behind scant shelter.
From: US diplomat who remains anonymous
I congratulate you for raising this rather important subject.
I was a diplomat in Russia 1993-1996 and travelled quite a bit. Of course I often stayed in fancy Western-style hotels but I stayed in lots of Russian-style ones too. I have been at one time or another in Russian-style hotels in Murmansk, Novgorod, Saratov, Krasnodar, Golden Ring cities, Irkutsk, Yekaterinburg and Ulan-Ude and contributed to toilets in lots of other places. I remember there being TP in the toilets although usually of a rather flimsy type (and often a rather horrid pink). In some humbler toilets there was newspaper paper (ie without the print) cut in sections and hung on a hook. I have a memory of very occasionally being in a toilet with an attendant whom one had to pay (for cleaning) and in at least one, pick up your ration of TP before going in. Most TP was on a roll but quite often it was found in rather inadequate little squares – rather like the ridiculous paper napkins in restaurants. My wife, who probably saw more public toilets in Moscow than I did, says that TP was generally available too and, when it was missing, she suspects that it was stolen because it was always easily available for sale. On trains, TP was provided but ran out very quickly. So, our experience was that TP was in pretty common supply.
On the other hand, most Russian toilets smell pretty bad – as far as I could figure they do not have stacks to vent the gases out of the building. Often toilets in quite fancy places had a reek of ammonia.
Outdoor toilets were appalling – I remember one outhouse (in the winter mercifully) in which the shit-cone was actually higher than the seat. Public toilets disappeared in the great changes and had gone by the time we got there. Apparently, they had been “privatised” and were being turned into other things.
I have long had the theory that the idea that a toilet ought to be as clean and as fresh as, say, one’s kitchen marks a stage in development. The Russian approach (as was the French 35 years ago, they say) seems to have been that the whole experience is so disgusting that one might as well be really disgusted. For example, I remember being taken through a newly renovated office in Vladivostok in which the offices and boardroom were Western quality but the toilet was absolutely untouched – obviously not considered to be a priority.
By the way, when I lived in the UK in the mid-70s, I was so appalled by the quality of British TP that I started a collection (which I still have) – non-absorbent and actually capable of cutting you if you folded it too crisply – much better as tracing paper. Now all that stuff is extinct in the UK.
So I wish you luck in your study of poopology – seriously, something to look at as I suspect there is a correlation between the toilet-as-clean-as-a-kitchen and many other things that are part of being “modern” or “civilised”.
PS. One thing that seems to be true is that relatively few Russianologists have been anywhere but Moscow and St Petersburg – I remember taking one to Yekaterinburg for the 1995 elections who had never, in ten years, been out of Moscow or St Petersburg. This, needless to say, affects their feel for the place and their knowledge of the minutiae.
From: jplant on Moscow and 1950s Britain
I first visited Moscow in 1986 as part of an official twin towns delegation, part of a relationship that was just being revived. Despite being invited to stay at an official "rest home" we were advised to take our own toilet paper ; cut up newspaper was on offer at the rest home. Since then I have visited Moscow several times. I wouldn't rely on hotels to provide for my comfort in this sensitive area, though sometimes, unexpectedly they do. On one occasion, I think Feb 92, our hosts asked us to bring as much toilet paper and sanitary towels as we could pack. Our friends resold these commodities and considerably subsidised the cost (to them) of our visit.
As a child in East London in the 1950s of course I experienced the asperity of the Daily Express. And again as a student in the late 1960s.
From: David who introduces himself
I'm an ichthyologist and collector of Soviet and post-Soviet bank notes, and have been to the FSU (but not the USSR) repeatedly over the past nine years, all but one time to the Zoological Institute in St. Petersburg. (the other was to Sevastopol). I work in ZISP but stay with Russian colleagues, always the same couple, who have nice Khrushchevka flat not far from Elektrosila. I have also made weekend trips to Kizhi, Moscow, Novgorod, etc, usually by overnight train or (to the last) bus. Over this time period, toilet paper has evolved, and so have "sanitary facilities". Initially, the toilet at the ZISP had only cut up squares of newspaper, and the plumbing drains were, lets say "tsarist" era. Everyone smoked in there because it helped breathing. But "v doma" we did have toilet paper, although it was rather coarse. In public facilities, even those with attendants, there was no paper of any sort (so I always carried a roll with me, of course). The trains did not have TP, either, even the Red Arrow in the early 90's. These characteristics did not change until late spring of 99, when they completely rebuilt the toilets at ZISP - new plumbing, all new tile and paint, fixtures, the works. And, toilet paper (although not great quality). Then last winter on my last visit, things seemed to be regressing: no toilet paper and not very clean. At my friends', the toilet paper is still not up to US standards, but is improving. Also, the public facilities seem to be much better now - the one near Isakevsky Sobor was (in the middle of the winter) well heated, clean, had polite attendants (with flowers) and toilet paper. On the other hand, there was none in the ladies room at the Hermitage last winter (my accompanying lady friend tells me).
Now, I recognize that St. Petersburg is a big tourist city, and certainly not like the sticks. Novgorod last summer had rather primitive facilities (again, it was good to smoke). In my experience, which has always been with educated professionals, they have always had TP at home - and I have visited quite a few private flats for parties, dinner., or for post-work discussions.
So, I see things as improving slowly, although the Russians I am with do not. I am inclined to think that it's rather like watching your child grow up – you don't see it unless you go away for a while. I keep my fingers crossed!
From: "hugh. On Tver
I never imagined a discussion of toilet paper could become
so intriguing. Anyway, while in Tver' for 3 months in 1994 there was plenty of
reasonably good, cheap paper but for about 3 to 4 weeks it vanished from store
shelves. If I'm not mistaken it was about the same time in October that the
rouble took a nosedive. In 1986 in Moscow I stayed in the academy of sciences
hotel and there was very little
toilet paper (but a lot of optimism that there would be plenty in > the future). I took home the last of a roll of the sandpaper variety and the touch of it still leaves my students horrified.
From: Carleton a cultural historian
The following will do little to clarify social, regional, or expenditure patterns, but I couldn't resist.
When I was a student in Leningrad in 1982 and 1984-85, we used to make regular raids to steal toilet paper from rest rooms at the better hotels (not an option for most Russians, who were less than welcome in such places). Eventually they got on to us and made sure each stall had only a thin roll--not enough to make the raids worthwhile. It goes without saying that toilet paper was unknown in the dormitories I was familiar with. (In 1982, the men's room on our floor had one crudely made wooden toilet seat for several stalls, and even that small blessing disappeared soon after we arrived, never to be seen again.) I still can't understand what prevented the powers that be from fixing up at least one Potemkin dormitory so that the kids from kapstrany wouldn't go home with such horror stories (i.e., no hot water for the month of November, etc., etc.). Was the system too bankrupt for a little pokazukha or did they just not give a damn?
I had more frequent contact with toilet paper when I lived in a Leningrad kommunalka in 1990-91. While staples like flour, butter, macaroni and vodka were rationed during much of this period, the apartment had a skilled procurer in residence, and we wanted for little. Still, I know just about all the varying textures of napkin, newsprint and, failing that, notebook paper. To this day, when I go back to the old kommunalka, I still find squares of torn newspaper stuck on a nail in the water closet, ready for use when the toilet paper runs out.
My favourite memory, though, has to be of Valaam, the island in Lake Ladoga with a half-ruined monastery. In 1991 I stayed about a week in an old monastery building where lay people had been settled. The second-floor toilet was a hole in the floor over a deep chute at the end of the hall. What made it interesting was the inverse airflow. Mercifully, the residents had barricaded the corridor so that the stench wouldn't back up through the rest of the building, but they had never solved the paper problem. After a squat over the hole, any paper you threw down tended to fly back up in your face.
Irkutsk and Other Places
From: Diane a gender specialist from the US working in Russia
I got a big kick out of this article. The Americans I know here (I've been here 2 years) are always talking about the toilet paper problem and think that once they have universal toilet paper, the country will be on the path to democracy and prosperity. The problem is of course more acute for women than men (as are the stand up toilets given nylons and those few who still wear girdles).
A Russian friend told me that soon after the wall fell, the Swedes were here before the Americans. she was at a seminar where a Swede asked, "Where is the toilet paper?" The Russians responded, "What is toilet paper?"
I disagree that it is even available in hotels or middle class homes. I was in Barnaul in Aug 99 and we went to dinner in a brand new, fancy restaurant in a village outside of Barnaul that was clearly New Russian red brick castles big enough to be hotels but were single family homes. This restaurant was top of the line except l) it didn't have air conditioning and 2) the brand new shiny fancy toilets didn't even have a place on the wall for a toilet paper holder let alone have toilet paper. This was not from poverty but culture.
In Sept l998, I was in Irkutsk and the boss of the conference center said he was going to charge me for the toilet paper holders on the bathroom wall. I said why? He said, because they were all stolen. He asked, "What kind of people did you have at this seminar anyhow?": I said, judges.
We laughed at the thought of women judges going into the bathroom, stealing the paper holders off the wall, and spiriting them out in their purses.
Many of the toilets in the airports, even newly remodelled toilets, don't have toilet paper. Again, this is not poverty. I have been in 3 Russians apartments and one home, and 3 dachas- all would be considered middle class. Two did not have toilet paper - Tomsk and Moscow. One did not have a working refrigerator for 8 months.
Most of my work is done in regions and I have visited 27
different Russian cities, many more than once, from Siberia to Kaliningrad
which is not even connected to Russia proper, from the Arctic Circle to the
Black Sea. IN most places I did my seminars in universities, government
buildings, or offices of an NGO. Almost never was there toilet paper. Women,
including Russian women, always carry paper in their purses.
Many of the Russians have laughed that they used the communist party papers for toilet paper as it was the best use for it.
I remember (I'm 53) when my grandparents in Muscoda Wisconsin had an outdoor privy in town. They died in l960 and had had an indoor toilet for just a short time. We used catalogs (Sears and Roebuck was a favorite) for our toilet paper. Of course they didn't have catalogs in Russia!
The state of toilets in Russia is an affront to human dignity. I have seen and been in some that scared the be jesus out of me. They are filthy, smell horrific, often dark and dank, work or don't work randomly. In the same university you can look down one hall and see fabulous works of art and culture. Walk in the bathroom and you would think you are in the middle ages. To me, this is one small example of the lack of respect given to the individual. No one should tolerate this. Russians know the toilet situation is horrendous. At a medical conference in Nov l999, a woman doctor approached me and said, " we noticed you drink a lot of water." I said, Yes I do. She said, it is very good for you. I said, I know.
Why don't Russian women drink more water. She looked me square in the eye and said, "toilets."
Yet they don't throw a fit about it. I told one woman just Saturday that the vaunted "patience" of the Russian people is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness because when they should demand change, they are patient instead and then change never comes.
From: Johnathan – a historian in the US
In Saratov last summer, every home I visited had TP -- the rough brown kind that sells for about a rouble a roll. "American-style" (as I think of it) TP was available, but at 4 or 5 roubles I never saw anyone buy it. These were middle-class homes by Russian standards, though not necessarily "intelligentsia" (e.g., a fireman and a teacher).
Public facilities were a different story. The men's rooms at both SGU and SGTU had no toilet paper and, indeed, no toilets -- just a hole in the floor. (There were, however, faculty bathrooms that were better provided.) The archive where I worked, Tsentr Dokumentatsii Noveishei Istorii Saratovskoi Oblasti, offered cut-up newspaper. Nor was there TP on trains, although there were probably people lurking around who would have been willing to sell me some if I hadn't brought my own.
In Moscow, I stayed at MGIMO, which provided TP in public toilets – as you might expect. Private homes I visited had it, too -- again, the cheap, brown kind.
In Rostov-Velikii, I stayed in the little inn inside the Kremlin there, and once again I was glad I'd brought my own TP -- none offered. (Otherwise the inn was wonderful, very atmospheric, and a great deal – 4 roubles a night for a bug-free room with a shared bath; quite a relief from Moscow prices!)
From: "Barbara on Siberian alternatives including snow
As long as this continues to be discussed... You have to travel beyond the usual boundaries of academic circles to find the more colorful substitutes for toilet paper. In my travels throughout open and closed areas in Siberia with National Geographic, 1989-1991, we saw it all. Aside from the ubiquitous newspaper, toilets in factories and other industrial enterprises often offer whatever extra administrative and accounting forms they happen to have in surplus. This actually wasn't so bad, since the poor newsprint paper used for these was not the unkindest I have encountered. Orders for fish or metal products, other zayavki... I often thought I should have rounded up a collection. If you ever visit a chum or yurt of a reindeer herder in winter -- my experience is with the Nentsy and Chukchi -- where the toilet is the great outdoors behind the yurt, snow is the toilet paper of choice. The worst situation for toilets was Chukotka or other areas with permafrost that still had only outhouses. In permafrost, the holes cannot be dug very deeply at all. My advice is to travel there only in the deep moroz of winter...
From: Vera in Johannesburg on Siberia
So far everybody is discussing Moscow and St Petersburg - but in 1998 I was in Siberia (near Lake Baikal) in a holiday village-camp, not frequented by Westerner, and there was only one outhouse, a stinking hole, planks to walk on to reach it, and newspapers on a hook. This was the only toilette, which also served a rather good restaurant, which did not even have tap water, where one could later wash one's hands.
From: jonathan in Chicago on the Soviet Far East
FWIW, when I first got to Vladivostok in 1992, the toilet paper supplied in the guest quarters of the Institute of History, etc. was a Komsomol textbook from which one tore out pages on a need basis. When that ran out, a collection of Brezhnev speeches immediately appeared.
The Primorskii krai archive was using old trebovaniia (document-request forms), supplemented with outdated fire-inspection forms from local establishments and occasional surplus kraiispolkom (regional Executive Committee) documents.
And patrons of the quite gnarly men's washroom at the city library had to work our way through now-worthless books on enterprise accounting.
In all cases, form apparently suggested function.
Seriously, I wonder if list members may have encountered more of this sort of deliberate 'disposal' of Soviet-era material in the first year or two following the collapse. I can offer one non-toilet paper example from a non-Far Eastern locale. Also in 1992, the main reading room in the great Tomsk State University library was using most of a Lenin sochinenie (collected works) to prop open windows. The exception was vol. 9, I believe, kept near the assistance desk because it was the right size and heft for smashing cockroaches.
From: Denis in Vladivostok
I'm an American who has been living in Vladivostok, largest city in the Russian Far East, for six of the past seven years. I'm sure my status as an expatriate working for an American organization puts me firmly in the ranks of middle class here. However, the subject of toilet paper is something dear to me. In fact, in Russia I "don't leave home without it," because public facilities almost never provide this essential commodity.
Years ago (early 1993, I mean) when I first came to Vladivostok, there was once a shortage of toilet paper. These days supplies seem to be fine. It just a matter of remembering to buy it and keeping the hall closet stocked. Generally it cost four roubles or less, not quite 15 cents. (A loaf of bread cost six roubles, and if I were forced to choose between the two because of financial circumstances, I'd go for the bread.) At the risk of giving you more detail than you asked for, I actually now prefer the quality of Russian toilet paper to the "soft" American ones. (I won't describe further.)
You may be more interested in the village perspective, but if they don't have toilet paper, I'll bet they don't have e-mail. Did you hear the joke about the villager who once ordered a case of toilet paper from a mail order company? The company wrote that they would gladly fill his request if he would just give them the catalog number of the item. The village wrote back "If I had a catalog, I wouldn't need the
From: Victoria a post grad in Ohio on Turkmenistan
You requested information about rural areas:
It's been a long time since I was in Russia and had the opportunity to use the rough, crepe-paper-like TP I found in the Intourist hotels there, but I remember it well. When I was in Turkmenistan in 1997, I found more of the same in various places, but in the home many people do use cut-up newspapers (I don't think they target a particular one, although I suppose a study of whether they prefer to defile Russian language papers over Turkmen language periodicals could be an interesting point in a study of language and national sentiment). However, it was at a kholkhoz that I understood why the old-fashioned term "meydana gitmek" [to go to the field] is still in usage. At night we girls went out into a dark corner of the nearby field and simply hitched-up our skirts out under the stars. In those instances the TP issue was much simplified by a perceived lack of need for it.
From: Rebecca who really takes the argument forward
Since the thread on tp is getting a little long, I thought I would send this to you outside the list. Three years ago I did some research in Almaty, Kazakstan. I packed all the empty corners of my bags with toilet paper, a rather cheap US variety. A female friend of my roommate stopped by and was astounded by the product. I told her it was not the top of the line, that we also have multi-layered and perfumed paper. Her response was, "My God! Your government must love you!" This was followed by a discussion of consumer-based economies. Most Russian families I visited displayed a roll in the bathroom, but from the contents of the trashcan it was obvious that when there were no visitors, the family used newspapers and magazines. One of my friends was in Kirgizia and found a volume of Stalin's collected works (translated into Kirgiz) in the outhouse. Uncle Joe was being put to good use. Steve ended up purchasing the remainder of the set, much to the owner's amusement.
When visiting a Uighur makhala (with outside, oriental-style squatters) in Almaty, I found no evidence of any sort of paper in the outhouse. I even looked down the hole, but didn't see anything that looked like paper there either. I still don't know what they used. However, in the countryside in Turkmenistan, another friend of mine asked for paper to go the toilet. His host inquired if he wanted to write a letter. After some discussion his host realized why David wanted paper and pointed out a pile of dirt clods beside the outhouse. David said that after a couple of months he actually got used to it.
There is also, at least among the Kazaks and I would imagine
other peoples as well, prohibitions about toilet placement. My language
instructor told me that in the 1950s her grandmother refused to move into a
Soviet apartment building because the toilet and the kitchen were
in the same building.
From: "Irina – a Lithuanian by birth
In my family (both parents are from working class families but both have degrees), as long as can remember, we used toilet paper, but it was difficult to buy, so whenever one of us saw it for sale we always bought the maximum number of rolls (it was always limited, sometimes to 5, sometimes to 10 rolls or whatever), as a result we always had some paper at home kept in a special suitcase. My relatives in the country almost always used cut up newspaper as it was very difficult to buy the paper outside towns. These days they all use toilet paper, it is not very expensive.
From: Yale on the late 1950s
In Poland, where I lived 1958-61, toilet paper was often in
short supply, and people used cut up newspapers. Being Poles, they enjoyed
using the communist party newspaper, Trybuna Ludu. When toilet paper was
available, it was the type that was hard and glossy on one side, and very rough
on the other. We used to call it "the sandpaper." When Poles were
fortunate enough to find some decent toilet paper in the shops, they were not
hesitant to display their good fortune to others. One of the funniest things I
ever saw in Poland was a man riding down Warsaw's main street, Aleje
Ujazdowskie, on a bicycle with about twenty or more rolls of toilet paper on a
string hanging over his shoulder and across his chest like a bandolier. He was
proud and wanted everyone to see.
From: Ludmila in Bulgaria
A very interesting Toilet debate!
What do I remember about toilet paper? In the villages there were people using cut pieces of newspapers. We used a very course type of toilet paper sold in the shops under communism. As a result a lot of anecdotes were invented making fun of our standard of living .I vaguely remember one of the funny stories in wide circulation those days using pieces of newspaper for wiping one's 'zip' was healthy since it encouraged hair growing’. Most anecdotes involved the image of the witty Armenian as a story teller. So in the end the witty Garabed, for example, would recommend newspaper toilet pieces as a reliable cure against boldness! Another memory from the past: It was the summer of 1968,the year of the Prague Revolution. Having spent three weeks in an international pioneers' camp near Varna I was happy to get back home. In Rousse we found that the whole Ukranian group of students was denied passage through Romania and had to be accommodated in private homes until Romania allowed them through. I chose a very attractive Ukranian girl, 4 years older than me. My only concern was the toilet paper although I knew that their standard of living was not much different from ours. Still we started looking for better toilet tissue but in vain. Natasha didn't mind 'scrubbing' herself with it but we felt uncomfortable.
Every five years or so we could notice better quality toilet paper on the market but usually in ugly beige or yellow. This explains why whenever we could go to the West toilet paper was bought in great quantities and made a good present for friends and relatives!!!! Now the situation is a bit better. There is low quality soft tissue in beige which is still affordable for the majority of people. It's no use buying newspapers for the purpose since they are extremely expensive compared to toilet paper. People with money can look for high quality toilet paper only in shops offering imported goods such as METRO and a lot of smaller outlets. Now it's possible to match your toilet paper with the colour of the wallpaper or the rug on the floor etc. Definitely the type of toilet paper used is an expression of civilisational progress or backwardness, same as the toilets themselves.
From: Catalina – A Romanian from Yash
There was definitely a toilet paper shortage in Romania
during the last years of the communist regime (about ‘85-‘89), but I couldn’t
make any comment on its extent, as in my family we have never really
experienced this problem. Somehow, I don’t think the problem was so serious –
it was just that you couldn’t find toilet paper at any time; therefore, the
toilet paper was bought in months supply, to avoid embarrassing situations.
From as long as I recall, I have not seen cut newspapers
used instead of toilet paper in people's bathrooms. With some exceptions: in
some more or less remote villages, where the problem of procuring toilet paper
was greater than in towns, and the toilet paper was the last thing people
wanted to worry about.
The quality of the paper is a completely different story.
There was mainly one type of toilet paper: rough, brown or grey, very low
quality. But this was never an issue in Romania; people were simply used with
it. There was no problem with the affordability of the toilet paper either;
everyone could afford to buy it. I don’t think the price is relevant here, I
will just say that a low to medium monthly salary could buy about 4000 – 5000
rolls of toilet paper.
The availability of the toilet paper in public places was
close to zero. Apart from the hotels and maybe airport toilets, where the paper
existed, no other public toilet provided toilet paper. But in the context of
the total dirtiness and unsanitary aspect of those toilets, the loss of toilet
paper was a minor problem. In this respect, things have changed a bit in
Romania since the revolution, although I still wouldn’t advise anyone to use a
I don’t think the affordability of the toilet paper in our
days is a problem – even if the prices increased so much that a large part of
the population was brought close to poverty, toilet paper is a necessity, like
drinking water. And, to get real, if someone cannot afford to buy toilet paper,
they certainly could not afford to buy newspapers to use instead! The price of
a newspaper is more than twice as much as the price of a toilet paper roll.
There still exists that old type of low-quality toilet paper, cheap enough, but you could also buy higher quality toilet paper, if you want to break the tradition. I could add an anecdote which I was told by a professor of mine. I cannot give any insurance about its veracity, although I've been told it is a true story. Years ago, during the communist period, there was a conference organised in Romania, with a wide international participation. The organising committee took every care that toilet paper was available at the public toilets at the conference venue. Somehow, the toilet paper kept disappearing (stolen, no doubt). After it was replaced for a few times in vain, one of the organisers came at the end of a session and put a roll of toilet paper on the chair's desk saying "If anyone needs it, please come and help yourselves". I wonder if the western participants found the situation amusing or embarrassing.
Yugoslavia and Poland
From: PADRAIC who illustrates why this is important
The next time this topic comes up in a seminar, there is an essential reading to consult: Slavenka Drakulic's book of essays, How we Survived Communism and Even Laughed. There is an essay in there about the problems of toilet paper in Yugoslavia over several generations. Drakulic marks the downturn of market socialism in the early 198Os by the reappearance of the harsh toilet paper of her youth, and notes with some bemusement her daughter's incredulousness. She finds herself hoarding 'bourgeois' Western paper for her daughter, and resigning herself to the old stuff.
Inspired by Drakulic's essay, I asked friends in Poland to help me hunt down a few rolls of the now hard-to-find 'sandpaper'. (I should note that there were really two kinds: one which was indeed like sandpaper, and another which disintegrated instantly when wet.) I wanted to show it to students as we read Drakulic. One colleague had recently cleaned out the apartment of an aunt who had died, and had found dozens of rolls. I brought home three, and my students are constantly amazed by this tactile introduction to communist life.
And one more tidbit: One of the best-known happenings staged by the guerrilla-theater group Orange Alternative in late-communist Poland was on International Women's Day, 1988: they passed out rolls of toilet paper and sanitary napkins, under a big black sign reading 'RIP Toilet Paper'. For this subversive behaviour, they were detained by the police, of course.
From Eastern Europe to the World
From: Stephen in Toronto
By way of comparative observations I should like to add that when I was a graduate student in London during the seventies I discovered that the toilet paper there was similar to North American wax paper. In France, meanwhile, it was like crepe paper similar to what I later found in Poland -- perhaps a result of Polish-French ties at the time. There are no shortages in France or Britain, however.
From: Mark - an historian in the US who raises wider questions
In re: the toilet paper string:
I thought those list members who bothered to read these
might appreciate a comparative perspective. The Sierra Club a few years ago
published a book called "Material World" in which more or less
ordinary families from about 40 different countries are photographed with all
of their possessions.
It's a remarkable book, gives concreteness to international economic statistics.
IN any case, in the middle of the book is a two-page spread, "Toilets of the world," with pictures of toilets or what passes as toilets in 30 or 40 countries with a wide variety of economic conditions. Toilet paper is not always there, to say nothing of toilets!
From: Crebello on the lack of rural information and a Brazilian comparison
Strangely enough, there are no references in this thread to
the use in rural areas of Russia of alternative materials like leaves and other
vegetal matter. Also, there could be room to enlarge on a comparative analysis.
In Brazil, where the middle class prides itself on not using TP, because it
would cause haemorrhoidal lesions, it's a point of honour to have in the bathroom,
near the toilet, one of these basins with a mini shower called, in French,
*bidet*, and it's assumed as common knowledge that in the USA no ones even
knows about the existence of such a thing. Given French influence in Russian
culture, one wonders why the usage of the *bidet* wasn't adopted in the USSR,
at least at the facilities of the bureaucratical happy few, given the fact that
its proper usage doesn't rely on a continued supply of
From: Clovis on History in West
Websters gives the origin of the word (toilet paper) as 1884. Presumably, that's about when manufacture began.
Winston Churchill, once asked in the 1920's about his
impression of America, is supposed to have said, "Newspapers too thick, toilet
paper too thin."