In Praise of the Soviet tualet

Vasile Ernu | November 01, 2008
Translated by: Florin Bican


In Praise of the Soviet tualet


                                                                                                                                                Dedicated to Ilya Kabakov



There’s hardly a space more conducive to intimacy in the life of the Soviet citizen than the tualet. (Allow me, as a token of my boundless respect for the convenience as such, as well as for the word designating it, to persist in employing the original Soviet term whenever referring to it throughout the present chapter: tualet.) It is, perhaps, the word connoting the highest degree of intimacy in the vocabulary of any Soviet citizen. The tualet is where you alone and no one else but you go to solve those particular problems which no other person or agency can tackle in your stead. And I mean nobody – neither your father nor your mother, neither your wife nor your friend, not even the Prime Secretary himself can substitute for you in paying the mandatory visit you owe to the tualet. Your experience of the place is bound to mark you for life. The intimate relationship with the location and your perception thereof will be perpetuated in every nook and cranny of your inner self. Our individual awareness of the space in question went into the making of our national being. The Soviet tualet is part of an acquired commonwealth of experience, defining an essential trait of our spirit.


I cannot approximate with any degree of accuracy the experience a citizen of a Western capitalist state may have in repairing to the convenience under discussion, yet on my very first visit to a country of that description, the first thing to cause me a nagging feeling of discomfort were the toilets. What made me uneasy was not their squalor, since compared to their opposite numbers in the Soviet Union they were a genuine paradise of cleanliness, nor was it any encroachment on privacy, since most of them were scrupulously partitioned to fend off the neighbours’ inquisitive looks. I resented nonetheless their absolute inability to conjure the state of intimacy I expected of such a place. For the Soviet citizen that is an unacceptable failure. The tualet ought to be the epitome of collective intimacy in its purest form. The Soviet citizen is afflicted with instant constipation when confronted with the capitalist boudoir passing itself for a toilet, for the simple reason that such a space fails to elicit any intimate response from him. Consequently, there are no memories of western toilets one could dwell on. And the absence of memories signals the absence of intimacy.


So what’s so special about that particular place of perdition? Well, I’ll try to let you in on some things, the kind of things which are not commonly shared with others, each of us tending to keep them to ourselves. Intimate memories are hard to put into words. Such things are the stuff one holds on to in order to remember and enjoy privately. Few attempt to narrate them, and out of those few, only a very small fraction are reasonably successful in the attempt. Yet let me give it a try.


I ought to start by telling you that there are basically two types of Soviet tualet, which every Soviet citizen either loves or hates. All the same, regardless of the particular sentiment you entertain, you do relate intimately to either of them. The former type of tualet is the one in the komunalka. That’s where you first encounter it and also where you come to experience the first moments of intimacy with that kind of space. The komunalka tualet is a space to be shared. It equally belongs to every one living in the house. That is to say, it is an area of shared intimacy, by no means limited to the intimate use of one’s own family. That’s where tyotya Klava also comes, as well as dyadya Volodya, just like the beautiful Marusya, and that pain in the neck Lyonya, as well as all the other twenty people living in the house. That place indiscriminately respects, services and puts up with each and every one of them. The tualet is essentially unbiased. One may occasionally hurt its feelings, yet it will never retaliate in like manner.


Going to any tualet is an art in itself, yet going to the one in the komunalka should be counted among our truest rites of passage. That’s when you becomes a sort of stalker/guide taking charge of your entire being. When going there you ought to know that, although you are on your own, the neighbours are watching you. There’s at least one of them at any given time bound to watch and pass judgment “There he goes again. Bound to spend another half an hour in there…”, “ Reading novels, he is, or doing who knows what”. Indeed, when you are going to the tualet, if you’re treating that place with the respect it deserves, you should take two items along. Your book and your roll of toilet paper. Toilet paper is never to be found in the actual tualet. It belongs in your room, where it is given pride of place. And it is to be used sparingly. Yet you shouldn’t assume that, having forgotten to take your roll of toilet paper, you’re bound to end up in an embarrassing situation. Not at all. You’ll find in there, tucked in a nook, either a copy of last year’s Pravda, which will automatically double as reading matter should you feel thus inclined, or a sheaf of conveniently-sized sheets, neatly cut out of the Konsomolskaya Pravda by means of a pair of scissors. Tyotya Klava will see to it.


As for the book, there are no restrictions whatsoever governing your choice of reading matter. It’s all up to you. You have the freedom to read any book you might feel inclined to. The tualet is the perfect reading room, and also the place that ought to be credited with turning out the largest number of Soviet intellectuals, and the most remarkable of them, too. You shouldn’t succumb to the common deception that our education is by an large the merit of the Soviet school, or of libraries such as “ Nadejda Krupskaya” or “ V.I. Lenin”, or of some “Lomonosov” university somewhere. Granted, they did play a worthy part in our education. The tualet, however, beats by a long chalk any such educational and cultural establishments as far as our intellectual formation is concerned. Therefore, whenever we express our gratitude towards the people and institutions forming and educating us, we shouldn’t forget to give due thanks to this veritable sanctuary of Soviet culture – the tualet.


The second important tualet in our lives, and in the great Soviet civilization as well, is the public tualet. This is altogether another space, another world we might say, where existence acquires a dramatically new meaning. Experience at this level is more intense, more carnal, more biologically focused. That’s where the tualet penetrates your being through every pore. If in the first case collective experience was only assumed, remote, cognitively implied, yet not palpably manifest, in this second case, collective experience is overwhelmingly immediate.


All over the country, from Kamcheatka to Vilnius, from institutions such as schools to factories and plants, you will see whitewashed structures bearing on opposite corners, in big characters, the letters M and Ж (Men and Women, respectively). The classical design does away with doors, in favour of an L-shaped wall sheltering the entrance and screening off the interior. Not that anyone would be even remotely curious to attempt viewing the interior in question. In the Soviet public tualet voyeurism is as good as nonexistent. That’s not a place where people watch each other. Watching is rather avoided, resisted, even. Everyone’s eyes are searching for the comfort provided by blind spots. In spite of all that, something strange happens. You start watching yourself through the eyes of others. You see yourself as seen by the others, you see yourself through their own eyes, as it were. That’s by far more disturbing and gives way to a weird feeling you can’t exactly put your finger on.


On entering the premises, you had to act with great determination, walk briskly and watch your step. On occasions a certain degree of astuteness was required in order to accomplish the task you’d taken upon yourself. Sometimes you’d have to put it off, or even give it up altogether. You and the public tualet were pitted against each other in fierce combat, yet you had to respect it, for it was the place you couldn’t imagine life without. And gradually, the combat, the odour, the tualet’s very mode of existence came to be part of you.


In there, running along a wall, there was a stretch of gutter, sort of, sloping down at an imperceptible gradient (in the Men’s section, that is), where water would be allowed to drip at very irregular intervals. If at all. That was the pissing area. On the opposite side there was a row of holes in the floor. I mean holes as in “black hole”. Each hole was flanked by sole-shaped foot rests in high relief. Everything in plain view. The protruding sole-patterned foot rests were designed as an encouragement for you to take the “eagle” position on top of the pit and thus aim with optimum accuracy. Now I can’t explain why, but the crux of the matter is that the Soviet citizen, though trained to aim accurately through the target practice routine he was subjected to starting with his first years in school, systematically failed to hit the pit at this particular location. The Soviet citizen’s crap simply refused to enter the hole and get lost in the Void, in that great Nothingness. It demanded greater respect than that, it yearned to abide among us and tell us that it, too, did exist, just like we existed. And, mysteriously, it was unfailingly successful in its endeavours. It stayed on top, among us. Of course, there’s no need for me to tell you that such decadent gimmicks as toilet paper were unheard of, and water taps were few and far between. One had to fight tooth and nail in order to survive the public tualet, and the theatre of combat was the tualet itself. You wanted to purge yourself of your excrement and cast the dregs of your being into the Void, and the excrement in question would put up a fight of incredible fierceness. The battle as such and the battlefield itself gradually came to be taken for granted. Right, and if by reductio ad absurdum you’d find yourself in a tualet fitted with a pedestal (seat), then planting your feet on the pedestal was in the nature of things. The established matrix governing positions and hierarchies was not to be tampered with.


This most intimate space of the Soviet being doubled as the archive of the most authentic messages sent by the Soviet citizen to the great Soviet people at large. They were the kind of messages by which the unsophisticated citizen communicated with the whole world. The messages were inscribed upon the inner walls of the tualet, which had long since ceased to be white. They’d be written in whatever happened to be available, from chalk to ball-point pen to faeces. As a rule, the messages dealt with fundamental topics, from love, e.g. МАША + ВОВА = ЛЮБОВЬ (Masha + Vova = love), to the most exquisite forms of profanity. It is at the level of profanity that the Soviet people’s innermost dispositions and highest aspirations find their truest expression. I would venture to say that in the Soviet Russian language there are a maximum of ten words and phrases synthetically expressing the Soviet personality and civilization in their entirety. Those words and phrases are not to be found in Lenin’s Complete Works, neither in Marx’s Capital, and even less in the syrupy writings of American Kremlinologists. They’re to be found exclusively upon the walls of the tualet.


I’d like to add something. You are, of course, familiar with Proust. I’m telling you that for the Soviet citizen nothing can play the part of Proust’s madeleines more appropriately than the tualet. That’s how the tualet functions for us. The familiar odour of faeces, urine and vast amounts of chlorine sometimes bringing spontaneous tears to your eyes, the familiar sight of white walls streaked with piss, footprints and vulgar inscriptions, the familiar rush of chilly air piercing you in winter are liable, even today, to stir in the Soviet citizen the most sordid, yet most cherished memories. The tualet conjures up and the most secret memories, thus enabling you to revisit your own life.


About this issue

This July, The Observer Translation Project leaves its usual format to present a special CRISIS ISSUE. Things are tough all over. Hard Times suddenly feels like the book of the moment. The global economic crisis impacts life as we know it, and viewed from Bucharest the effects reverberate in domains that include geo-politics and publishing in Romania and abroad, with the crisis at The Observer Translation Project as an instance of a universal phenomenon. read more...

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