The mysterious case of the double toilet
- 23 January 2014
- From the section Magazine
It started off as a simple trip to the bathroom - but BBC correspondent Steve Rosenberg's photo of two toilets side-by-side at Sochi's Winter Olympics site, has become famous on Twitter in Russia and beyond.
When I went to spend a penny last week in the Caucasus mountains, little did I know that I would learn so much about Russia from one trip to the toilet.
The cubicle in question was inside the Laura Cross Country Skiing and Biathlon Centre - brand new, and built, of course, for next month's Sochi winter games. I tracked down the Gents' and went in. It was pretty much as you'd expect things to be, really, in a little WC. There was a sink, some paper towels, but oddly enough there were two toilets where you'd expect just one - full sized lavatories, they were, side by side - and no partition down the middle.
Equally strange, there was only one toilet paper dispenser - within reach of just one of the toilets. I didn't really know what to do. Which seat should I sit on? Was I allowed to sit on either of them? Or was this strictly a loo for two?
Well, needs must - and I chose - and powdered my nose. And before I walked out, I took a picture of this intriguing bathroom on my mobile phone and posted it online.
The reaction was unexpected and quite overwhelming. The photo triggered a wave of comments in social media, on Russian radio and even on television. This image of two toilets, with no dividing wall, in an Olympic rest room had somehow struck a chord with the Russian people. Some saw it as symbol of the country's rampant corruption and bad management. "This is what $50bn gets you!" wrote a prominent anti-Kremlin activist - a reference to the alleged cost of the Sochi games.
A different blogger used more colourful language: "There used to be a partition there," he suggested, "but people are so fat from all the backhanders they've been taking, that their backsides can't fit - so the partition had to be taken down."
To other people who saw my picture, these twin bowls seemed to represent the country's two leaders - the president and prime minister. "It's the tandem toilet", declared one tweet. "One seat for Putin, the other for Medvedev." One cheeky chappie in the Russian blogosphere took my original image and cut-and-pasted a portrait of the two leaders on to the wall above the loos.
There were many comments about Russian's controversial law that restricts the spread of information about homosexuality. Referring to the two toilets side by side, one social networker warned: "Be careful - this is gay propaganda." But there were other interpretations, too. One blogger thought the double loo reflected the tight security put in place ahead of the Olympics. "One toilet seat is for the athlete," he wrote. "The other is for the KGB officer secretly guarding him."
And yet this photo sparked more than just political satire. It seemed to remind some Russians of their youth - about toilets past, in kindergartens and schools where there were also no partitions, about basic bathrooms in Khrushchev-era Soviet apartment blocks. And perhaps most interestingly, it seemed to say something very deep about the Russian soul. About Russia's grand tradition of the collective.
Here's one comment I read:
"Two toilets, and just one roll of paper between them - hold hands and trust your comrades."
And here's another:
"Come on guys, let's all be friends!"
Which is exactly the kind of message that Russia wants to project to the world ahead of the Sochi games.
Now, I'll confess. I don't know the full story behind this unusual arrangement. The blogosphere is bubbling with possible scenarios. Perhaps there was once a partition, but it broke. Perhaps they simply forgot to put one in. Perhaps it was even meant to be one toilet and one bidet - but they just couldn't find a bidet. Perhaps we will never know…
But if this tale of two toilets has taught me anything, it is this - yes, Russians like to complain and to criticise people in power. But they also love to laugh - and that includes the ability to laugh at themselves.
When I returned to Moscow from Sochi, I went to meet the president of the Russian Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov. We sat down for a serious interview about Olympic security, about gay rights, and about allegations of corruption in the run-up to the Sochi games.
When the interview was over, I showed Mr Zhukov the photo of the two loos which I'd snapped up in the mountains at the Olympic biathlon centre. When he realised there were two toilets with no partition, he gave a smile as big as the Sochi Olympic stadium and burst out laughing. "Well," he said, "after all, it is the biathlon!"
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