Toilets and outhouses: a Baltic epic

  • 2006-05-24
  • by Elizabeth Celms and Steve Roman

HELLO LITHUANIA: A scene from the Vilnius-Moscow train line.

It could be argued that the history of mankind is the history of how it has handled human waste. Could the Roman Empire have lasted as long as it did without the aqueduct? Could Japan's success rebuilding itself after World War II be traced to the fact that it has the cleanest toilets in the world? Will India, which has some of the worst sewage problems today, give its citizens something a little more sanitary as it becomes a superpower?

In that spirit, here's the story of the three Baltic states and the other struggle they fought together.

The beginning
Up until the early 20th century, most Balts never saw the need to build anything special to relieve themselves. They were country folk and they took dumps accordingly. In the summer, they would simply do their business in the bushes behind a woodshed. In the winter, they'd go in a barn. Outhouses were considered an extravagant luxury, a waste of wood. Using them robbed their crops of valuable nightsoil, a perfectly good fertilizer (Man, those tomatoes must have been delicious). When outhouses were built, it was usually done at the behest of a local manor lord, or, in 1918, on the orders of the occupying German military. World War I may have destroyed Europe, but at least it brought the Balts one step closer to sanitation. Things were a little different in the cities at the time. Many of the new wooden houses featured so-called dry toilets 's essentially holes or pipes that led to a clay-lined pit under the foundation. These can still be found in residential neighborhoods across the Baltic. And they're still pretty awful.

Toilet locomotion
Traveling by train in any post-Soviet country is still a memorable experience, and the Vilnius-Moscow passenger line is no exception. Just visit the W.C. and you'll get a taste of the good ol' U.S.S.R. Basically, the toilet functions as an elevated squatter, with helpful footpads placed on either side of a plastic hole. The design was once uniform throughout the Soviet Union, from the Baltic to Central Asia, and can still be found today on trains from Vilnius and Riga. The tricky part is staying perched above the bowl as the train jolts through those rickety Soviet rails. The exposed plumbing may provide adequate hand grips for those trying to keep their balance, although most end up being thrown against the cabin walls. Hopefully, at that point, they've already managed to relieve themselves.

'Freedom Monument'
It's not often that toilets make headline news, but in early 2002, with the world suffering terrorism jitters and the Estonian government in a state of political turmoil, Tallinn's press was firmly focused on one vital issue 's a new, high-tech, Swedish-built pay toilet that had recently appeared on Toompea hill. The scandalously high cost to taxpayers, a reported 2.3 million kroons (147,000 euros), was enough to send anyone skipping to the W.C. Press commentators pointed out that five underprivileged families could be housed for the same price. Others wryly dubbed it the "Freedom Monument," since Parliament was at the time discussing the creation of a monument to the 1991 independence. This grand pay toilet, prominently placed across from Toompea Castle and the nation's parliament, seemed to be the perfect symbol of modern Estonian leadership.

Trojan toilet
If you take a thorough tour of the Baltics you'll find outhouses built into, among other things, a Soviet-era border post, a telephone booth, a water vending machine, a windmill and an igloo. Perhaps the most creative outhouse is located in Estonia's Kabli beach, near Parnu. The privy is shaped like the Trojan Horse on stilts. It looks like a gift, but it actually contains…

Thinking ahead
As was the case elsewhere in the U.S.S.R., the Soviet-era Baltic states suffered a chronic shortage of toilet paper, (Latvians should be proud to know that Riga was home to one of only two toilet paper factories in the entire Soviet Union) but luckily a ready substitute came in the guise of the many propaganda-filled newspapers then available. (The Baltic Times strives for more editorial balance, if not absorbency.) One wonders if Lennart Meri ever cleaned himself with a picture of Brezhnev's fat little mug.
Madis Jurgen's highly entertaining Out Back, about Estonian outhouse culture recounts the tale of a practical old man from the village of Nova who subscribed to every newspaper he could, then carefully cut them all into regular, outhouse-friendly squares. Eventually he had amassed so many that, even 10 years after his death, his family is still using them. It may be a strange legacy, but at least his relatives still think about him from time to time… or at least once a day.

Keep your receipt
Until just a few years ago, it was a common sight in all three Baltic states to find a public toilet manned by a granny. Whether in Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius, every public square had at least one such set-up. Usually found behind the most popular beer garden in the Old Town, the plastic outhouse inevitably was guarded by a stout, olfactory-tolerant babushka. The little old ladies would sit hours on end outside the stinky structure, dutifully collecting about 10 cents per customer. Oftentimes they would even give you a receipt, which makes us wonder… did anyone get their coinage back after a false alarm? Those of us who remember these grannies miss them dearly. The new automatic toilets that replaced them just don't have the same charm.