TOILET PAPER: A! Russian Perspective
When I arrived in the United States in 1994, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, I was a hoarder. The Soviet culture of perpetual deprivation and shortages of everything had conditioned me to always prepare for the worst. My American husband watched me with utmost curiosity as I hoarded every essential item I could get my hands-on: Zip Lock plastic bags, little shampoos from the hotels, lotions and creams, soap bars – lots of soap! Food. I would eat and eat and eat, as though I could never get enough, and I had to have multiples of everything to feel secure and safe.
Years passed, but the fear wouldn’t go away. I still had to have multiples supplies, as I needed to be prepared for every possible emergency. My worst fear was running out of food, so, I packed crackers and energy bars, and sandwiches for every family member even on a short two-hour road trip, just in case. Eventually, I realized that I had a serious issue, PTSD, the Soviet syndrome. I was programmed with pressure and had the urge to hoard. To my American family and friends, my fear of shortages was irrational, but to me, it felt real. My intuition would scream, “Get more and store. Prepare just in case! You will need it.” I was trying to let go of that fear that used to be the basis of our Soviet survival.
Of all the items I was hoarding while in America, the least likely thing to hoard was toilet paper. My family grew up without it. Soviet Russia had no toilet paper. We would always use pieces of torn newspaper for wiping. The most common newspaper we had was Pravda (“The Truth”). The ink was not moisture-proof, and after wiping, we would invariably end up with the black ink residue on our private parts. Our butts were covered with sulfur residue, the black ink from the Truth, but we had no choice.
The first Soviet toilet paper came out only in the 1980s, in Moscow, after the World Olympics games. Other Soviet regions continued using newspaper to wipe with well into the late 1980s. Even after the toilet paper became readily available in Soviet Russia, people would still shy away from getting it. Part of that was cost. It wasn’t considered a necessity item. Why spend money on toilet paper, if you can wipe for free? Once the toilet paper came out, however, there was never a shortage.
The first rolls of toilet paper in Moscow resembled sandpaper. They were tough, rough, and gray. Yet, we loved it. Being progressive, my family in Moscow never went back to the newspaper for wiping, once the first toilet paper got on the shelves. From then on, that’s what we used. Later, in the mid-1980s, the costly rolls of white toilet paper became available. There was an option between the affordable sandy rough paper or the luxury one. The difference in price was significant. My family was able to afford the lush soft white toilet paper only in the early 1990s, and we appreciated every piece of it. It was so lovely having that paper, although not as important as getting some food. In the early 1990s, there were shortages of everything: especially sugar and butter. Then, in 1992, right before the collapse, there was a shortage of bread. Eventually, even the bread disappeared from Soviet stores. However, as far as I recall, there was never a shortage of toilet paper.
On March 15, 2020, here in America, I leisurely walked into Costco, and I was shocked. There was no toilet paper. The shelves for the essential items were empty, and crowds looked frantic and overly concerned. I grabbed a couple of other things that I needed and left. The next time I went to Costco, there was a long line to get in. The line was curving around the building like a snake and wasn’t even moving. People stood so close to each other, almost like in Soviet Russia that I got concerned and left. Let my behind be dirty. It’s better than catching and carrying the virus, I thought. In a week, I drove back to Costco to check it out, and had to leave the parking lot; so much anxious energy I felt and the lines there resembled the old Soviet times. For the next few weeks, I avoided Costco.
“Whatever happens in this country, it won’t be any worse than what we had in the USSR,” my Russian friends assured each other during the 2008 economic collapse. Today, my Russian-American friends don’t sound all that reassuring. They became quieter. “Hmmm…well, we survived Russia, and here we go again…”
Meanwhile, at my home, we ran out of toilet paper. I was blaming myself, the Soviet hoarder, for being too relaxed and not listening to my excellent intuition! My intuition would always tell me to get things in advance and to have multiple items, just in case. My Soviet intuition would still urge me to get multiples of everything and store, just in case of an emergency, and I wouldn’t listen. “I had become too Americanized, too trusting!” I was blaming myself. I was too relaxed!
Blaming myself for being so naïve, I quickly went online. I discovered that Amazon had no toilet paper either and that Amazon and E-Bay sellers rapidly, overnight, turned into Soviet-black-market racketeers, hucksters, selling a roll or two of toilet paper for enormous prices! The domestic prices for online toilet paper became unbelievable. Someone on E-Bay was offering Kirkland brand, Costco toilet paper for a hundred dollars, and I believe, they split it into several packs.
America was changing overnight. People stopped smiling, resembling more and more a Soviet crowd of my old motherland during the 1970-80s, except for the fact that Americans all seem to have perfect teeth, unlike many Russians. In March of 2020, when the news of the virus was still being debated, American people became seriously concerned, but concerned about what?! “What if they don’t get the toilet paper?”
Toilet paper was the first item that disappeared from American stores, and it felt surreal. When I told my Russian family in Moscow that there’s no toilet paper in American stores, they laughed at me. “Should we send you some Russian toilet paper? Come back to Russia. We have plenty!” Indeed, the pictures of Russian stores were full of toilet paper and paper towels and wipes and other necessities. Whatever that Russian people were hoarding, it wasn’t the toilet paper (at least not at first).
Late in March, giving up on Costco and Amazon, I made two purchases on E-Bay from international sellers: a pack of toilet paper from Taiwan, and a package from Canada. Both were promised to arrive in several weeks. Let the two compete! Both sellers vowed to deliver the paper “by the end of May.” But until May, should we just soil our pants? I had to think. There must be a way out. For someone brought up in Soviet culture, after what we have gone through, there is always a solution. I just had to sleep on it. Waking up in the morning, I had an idea. “Let’s cut some old towels,” I suggested to my husband, “We can wet them in lukewarm water and use them to wipe.”
“You are so creative!” my husband praised me.
“No, I am simply Russian,” was my reply. After a second thought, I went online and ordered some wash clothes from Walmart, for that very purpose: two packs of 36 washcloths and another one with 24 washcloths. Multiples, of course, just in case.
NOW IT’S TIME TO LEARN SOME RUSSIAN!
– RUSSIAN MONTHLY VOCABULARY –
How about learning some essential phrases? –
That means, “Where is the bathroom?” in Russian.
The emphasis goes on the third syllable:
“TualEt” means a bathroom that is not gender specific.
If you learn this well, you’ll be ready to travel to Russia!