Eastern Europe on a roll
By Sean L Hanley, on 24 October 2012
The humble toilet roll offers unsuspected insights into the East-West relationships in Europe finds Wendy Bracewell
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).
And outrage greeted the claim that Ceauşescu’s regime had pulped confiscated bibles to supply Romanian loos. But it wasn’t until the crises of the 1970s-80s that the Western press made queues for toilet paper the central symbol of the socialist utopia caught short. The stuff still fascinates, as a substantial paper trail on the H-Russia online discussion group on Russian and Soviet history shows. Western travellers still insulate their fragile sense of superiority with the coarse sheets of east European toilet paper, as Dubravka Ugrešić has pointed out in The Culture of Lies.
But what of the roll of toilet paper in the Bloc? Under socialism, public hygiene (a favourite term) was supposed to be organized to the benefit of the entire society, not just the ruling class. Party-minded travellers to the West were sniffy about soft loo paper as marking the divide between haves and have-nots, but promptly drew attention to any lapse in capitalist lavatories. One Croatian writer made a point of the tattered telephone books hung up in a London WC in 1957, ‘in place of those packets which at home bear the inscriptions Golub, Bristol, Excelsior, Sanitas and Hygeia’.
Central planners prioritizing the needs of the many would never devote resources to puppy-soft pastels, but here at least was availability and choice. Even jokes could take some degree of quality for granted. ‘Why is it always two-ply?’ ran the standard gag, from Bulgaria to Poland. ‘Because Moscow wants a copy of everything.’ But when the TP ran short, few were happy to revert to squares of heavily-subsidized newsprint. ‘Who’s afraid of toilet paper?’ was the slogan of a 1988 ‘happening’ in Wrocław. The organizers handed out single sheets to passers-by: ‘Are the queues for toilet paper an expression of (a) a call for culture? (b) the call of nature? (c) the leading role of the party in a society of developed socialism? Tick the right answer.’
Even after socialism, public toilets still provided a place for writers to ponder. Why were they still so disgusting? And where was the paper? In 1996 Slavenka Drakulić thought she had found the answer, not in Zoe Ceauşescu’s bathroom, but in a still-filthy restaurant loo. In Café Europa she saw the lack of paper as further evidence of ‘what-communism-did-to-us’: failing to educate an overwhelmingly peasant population in civilized values, ‘from democracy to toilet paper’. By 2007, however, Drakulić had noticed that such products weren’t necessarily available to everyone. She herself revelled in Zagreb’s new ‘European normality’, imagined in terms of her own stacks of toilet paper: ‘some come with a floral pattern, one has small people skiing (for use in winter, I suppose), and another has funny animals to encourage children to use it.’ But she now argued that no one could blame anyone else for a lack of loo paper: ‘it’s time to understand that it’s up to each of us, individually’
But what of those who couldn’t afford this ‘European normality’? In 2010 Zagreb consumers were offered an alternative: an ‘anti-recession’ toilet paper, cheaper than newspaper (no longer subsidized) – and marketed as a 100% Croatian product, branded with the national red-and-white checkerboard. In 1989 the same privy-patriotism had pushed one Belgrade writer towards an only superficially different alternative. Disgusted by deodorized, automated Swiss toilets where you shit to the accompaniment of Handel, he preferred the collective, paperless, open-air evacuation of a Serbian brass band festival, accompanied by music ‘with no connection to Europe’. Clearly, toilet paper still has a lot to say, even in different circumstances.
Don’t run out of the stuff!
Wendy Bracewell is Professor of Southeast European History at SSEES and is Director of the East Looks West project on East European travel writing on European identities and divisions. An anthology of travellers’ toilet papers, Where to Go in Europe, will be published later this year.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.