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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Fights to Erase Toilet Deficit

It was not the sort of bold, direct query one would expect from a diplomat, from one who often deals with matters delicate and sublime.

"Where can you find a country with so many public toilets?" wrote Anatoly Adamishin, Russia's outgoing ambassador to Britain, recently in The Times of London. "And so well maintained, too," he cooed. "British lavatories are not just spotlessly clean, they are cozy."

Little wonder that he hails the loos of Britannia. The dearth of public toilets in Russia's capital is shocking for a city striving to refashion itself as a progressive European metropolis. Tony cafes, ritzy casinos, posh hotels, flashy cars -- Moscow's got it all, but these superficial trappings of civilization don't compensate for Moscow's very obvious lack of widely available, tidy public restrooms.

"Of course it's a problem," said Mariya Fyodorovna, 40, a native Muscovite who works 12 hours a day selling wares at a stand on Ulitsa Usiyevicha. If she can't find a public restroom, she said with a laugh, "I look for some dark bushes. Or sometimes you have to sneak behind the door of a building -- what can you do?"

Lyubov, 39, a flower vendor outside the Dinamo metro station, also bemoaned the lack of facilities. "I've worked here for two years. And I have to leave my post here and run to the market," she said, gesturing toward the stadium-cum-bazaar.

But Mayor Yury Luzhkov's administration sleeps not on this issue. In February, the mayor himself attended the christening of a token-operated toilet near Pushkin Square. But the Pushkin potty, the first of 40 planned for installation throughout the city, has been operative for only a week, according to Alexander Lyubimov, the technician stationed near it for eight hours a day to show consumers how it works. "It's a pretty complicated technology," said Lyubimov of the French-manufactured Arlequine toilet, which cost the city $46,000, showing the intricate mechanical innards of the machine.

If the city succeeds in installing all 40 public toilets, it may significantly mitigate the availability part of the problem. But what about the well-maintained, clean and cozy factors? "There will be one person for every five or six of these," Lyubimov said of the French WCs. Those technicians will have to deal with not only routine mechanical problems, but also with vandalism. "They've already broken the door handle," Lyubimov said of the Pushkin Square toilet.

Given regular maintenance, the "clean" part of the public toilet conundrum may well depend on the habits of the users themselves. If other, non-pay public toilets are any indication, Moscow's token-operated cousins can expect a filth-encrusted, waste-besmeared fate. Weak quadriceps, arthritic knees, uncorrected myopia, a generally wanton disregard for what one leaves behind -- all can play into the unsavory legacy left in such public facilities.

As for the cozy in Adamishin's paean, that may depend on the first three. Lyubimov said that some people -- such as paramours in search of a bit of privacy or homeless people in search of a warm vestibule on a cold winter night -- may find the toilets cozy indeed, thus depriving other visitors of necessary relief.

The link between coziness and cash in the public toilet debate may provide the answer. Tamara, 40, a fruit and vegetable vendor at Leningradsky market on Ulitsa Aseyeva, gladly pays the 1,000 rubles that has been charged for two months now at the market's toilets. "They're great," she said on the way toward the well-kept, five-stall vestibule of the ladies' room. "It's always clean. The air is fresh. It's definitely better since they started charging."

After washing her hands, Tamara said, Adamishin-like, "We come here with pleasure."