Last week Russian social media was stuck in the toilet. But at least it was a golden one.
Alexei Safonov, the head of traffic police in the southern Stavropol region, was arrested on the charges of organizing a criminal gang that got $250,000 in bribes from cargo companies. However, that story made fewer headlines than the rich interiors of Safonov’s house, in which Russian taxpayers had likely invested a lot of money. Marble floors, crystal chandeliers, thrones instead of chairs, and gold everywhere—on walls, doors, ceilings, mirrors, furniture, and even on the toilet. “Prince Charles has rejected the royal title and announced that he wants to be the head of traffic police in Stavropol now,” one Russian joked on Twitter. Another commented on Facebook that the design of the house is predictable: “Again, the golden toilet. Again, the lack of imagination.”
Over the years, gold toilets have become a meme in Russia. They symbolize corruption or lack of taste, or a combination of both. Dirty politicians “have learned how to steal money but not how to spend them,” the Russian newspaper Moscow Komsomolets put it.
To be clear, these toilets are not made of actual gold—they are gold-plated ceramic and typically cost about $2,000. If you are really committed to a golden commode, you can buy one with a thin 18-karat gold layer starting at about $30,000. Royal Toiletry Global, which sells gold lavatories and ships worldwide, says on its website: “You can easily find unique gold plated toilets or luxury bathroom accessories to give your bathroom a Royal look.” Curious, I reached out and asked who usually buy these extravagant items.
“Our main customer is a person who desires luxury and wants to stand out from the ‘gray and boring,’ ” said Jonathan Cadazi, manager of Royal Toiletry Global. “Who loves gold toilets? Definitely Russians and Saudis. Saudis just like gold, and Russians want to show their friends what a luxury they can afford. In Europe, America, and Australia, there are customers who have built a new home and want a beautiful and luxurious bathroom.”
Since even international experts noticed that Russians have a special relationship with gold toilets, I contacted Vladimir Priorov, the owner of the Russian website tualet.ru (tualet means toilet), which promises “Everything you wanted to know about toilets, but were embarrassed to ask.” He couldn’t disclose who purchases gold toilets, he said, and that isn’t just because of strict toilet distributor-customer confidentiality. He told me that designers or contractors usually place orders on behalf of buyers, so the ultimate consumer remains unknown. However, Priorov explained the motives of people who have gold lavatories. “From ancient times, gold has reflected the high status and has been considered a symbol of power and eternity.” He continued: “The interior of the house should show the power of the owner, and what shines better than gold? That is why people surround themselves with furniture crusted with gold, walls embroidered with gold yarn, and, of course, the toilet should not be left out.”
Many global leaders have been accused of doing their business on a golden toilet—but some of those allegations aren’t quite right. Here’s a guide to what we know.
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
Viktor Yanukovych, whom Transparency International Ukraine called the most corrupt politician in the world in 2017, was widely believed to own a gold toilet. Photos of his alleged water closet circulated all over social media, showing a veritable throne with lion heads. In 2014 Yanukovych was ousted and fled to Russia. Since his luxury residence was left without guards, journalists rushed inside to take pictures of his wealth. Reporters found many exotic things there, like a private zoo with ostriches, a golf course, and even a galleon, but not a single gold toilet. The pictures turned out to be fake. Instead, journalists came across a mysterious gold bread loaf. This unexpected discovery was a birthday gift to Yanukovych from the head of a Ukrainian factory. The gold bread loaf was subsequently stolen.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
In 2015, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader in Turkey, hinted that Erdogan, known for his excessive spending, had his very own golden toilet. “Gentlemen in Ankara, palaces have been built for you, planes bought, Mercedes cars purchased … golden seats have been bought, that’s how you use the toilet,” Kilicdaroglu said at a rally before parliamentary elections. The president got offended and invited his opponent to the $600 million palace to look for the golden commode himself. Erdogan promised to resign if Kilicdaroglu could find a golden toilet. It could have been a really long search, as the president’s complex had 1150 rooms and probably dozens of bathrooms, but Kilicdaroglu refused to step over the “illegal” palace threshold. Moreover, he explained, he wasn’t talking specifically about Erdogan—he said he was referring to rich officials in general. Nevertheless, Erdogan filed a lawsuit against the opposition leader for “lies,” but the court decided that the defendant should not be punished for criticizing the government.
The former U.S. president has never hidden his obsession with gold. His $100 million penthouse in New York in Louis XIV style is decorated in 24-carat gold. He also prefers the shiny metal in the business: The Trump International Hotel Las Vegas glass coating is 24-carat gold as well.
In 2017, he asked the Guggenheim Museum to borrow Vincent van Gogh’s Landscape With Snow for the White House. But the museum offered Trump something different: a solid gold toilet. Maurizio Cattelan’s 18-karat piece of art, America, was worth $6 million and fully functioning. The toilet was plumbed in at the Guggenheim bathroom for nearly a year, and more than 100,000 museum visitors used it before it was offered to Trump. The sculpture was an ironic statement about excessive wealth and capitalism. “Whatever you eat, a two-hundred-dollar lunch or a two-dollar hot dog, the results are the same, toilet-wise,” explained the artist. Trump reportedly didn’t appreciate this generous gesture from the museum and turned down the offer. The current whereabouts of the exhibit item are unknown: In 2019, it was stolen from the exhibition at Blenheim Palace in England (something that probably wouldn’t have happened if Trump had agreed to keep it).
Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had about 100 palaces, and he was rumored to own several gold toilets, among other riches. In 2003, when U.S. forces entered dictator’s palaces, they saw plenty of royal fixtures. Pictures of soldiers napping on French Baroque-style couches and sitting in seats covered with gold are available on the web. Photos of the bathrooms show some sort of golden toilets, but they aren’t the real thing like the art piece from Guggenheim. The toilet in a palace in Basra was decorated with a print that had a bit of gold, though not quite enough to really make a golden toilet. The Wall Street Journal reporter Yochi Dreazen, who got stuck in a bathroom in Hussein’s palace in Tikrit by accident, also wrote about “gold-handled toilets and bidets.” Well, if Hussein had hundreds of toilets like this in his multiple residences, it was probably even more expensive in total than Cattelan’s solid gold sculpture.
In January, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is now in prison, released a documentary, Putin’s Palace, about a $1.4 billion villa that allegedly belongs to Putin. (The Kremlin denies the claims.) There were shots of the underground ice rink, swimming pool, theater, casino, and a mysterious area called “aqua-disco.” No, there were no gold toilets, but there was an $850 toilet brush that at least looked golden. Russians decided that a gold toilet brush would be the perfect symbol of protests against Putin`s regime. Activists used them instead of banners during the mass rallies in support of Navalny in January. As a result, many of them were arrested.