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A field guide to pooping in the Soviet Union

People shouldn't laugh about Russian bathrooms. Because here's something on Soviet bathrooms.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

There will be jokes. Oh, there will be jokes. Lots of poop jokes.

The bathroom is a place for solace, for contemplation. It's where free-market enthusiasts meditate with the help of a Restoration Hardware catalog. All of which is hard to do with a bucket of poop paper in the corner.

But allow me to defuse some jokes. That picture might represent some of the plumbing mores in present day Sochi, Russia, and it is most certainly not what we're used to. It's not what the reporters covering the Winter Olympics are used to.

I, however, have experience pooping in the Soviet Union.

When I was 13, I went with a youth group to the U.S.S.R.. It was just a month before the coup, and even a teenager could figure out that things were opening up. The packs of kids looking to trade military watches for INXS cassettes weren't as subtle as we were told they would be. Most of the business was done in the open, which was something of a surprise. We were told to bring cartons of cigarettes for trade. The ones who did came home with full military uniforms, medals and all.

We were also told to bring toilet paper. I did not listen.

When you google "standing in line for toilet paper" now, you get a histrionic quote from Glenn Beck as the first result. But in the '80s, that was a thing. Americans loved to recoil in horror/point in Cold War superiority at the reports of Soviets standing in line for bread and toilet paper. I waited in a surprisingly efficient mile-long line to get a Big Mac, but I never did see lines for bread. Maybe the stories were apocryphal, or maybe they kept the American school kids off that beat.

I'm not sure if I ever saw a roll of toilet paper in a public restroom during those three weeks, though. The Moscow hotels had some in the rooms, I think, but nothing in the lobby. Same with Yaroslavl and Vladimir. They would take care of the guests, but if they put a roll down for the masses, the masses would redistribute it.

At 13, I had not mastered the dos and don'ts of pooping in public restrooms. There was no advance planning, no thought of worst-case scenarios. You went about your day, and when you had to go, you found somewhere appropriate. Seems simple. For the first few days, this didn't come up.

Then it came up. There's nothing quite like the frantic realization there's no toilet paper in your stall. Your first instinct is to reach under the next stall and paw for help, shooting a hand up like something from the Evil Dead poster. Run with that instinct. But in the Soviet Union, that was not a strategy that was likely to work.

Then the door opened to the bathroom, and someone took the next stall. I was convinced it was a local, so I didn't bother with the whimpers for help. I was going to have to wait for the search party to find me. Except, five minutes into the next stall's adventure, it was English that (also) came out.

"No. No, no, no."

It was someone from the trip. We made awkward chatter before getting down to brown tacks. Turns out that my new soulmate remembered he had travel-sized Kleenex in his fanny pack. Also, he had a fanny pack. In a solemn ceremony, tiny Kleenex was passed under the stall. I was saved.

We got out, laughing, and started washing our hands. Another kid from the trip came in and closed the stall. Buckle hit the floor, and we figured out a warning was in order.

"There's no toilet paper in there."


"We're out of Kleenex. We'll run up to the room and get you some."

"Don't worry about it."

"No, seriously. It's okay, we'll run up and grab some."

"Nah, I'm cool."

About three minutes later, the guy emerges from the bathroom and rejoins us in the lobby, where we were meeting to get on a bus to Ivanavo. It's about a five-hour trip. I sat next to no-paper for the entire trip. He smelled. He also brought a cassingle of "Everything I Do, I Do It For You" that he would convince the driver to play over the bus's PA every couple hours.

That part is absolutely not made up. Neither is the part about him smelling bad.

So people in Sochi have to throw the toilet paper in a receptacle? Suck it the hell up. You have toilet paper. When it runs out, someone will get more. They will hang it overhand like an animal, but there will be more. Pooping in Sochi might be an experience, but pooping in the Soviet Union was a trauma.

Also, I'm about one more call to the plumber away from keeping a poop-paper receptacle in my own bathroom, so I don't want to antagonize the bathroom gods. Leave Sochi alone.

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