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Eastern Europe on a roll

By Blog Admin, on 24 October 2012

The humble toilet roll offers unsuspected insights into the East-West relationships in Europe finds Wendy Bracewell

Toaletni papir nekrepovany JIP

Czechoslovak toiilet paper c. 1980. Photo: Ludek via Wikicommons

Why is toilet paper such a commonplace in writing about Eastern Europe?  Anglo-American disgust at local toilet facilities – or their absence – certainly didn’t appear with the Cold War: this was an old cliché in Western depictions of East European and Mediterranean societies.  (Reactions to postwar Greek plumbing –especially the little basket for used paper – continued in this tradition, showing that while Greece was on the right side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, it was on the wrong side of the Paper one.)

 But Westerners also attached new, more ideological connotations to toilet paper.  As early as 1948 commentators saw blips in supply as the Party-State’s contempt for everyday human needs. (Concern for the ‘ordinary citizen’ seemed less important a decade later, with Americans questioning whether their success with consumer disposables, symbolized by toilet paper, measured up to the Soviet conquest of space with Sputnik.) Toilet paper was handy for dramatizing the humiliations visited on dissidents: interviewers with Milovan Djilas in the 1960s were less interested in what he had written during imprisonment than in the fact that his words had covered thousands of sheets of toilet paper (supply clearly wasn’t a problem). (more…)