Few things speak to the strength and resilience of a nation like the list of items its members choose to stockpile in the face of imminent crisis. This is, of course, an extremely salient issue nowadays, as there is a great chance you are reading this whether while sitting on a treasure trove of hand sanitizer or in between your regular supply runs to re-up your stock of precious toilet paper.
In fact, that last item, quite mysteriously, tends to be America’s top go-to hoarding choice during major existential scares, such as pandemics, market crashes or, here in the South, an inch or two of snow. Why is this, America? What is it with you and this need, this absolute life-and-death longing to have your anus wiped with specially designed soft, quilted paper product when the world is burning around you, and the last vestiges of law and order are disappearing beneath the stomping feet of rampaging mobs? Why does comfortable ass-wiping become such a dire necessity in cataclysmic times? Why is this the product you instinctively seek out and collect when things go south and the breakdown of society is imminent?
Toilet paper is such a strange item to hoard, folks. It has only one, extremely narrow purpose. It can’t be written on, it’s too thin and burns too quickly to serve as effective kindling. It is absolutely useless as wrapping material. It certainly has no conceivable place in any construction or self-defense projects. It doesn’t work as a filter. Toilet paper won’t save you from zombies, feral cats, aliens or radiation. It can only be utilized for the activity it is designed to aid in and as such can be easily replaced.
Needless to say, this toilet paper craze seems particularly bizarre to us, children of the Soviet Union, the country in which this product began to be sold to the general public only in 1969. Prior to that, it was an item of extreme luxury available only to Party elites and foreign visitors in the most upscale of Moscow hotels.
For added reference, 1969 is eight full years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It took the Soviets a better part of a decade AFTER breaking the bounds of Earth’s gravity and sending a human into the black void of space inside a goddamn rocket ship to start wiping their anuses with a paper product designed for this purpose.
We started removing traces of excrement from our bumholes 24 years after defeating Hitler, 22 years after designing the AK-47 and a whopping 45 years after Sergei Eisenstein experimented with color cinematography in motion pictures. Fuck it, we invented the goddamn space toilet two years before we thought it appropriate to give our citizens something to wipe their butts with after using the regular Earth kind. This is how well adjusted our goddamn priorities are, people. This is how we keep shit real.
Oh, and let me tell you something. That Soviet toilet paper? Let’s just say it gave the phrase “tearing you a new one” a whole other meaning.
Despite the fact that the Soviet Union’s paper industry was not equipped to produce this item, and the sole factory in the Leningrad Region charged with the task had to import all the equipment from England, the product it came up with was quintessentially Soviet. Our toilet paper was coarse, brownish-gray and could leave your decadent capitalist anuses forever scarred to the depths of their souls.
Moreover, Soviet citizens had no conception of such a product’s existing even in theory. The government had to put out instruction manuals on how to use it, written in that dry, bureaucratic Sovietspeak which was made strangely hilarious by the subject matter.
Fully translating this document is difficult because, seriously, I can’t even. Suffice is to say that toilet paper is referred to exclusively as PRODUCT while the citizens’ butts are designated as the PLACE OF USAGE. The manual recommends to “place used PRODUCT into the field of vision on account of inspecting it for eggs of parasitic worms or lice” and to always have iodine or other disinfectant available “for treating wounds in case of necessity.”
Additionally, it offers the following precautionary measures (see here for the peculiarities of grammar used in official Russian documentation):
1. To not smoke near the PRODUCT
2. To not leave used PRODUCT in places of cultures, recreation and food intake
3. To keep it safe from children, for the PRODUCT is not a toy but a means of hygiene
4. It is recommended against reusing the PRODUCT
Armed with this knowledge, Soviet citizens proceeded to treat this new item as luxury, to the point it had temporarily become a trendy birthday or New Year gift. Soviet stores had instituted a “ten rolls per person” quota, which gave birth to the tradition of shopping for toilet paper with one’s entire family.
Once Soviet citizenry learned that wiping one’s uncommunistic regions after excreting the factory rations would make laundry day much less disgusting, they quickly got into the habit. But, with toilet paper supplies always grossly inadequate, they had to improvise with other materials.
Hey, they didn’t call us the No. 1 reading nation on Earth for nothing. It’s not a coincidence that Soviet newspapers enjoyed higher subscription rates than the editors of The New York Times could ever imagine is possible. In 1975, Pravda was eagerly awaited in 10.6 million Soviet households, and it wasn’t because of its exhaustive coverage of the Party’s latest industrial directives.
Creating toilet paper out of newsprint wasn’t as easy as one might imagine. Yes, the process itself is rather basic and involves folding broadsheets with the glorious Motherland’s news updates into neat squares and cutting them up with scissors or kitchen knives. Many Soviet children were taught to do this by their strict but loving parents. However, since many of those parents had grown up in the days of Stalin, they were also very mindful of the fact how perilous a cavalier approach to this seemingly innocuous activity can be.
One had to be extremely careful to avoid any portraits of Party officials, any Lenin quotes or any other text or visual whose approach to your PLACE OF USAGE could be construed as seditious. In fact, many households would have a person designated to sorting through the day’s newspapers and discarding or cutting out any material unsuited for bathroom utilization. In communal apartments, where the same toilet would be shared by several families, this was particularly pertinent, but even in regular apartment buildings it wouldn’t be beneath some residents to sift through your garbage in search of incriminating shit-smeared paperwork.
Whatever the dangers, decades of accumulated experience have taught Russians that toilet paper is eminently replaceable. Why, we even have a life hack on how to make newsprint and other random paper products more PLACE-OF-USAGE-friendly: always crumple it up before using. It softens the paper and creates crevasses to capture your decadent Western waste.
With this excursion into the Soviet History of Butt Wiping out of the way, you might ask what it is that Russians actually like to hoard in times of societal collapse. The short answer is tattooed into the brain of every ex-Soviet citizen:
SALT AND MATCHES FOR THE WIN!
“Buy salt and matches!” is in fact a Russian colloquialism that means “Bad times are coming” just as surely as “Make rusk bread!” is a euphemism for “You are about to be arrested.” Remember when we were all awaiting the end of the world in 2012? What did you do to prepare? The residents of the Russian city of Kirov had emptied the shelves of all local stores of these two items.
Why do Russians hoard these two items, specifically? (And two others, more on which below.) Because, unlike you, they know that during the times of social, political, biological or any other upheaval the first thing to go is electricity. Hell, electricity is the first thing to go in Russia on occasions of much less global import than a pandemic. It may be turned off at any time, without warning, for no discernible reason, and stay off for unpredictably long periods of time. And as regular electricity and hot water outages are a fact of life in Russia, our responses to them are extremely well conditioned.
Your refrigerator will be useless. Your stove as well. You will not have heat. Your house will turn into a cesspool of bacteria and contagion. Do you really think that toilet paper will be your primary concern in such times? No, it will be hunger, cold and disease. Matches will be indispensable for cooking, lighting and heating water. Salt will be the only means of preserving food, and we are not talking curing meats. Meat will not be on the agenda. It was rarely available in the best of Soviet times and, since none of us can hunt, it won’t be an issue in post-apocalyptic times either. It will be pickles for you, comrade, to keep scurvy away.
Which brings us to the other hoarding items, not mentioned but implied in the Russian idiomatic legacy: soap and cereals. The cereals, which are easy to stock, simple to prepare and packed with nutrients, will become the staple food, thanks to Russia’s amazingly rich porridge culture (it’s great if you have also hoarded butter or pickled pork fat, but if not, just salt will do). As for soap, rest assured we are not talking dainty Western scented products or hand sanitizers.
Behold, the “Household Soap”, made with far less than the recommended 72% fatty acids content and not so much capable of producing lather as it is of turning your skin into leather. A brick of “Household Soap”, if you are strong enough to wield it, will last you months and as such it will serve you well in washing your lice-infested clothing in between scavenging the ruins of your former neighborhood for edible vegetation or, if you are lucky, someone’s former house pet.
It will also serve you well in washing your bum, hardened by the prolonged exposure to newspapers as the supplies of the latter will surely run out quickly. The mere act of holding a piece of “Household Soap” in your hand should disabuse you of all formerly held notions on the importance of Charmin, my friends.
As a popular Putin-era poem goes,
While a Russian soldier
Has matches, salt and homebrew
NATO troops can suck our dick
And let the Pentagon tremble
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