15 March 2007

Bathroom Talk: Russia in Crisis

A friend and I were recently discussing the fact that so many toilets in Russia are missing toilet seats, a particularly unpleasant fact if one's immediate business requires the adoption of a sedentary position. This unfortunate absence is especially pronounced in buildings and institutions which are state-funded (by which I mean, of course, state-underfunded). To take a random example, oh, I don't know... the Russian public university. This, of course, leads to the very reasonable question, "where have all the toilet seats gone?"

[Incidentally, readers might not be aware of the fact that American folk-singer Pete Seeger wrote a secret "lost" verse to his famous antiwar song, where he posed this very question, "where have all the toilet seats gone?" Scholars have taken this as conclusive evidence that Seeger had ties to the Soviet Union, thereby justifying the suspicions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Fearing arrest as HUAC's noose tightened around him, Seeger destroyed all evidence of his communist sympathies, including the "lost verse." However, word of the verse's existence traveled through the American communist underground, inspiring other Soviet-themed add-on verses such as, "where has all the toilet paper gone?", "where has all the cabbage gone?", "where have all the kulaks gone?," and the perennial favorite, "where has comrade Khrushchev gone?", penned after Khrushchev's ouster and internal exile in 1964.

Readers might also not be aware of the fact that none of the above paragraph is true, as I just made it up on the spot. But it makes a good story, doesn't it?

But back to the business of the missing toilet seats, which is no fiction, I assure you. Applying the incisive tools of social science to this puzzle, we can develop several plausible hypotheses to explain the absence of toilet seats in Russia:

H1: The toilet seats have been stolen.
Implications of H1: This is entirely plausible, as things are often stolen in Russia, as in any country. A persistently high rate of toilet seat theft would imply high demand on the black market, a sign of a severe shortage in toilet seat production and supply.

H2: The toilet seats have been broken and never replaced.
Implications of H2: For this hypothesis to be validated, we must first inquire as to why such a large percentage of toilet seats were broken in the first place. It is unlikely due to excessive weight of Russians. After all, we all know that America is probably the most overweight nation in the world, yet our toilet seats seem not to suffer. Another possibility is that Russian toilet seats are being abused in ways that lead to premature weakening and breakage. As I cannnot imagine any activities that would overload a toilet seat, such as those requiring the seat to bear the weight of multiple individuals at once, this possibility can be categorically eliminated. The remaining explanation for the high rate of toilet seat breakage is shoddy construction and weak materials, a condition that was pervasive throughout the "Golden Age" of Soviet life (the Brezhnev years). I mean, Stalinism had its faults, but back then they knew how to build sturdy buildings and probably sturdy toilets too.

But why, once broken, wouldn't these toilet seats be replaced? The only logical explanation points again to severe supply shortages in the Russian toilet seat market. While a competing explanation might be found in official indifference to the posterior comfort of those who frequent these institutions, as we all know, Russian public institutions are bastions of caring and kindness. Thus, this possibility can be rejected without further discussion.

H3: The toilet seats were never there.
Implications of H3: As with the other hypotheses, validation of H3 would require further in-depth field research. Such research might entail a qualitative approach involving interviews with current and former custodial staff in order to determine whether the toilet seats were ever there in the first place. One might also take a quantitative approach, coding individual stalls, bathrooms, and buildings for the presence of toilet seats in order to determine whether a pattern emerges. For example, if half the stalls in a bathroom have toilet seats, it is likely that the other half had them once too. However, if an entire building lacks seats entirely, it increases the probability that they were never there. In any case, the investigator should avoid at all costs the anthropological approach of "soak and poke," the reasons for which should be self-evident.

Presuming H3 were found to be valid, this would also imply a severe shortage of toilet seats, as builders were unable to install them at the time of construction. Further shortages would have prevented their addition in the meantime.

There are, of course, infinite minor hypotheses that could also explain the puzzle at hand. For example, it is possible that toilet seats are the preferred material with which a yet-undiscovered nocturnal species of giant dung beetle builds its nests. But until the existence of the the new species (Scarabaeinae toiletus seatus) is proven, such hypotheses are best left aside.

But what to do about H1-H3, all of which seem plausible? Data does not currently exist that allow us to distinguish between the three alternatives. Nor is further investigation likely to be undertaken, as this is not a "priority" area of research in any of the fields of social science.

However, based on preliminary data and deductive reasoning, along with the fact that all three hypotheses imply the same underlying cause, we can conclude that Russia is in the grips of a major market failure, as embodied by the severe shortage of toilet seats. It may just be toilet seats today, but what about tomorrow? What happens when the toilets themselves start disappearing? Even worse, what happens when our pants disappear as well?

In any case, it seems clear that Russia's toilet seat industry is one of the last holdouts of the Soviet planned economy, as only such a decrepit institution could produce such spectacular shortages. I have a suspicion that the man in the Bureau of Toiletry Production at Gosplan plugged in his 8-track back in the 70s (did 8 track even make it to the Soviet Union? Probably not.), put on his headphones, and hasn't noticed that things are kind of quiet around the office these days.

If Russia is to finally join the ranks of capitalist democratic countries... Oh, right. If Russia is to finally join the ranks of capitalist countries, the reform of the toilet seat industry must be made a top priority of the country's leadership.

After all, they produce loads of B.S. every day. Don't you think they'd be sympathetic to the need for a good toilet seat?


Percy said...

I think you need another hypothesis: perhaps Russians don't like toilet seats. This could be an issue of cultural specificity. Don't be an ethnocentrist, now.

Veronica Khokhlova said...

the way they use public toilets, there's no use having toilet seats - no person would want to rest his/her ass where so many boots stood before him/her

no toilet paper, either, have you noticed? and in the soviet times, there must have been a connection between the lack of tp and an abundance of kolbasa (rumored to be made of tp)

and - the first time i saw an 8-track was in the states

Sean Guillory said...

Yes I have discovered this strange phenonmena of missing toilet seats. Often, like in the Historical Library, there are missing bathroom stall doors. There is never, ever any toliet paper. In the Komsomol archive, ripped up blanks of listy ispol'zovanii seem to serve as makeshift asswhipe.

I have this theory about capitalist development that has been floating around in my head since being in Russia. How advanced a capitalist system is in relation to the quality of its public toilets. What do ya think?

Anonymous said...

On old public toilets, there never were toilet seats. Many Russian public toilets, such as at train-stations, are more akin to Turkish toilets than Western toilets. Russian's traditionally do not sit on toilet seats in public.

So, there is no riddle here.

Modern restaurants and public buildings have 'normal' toilets.

Reluctant Muscovite

Rubashov said...

I'm almost too afraid to ask Veronica why "so many boots stood before him/her" on the toilet. Perhaps I've led too sheltered a life, but I'm really at a loss for imagining what activity might be going on that involves people standing on the toilet.

Also, our Reluctant Muscovite's comment that "Russians traditionally do not sit on toilet seats in public" is an important one. If they don't do it, neither should you (I'm talking to expats here). It reminds me of summer camp in the States, where the counselors always encouraged us to "do our business" before we went hiking for the day, as things become far more complicated when you're out in the woods with nothing but a hole and some leaves. The wise Russia traveler would be wise to heed this advice, because you probably won't even have "leaves" out there either.

In conclusion, Russia is just like summer camp. Isn't it fun!!!

Lyndon said...

Veronica's comment contains the solution to the riddle. Some people in Russia use "Western" toilets like one would use an "Oriental" one - i.e., they squat on top of it. Hence the boots on the seat. Recall that people who grow up in the countryside may not have grown up with indoor plumbing, so squatting over a hole (as opposed to sitting on a seat) might actually be more, uh, comfortable for them. If a toilet seat gets stood on enough, it breaks. Or, as someone else suggested, it may never have existed in the first place. In other words, to paraphrase a different debate, they weren't "lost," because they weren't "ours to lose."


1) Learn to squat or hover, or just drink your meals and eat nothing (when in Rome...)

2) Find a McDonald's

3) Never leave home (assuming the seat situation is in order there)

Christine said...

Have I never told you about footprints on toilet seats in Asia? I've found them in Chinatown also, in addition to used toilet paper in the trash - I guess they aren't used to flushing the paper down either.

ReluctantMuscovite said...

Final note on topic: Russian railway toilets in normal long-distance trains have toilets that can be sat on - but there are footholds built into the metal as well.


Amelia said...

Thank you! My husband has always thought I was joking when I tell him about the Russian way of using public commodes.