A BBC reporter snapped this picture . . .
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.
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.