Russia’s Toilets, Sochi’s Problems, and Why it Matters

The following is a guest post by my friend Irena Schneider, a Ph.D. student at King’s College London, exploring the tragicomedy of Sochi’s toilets, why the world should pay attention to them, and what they say about everyday life in Russia. I am reminded of Mikhail Gorbachev’s recollection about Soviet life during the Brezhnev era: “We were planning to create a commission headed by the secretary of the Central Committee to solve the problem of women’s pantyhose. Imagine a country that flies into space, launches Sputniks, creates such a defense system, and it can’t resolve the problem of women’s pantyhose. … It was incredible and humiliating to work in such a government.” Let Putin and his cronies feel the humiliation of running a system that can’t solve the problem of Sochi’s toilets.

Pull up a commode and behold the spectacle of Sochi’s toilets.

This week’s Policy Mic piece stirred some discussion in the Russian and Russophile community about the social media blitz surrounding the Sochi Olympics’ hilarious debacles, from double toilets to brown drinking water, unfinished hotel rooms and open manholes. The author makes the following plea: “@SochiProblems, whining journalists and social media fiends: Have just a bit more respect for Russians, because while you might think you’re just ridiculing the Olympics, for many, this is their everyday life.”

This is certainly the culturally sensitive thing to do, especially from the perspective of those who have spent time in Russia and grown to sympathize with its immensely rich and complex culture and people. After all, these western journalists will have had their fun laughing about construction workers laying the pavement as they arrived, stray dogs in hotel rooms, and disconnected door knobs without ever knowing that entire communities of Russians were dislocated from their homes (without compensation) to build the Olympic complex, or that huge numbers of migrant construction workers were exploited and deported, or that stray animals were killed en masse, or that Russians have to deal with these and similar issues every day.

The author calls upon journalists to stop trivializing Russia’s problems in light of the greatly underreported suffering and rights abuses. It is true that these abuses must be discussed extensively. But for lay audiences around the world who’ve just tuned in for the Olympics and know nothing of Russia except the glorious fiascos reported by western journalists, let them laugh and let them scorn.

At the end of the day, those who will suffer from the author’s suggestions to stop the mockery are, ironically, Russians themselves. Speech and expression tickle our senses, arouse our emotions, and give rise to indignation. The second we quiet ourselves to exposing, satirizing, and mocking the perfectly ludicrous state of Russia’s modernization project in its toilet rooms and pavements, we will forget that behind the comedy is tragedy, and that behind the façade of a rich and imposing country is a troubled and chaotic daily life.

Visitors to Russia will learn many things about the country by using the bathrooms of Moscow’s central rail station, where the toilet consists of a hole in the ground, toilet paper must be purchased, the toilet stalls are only halfway tall so that one can chat with one’s next door stall user while doing one’s business, and the sink water comes out mud brown.

The central entry point of Russians to Russia’s capital looks like this. And here we have the heart of the matter: a country that spends 51 billion dollars on the Olympics cannot figure out how to build a proper toilet in Moscow, Sochi, or most anywhere else. What is even more heartbreaking than the high profile political imprisonments and rights abuses in contemporary Russia is the fact that daily life is filled with so much dirt and shame.

The social media sensationalism on Sochi’s trivial problems illuminates the country’s biggest and saddest issues. World spectators don’t have to know about Russia’s terrible human rights record to understand this underlying drama. A mental construct formed from western media suffices to ignite our indignation and inherent understanding that Russia’s deep-rooted claim for imperial grandeur doesn’t extend to its citizens.

In the aftermath of the Olympics, as the sports complexes slowly decay to normal Russian standards, we’ll have some time to reflect. Opening with a catastrophic remembrance of lost battle, Aeschylus’ great tragedy The Persians portrays the life of a people struggling with the specter of an empire that they’ve mentally constructed. If all we remember in the aftermath of the Olympics are toilets and potholes, perhaps we can better reflect upon that specter of empire that so terribly haunts and makes up Russia’s own deep tragedy.