Reformable Victims? The Language of Commercial Sex during the First Decade of Soviet Power

By Siobhán Hearne

Prostitution was rife in early twentieth-century Russia. The tsarist authorities installed a system widely known as the ‘supervision of prostitution’ (nadzor za prostitutsiei) in 1843. In order to legally work, prostitutes were required to register with their local police and attend obligatory weekly medical examinations. These women were given a medical ticket as identification which attested to their sexual health. The state regulation of prostitution continued until 1917, when it was abolished by the Provisional Government following the February revolution.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, they attempted to completely eradicate prostitution from society. Their campaign or ‘struggle with prostitution’ (bor’ba s prostitutsiei) focused on improving the socio-economic conditions that they believed pushed women into prostitution, such as their economic and political inequality. As part of this campaign, the Bolshevik, and later Soviet, government attempted to transform the way in which wider society conceptualised both prostitution and prostitutes by reforming the vocabulary used to describe them.

‘In destroying capitalism, the proletariat destroys prostitution’. Poster available in K. Waschik (ed.), Seht Her, Genossen!: Plakate Aus Der Sowjetunion, (Dortmund: Harenberg, 1982)

As prostitution had been regulated in the imperial period, brothels were relatively integrated within the urban landscape. In late-tsarist Russia, official discourse referred to brothels as ‘houses of toleration’ (doma terpimosti), which reflected the imperial government’s acceptance of prostitution as a necessary evil. Following the criminalisation of brothel-keeping and pimping in the 1922 Criminal Code, these establishments were pushed underground.[i]

Throughout the 1920s, central and local administration referred to brothels as ‘dens’ or even ‘dens of debauchery’ (pritona razvrata), terminology which had only been used by abolitionist philanthropic organisations before the revolution.[ii] This language marked brothels as something illicit and surreptitious, and demonstrated that the Soviet government aimed to destroy, rather than tolerate, brothels.

The ‘struggle’ campaign also attempted to remove the stigma from individual prostitutes in discourse. Aleksandra Kollontai, founder and leader of the Zhenotdel (Women’s Department) marked prostitutes as victims of capitalist exploitation. ‘The roots of prostitution are in economics’ she declared in a 1921 speech, and argued that the combination of women’s economic vulnerability and their conditioning to believe that they must provide sexual favours for material support directly caused prostitution.[iii]

Individual prostitutes were therefore to be reformed, rather than condemned. The Leningrad Council of the Struggle with Prostitution stressed the need to treat women ‘reclaimed’ (otvoevannye) from prostitution with the upmost respect, and ‘categorically prohibited’ Council members from using the word prostitute when referring to them.[iv] Former prostitutes were not to be stigmatised for their previous profession, and instead were to be welcomed into a life of productive labour for the socialist state.

Aleksandra Kollontai (Source: Wikicommons)

Despite attempts to transform opinion through vocabulary, some Soviet administrators clung to pre-revolutionary notions of the ‘deviant prostitutes’. In 1888, one of the most vocal supporters of imperial regulation, Veniamin Tarnovskii, described prostitutes as dangerous social defects who required constant close supervision.[v]

In 1918, thirty years and various revolutions later, local authorities in Petrograd discussed a so-called ‘special category’ of prostitute, whose involvement in commercial sex was a ‘result of degeneracy’ and a ‘painful necessity as a result of mental disorder’.[vi] This divided prostitutes into two camps: those who worked in prostitution out of necessity and could be reformed, and the innately deviant women who were irredeemable. This distinction provided the authorities with an ideological scapegoat in case of failure, as women who did not comply could be lumped into this category.

Other administrators blamed the apparent mental weakness of women for the continuation of prostitution into the late 1920s, and ignored the impact of wider socio-economic factors such as high female unemployment. In Leningrad, local government classified the labour exchange as a dangerous site where women ‘standing on the verge of prostitution’ could be easily seduced by pimps and brothel-keepers.[vii] This could have been an attempt by the Leningrad authorities’ to provide social assistance for vulnerable women, but the vague classification could also have been used to legitimise interference into the lives of any woman they perceived to be vulnerable.

Ultimately Soviet attempts to reform discourse were relatively unsuccessful. The linguistic turn was evident in visual culture, as propaganda posters and films from the 1920s showed the contrast between the ‘victim’ prostitute and the ‘villain’ brothel-keeper or pimp. The film A Prostitute: Killed by Life, for example is a piece of Soviet propaganda about the seduction of a young girl into prostitution. Those who profit financially from prostitution, such as the brothel-keeper and clients are strongly condemned throughout.

Despite this, many administrators clung to pre-revolutionary notions of women’s deviance and weakness to explain the continued existence of prostitution. From the beginning of the first Five Year Plan for economic development in 1928, policy began to move away from the reform of prostitutes and towards their repression and incarceration as class enemies.

Young prostitute Liuba and her brothel-keeper in the 1927 film A Prostitute: Killed by Life (directed by Oleg Frelikh)

Siobhán Hearne is second-year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her thesis ‘Female Prostitution in Urban Russia, 1900-1917’ explores how prostitutes, their clients and wider urban communities experienced, and resisted, the system of regulated prostitution that remained in place until 1917. She is also interested in early Soviet campaigns to eradicate prostitution and venereal disease in the 1920s, and is part of the Peripheral Histories? editorial team.


[i]  The Criminal Code of 1922 criminalised those who profited from prostitution, namely pimps and brothel-keepers, with a minimum sentence of three years imprisonment. The 1926 Criminal Code changed the sentence to a maximum of five years.

[ii][ii] G. I. and Ia. I. Lifshits also refer to brothels as ‘assembly points of debauchery’ (sbornye punkty razvrata) their report on the successes of early Bolshevik prostitution policy, see Sotsial’nye Korni Prostitutsii (Yaroslavl, 1920), p. 40.

[iii] Speech by Alexandra Kollontai, ‘Prostitution and Ways of Fighting It’

[iv] Report of the Leningrad Council for the Struggle with Prostitution 1928, Tsentralnyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Sankt-Peterburga (TsGASPb), f. R4370, op. 1, d. 409, l. 193, O Rabote Soveshchaniia po Bor’be s Prostitutsiei.

[v] V. M. Tarnovskii, Prostitutsiia i Abolitsionizm (Saint Petersburg, 1888).

[vi] Minutes from the meeting of the Petrograd Venereal Council for the Struggle with Prostitution, 12 December 1918. TsGASPb, f. R142, op. 1, d. 3, l. 25-26.

[vii] Report of the Leningrad Council for the Struggle with Prostitution 1928, TsGASPb, f. R4370, op. 1, d. 409, l. 193 Protokol zasedaniia Venerologicheskogo Soveta po bor’be s prostitutsiei.


Language and the Logic of Stalinism in the International Brigades

by Fraser Raeburn

There is an old and not necessarily edifying debate that has surrounded the International Brigades almost since their inception. Were the 35,000 men and women who travelled to Spain to defend the Spanish Republic during the bitter civil war of 1936-9 dupes of Stalin? Part of a grand plan to export communism to Western Europe and make Spain a Soviet satellite? Or should we no longer take at face value the volunteers’ own claims that they went to Spain to defend democracy against a fascist threat?

This debate was framed by the Cold War climate in which many early histories of the International Brigades were written; yet it has lingered long past the fall of the Berlin Wall. A middle ground, attempting to understand what it meant to be a communist in the context of 1930s Europe, alongside an appreciation of the implications of Soviet involvement and control of the enterprise, is only just emerging.

Some attempts are more successful than others (Source)

Lisa Kirschenbaum’s recent book opens up a fruitful avenue in discussing the cultures of the Communist International, the Soviet agency that directed and enabled the International Brigades.[1]

Teasing apart the logic, formulation and meanings of Stalinist discourse, the book unpacks the way in which it influenced the hodgepodge group of Communist functionaries from around the world that formed the link between Spain and the Soviet Union during the conflict, and for whom Spain represented an inspiring mission against the troubling backdrop of heightened internal tensions in the Soviet Union.

My own research on the International Brigades themselves further demonstrates the pervasive influence of Stalinist discourse. Most of the volunteers were Communists before Spain, and lived their lives in social and political spheres dominated by the Party and its language and expressions. While many engaged with Party discourse in a critical manner, their way of expressing themselves and understanding the world was still inexorably shaped by Stalinist logics.

This influence expressed itself in Spain in a myriad of ways, most obviously in the way that Spain’s political context was understood. Their enemies were fascists – there was no ambiguity there. Yet it was their internal opponents amongst the Spanish left who became most defined by Stalinism. Trotskyism became a label through which ideological opponents could be simultaneously identified and targeted, in a way that was readily understood by volunteers from Canada to China. This language seeped out of official communiques and into everyday conversation and correspondence.

The language of paranoia, sabotage and enemies within influenced how volunteers saw each other. Indeed, fluency in the international language of antifascism could act as a shibboleth once in Spain. Scottish-Canadian volunteer John Dunlop recalled meeting a German who failed this test in the heady days of his arrival into the multinational environment of the International Brigades staging camp:

‘We thought that he this man was really not one of us. That was the feeling that we had about him, because he did not seem to talk the same kind of language as ourselves. The whole atmosphere about him was different… The German was taken away and we never heard of or saw him again… We assumed, and I think rightly, that the man was a spy.’[2]

This obsession with the language of Stalinism was reflected in the political surveillance of the volunteers. Terms such as ‘saboteur’, ‘provocateur’ and ‘trotskyist’ became convenient and relatively common labels for a range of ‘suspect’ individuals, which could lead to penalties ranging from ostracisation to indefinite incarceration. Real and perceived treachery was punished, although the extent of harsh political repression in the International Brigades is often overstated – reform was generally preferred to severe punishment.

More broadly, Communist discourse informed the way the International Brigades were run in a day-to-day sense. Problems in morale and discipline were understood as political problems; each set back was met by calls for more intensive political work and organisation amongst the volunteers. Late in the war, ‘training’ was almost as likely to consist of a lecture on the political meaning of the conflict, as on the practicalities of modern warfare.

It would be a mistake, however, to allow the volunteers no room for their own agency in how they accepted and critiqued the discourse of the day. Some grew disillusioned and came up with their own narratives, either during the conflict or on their return. Many more came to terms with the mindset and justified it for their own reasons, and such decisions should not be treated with contempt born of hindsight of Stalin’s crimes at home.

There was also a great deal of space between outright rejection and wholehearted acceptance, and as ever individuals managed to express themselves in a variety of ways. My favourite such instance was in the satirical pages of a training camp newspaper. While ostensibly building on the frequent complaints about poor food, one author managed to slip in a clever critique of Stalinist norms, poking fun at the habit of ‘objective self-criticism’ as well as the use of poor ‘political understanding’ as a catch-all explanation for military and personal failings:

‘The writer would like to call to Capt. Johnson’s attention the following criticisms:
  • During march, when rear patrol, sent out by American company, raided vineyard near kilometre-stone 14, they failed to bring up grapes for the main body (due probably to low level of political understanding, and lack of proper liaison.
  • Re: the lunch: The coffee should have sugar, cream and coffee in it.
  • Milk and graham crackers (tea and biscuits for the Englishmen) should have been served after every 15 minutes of marching.
  • Instead of marching, the battalion should have advanced in lunch-wagons.[3]

This example should not be taken as outright subversion or hostility to the latent Stalinism of the International Brigades. Yet it, along with many other examples, shows that to understand the influence of Stalinism in Spain it is necessary to view it not as a completely top-down totalitarian imposition on the minds and bodies of powerless individuals. Rather, it was a negotiation, which afforded the volunteers the chance to defy, question, critique or accept the logic of Stalinism on their own terms.

Fraser Raeburn is in the second year of his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, researching Scottish participation in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9). Alongside his research, he helps edit the Pubs and Publications blogging project on the PhD experience, and is the co-founder of the Scottish History Network. You can theoretically learn more about his research on Twitter, or more realistically on


[1] Lisa A. Kirshenbaum, International Communism and the Spanish Civil War (Cambridge, 2015).

[2] John Dunlop in Iain MacDougall (ed.), Voices from the Spanish Civil War, (Edinburgh, 1986), p. 128.

[3] RGASPI f.545 op.2 d.266 l. 128. Full source available online.

Sensory Disability and the New Soviet Woman

by Hannah Parker

Considerable chunks of my PhD so far have been spent trawling the archives for letters written by women in the Soviet Union to newspapers, organs and officials in order to grasp how women reproduced ideological language in their letters, and what this tells me about their understandings of themselves as reconstructed ‘New Soviet Women’ in the early years of the Soviet state.

“Woman! Learn literacy! Daughter: ‘Eh, mama! If you were literate, you could help me!'” (1923): Literacy was an essential skill for the New Soviet Woman.

I’d initially expected to find an unremittingly uniform collection of correspondence, the analysis of which would be a chore. However, the sheer variety, vitality and honesty in the experiences relayed to officials was captivating and challenged my preconceptions in a number of ways. On one such trip to the archives last year, I stumbled upon a letter from 1939 written by a young woman who would become a “distinguished woman of letters”: Olga Skorokhodova.[1]

Olga, a deaf-blind woman educated in Kharkov, Ukraine, is known to many as a stunning success story of Sokoliansky, the influential surdotiflopedagog (educator of the blind and deaf).[2] Her impassioned and critical letter to the Procurator General, Andrey Vyshinsky, was striking to me in its boldness, so early in her career:[3]

“From year to year it is improving [elsewhere]: for [seeing and hearing children] a new school. New Productions. And here: deaf-blind – invalids, and ‘idiots’! When will this mockery of us end?… I know that you and comrade Molotov are preoccupied with important issues, but, I hope you will not reject children in care.”[4]

This was not the only letter Olga sent on this occasion: her letter to Vyshinsky was accompanied by another to the secretariat of the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissioners), asking them to ensure that her letter was forwarded to Vyshinsky personally: “He is already familiar with the matter about which I write.”[5] Olga’s self-assurance led me to interrogate the conclusions I had drawn so far in my research into the reception of ‘New Soviet Woman’ by women themselves.

Claire Shaw’s fascinating doctoral study on deafness and the New Soviet Person notes that gender was not an issue in the Russian Deaf community, which was notably distinct from its international counterparts in its cultural identity and cohesion. [6] However, the identities of Deaf women as women, as well as (as) Deaf people, are worthy of exploration. Though gender may not have been an issue of contention, it was certainly a crucial facet of one’s individual identity: people tend to identify as more than one ‘thing’.

So, although access to employment outside the home and the value of labour have been well documented as key tenets of the New Soviet Woman, the letters from hearing women that I had found until then conceptualized labour as a right: the right to the means for survival, and to social legitimacy.

Exclaiming: “we are the children of workers and farmers!” Olga reflected another

“The illiterate man is the blind man: Pitfalls and misfortune await him at every turn” (1921): citizens with sensory disabilities contradicted the ideological portrayal of their experiences.

dimension of meaning to this aspect of the New Soviet Woman which I had not fully considered before: labour and employment as part of a collective memory of emancipation by the revolution.[7] Labour and education evidently meant something beyond social legitimacy in the Soviet state to those women with sensory disabilities. As with the hearing women emancipated by the state after the Revolution, we can perceive echoes of the memory of liberation in the way that non-hearing women fiercely defended education and labour, and their right to ‘sameness’, and social equality with men.

However, as Shaw notes, we shouldn’t argue that “Deaf-Soviet selfhood unconsciously mirrored that of the ‘hearing’ population”. Rather, the revolution had been liberating for the Deaf, the collective memory of which informed their relationship with Soviet ideology.[8] Similarly, we shouldn’t view Deaf women as unconsciously mirroring hearing women in their engagement with Soviet ideology.

Though obviously facing distinct obstacles and discrimination in their daily lives, it is possible to contend that the Deaf community represented a particular form of emancipatory politics. That they were relatively unlikely to face severe reproach or criticism from the Soviet state allowed a greater degree of personal agency in the formulation of a critical world view. I’d argue that this is evident in the sharpness of the criticisms contained in letters to officials and newspapers.

Olga begins her letter with the assertion: “I want to remind you about the catastrophic position of the deaf-blind school in Kharkov, about which I have already written to you.” The confidence with which she introduced her complaint expressed a fearlessness absent in letters from the hearing community, whose requests and complaints were made uniform with the introduction: “I am very sorry to bother you, but…”[9]

I am, therefore, keen to explore further the ways in which the identities of Deaf and Deaf-blind girls and women were informed by the Soviet value system, and how we can situate their performative texts amongst women’s texts, as well as the texts of the Russian Deaf and Deaf-blind communities.

In doing so, I would contend that it is important to assess the texts of Deaf women against the values of the New Soviet Woman in particular: collectivism, initiative, consciousness and labour – but also maternalism, social equality and transcendence.

Moreover, broadening Shaw’s conceptualisation of the mutual engagement between Deaf and Soviet social identities as “not unconscious”, I would define it as both conscious and unconscious at different times; in line with the navigation of Soviet discourse apparent in the body of sources utilized for my thesis as a whole.[10]

However, most importantly, by examining the public letters of Deaf and Deaf-blind women in this way, we can begin to locate their social histories amongst a broader social history both of women and of the Deaf community in the early Soviet Union.

Hannah Parker is in the third year of an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on receptions of the concept of the ‘New Soviet Woman’ by ordinary women in the Soviet Union, through their letters to the state. Reach her on Twitter @_hnnhprkr.   


[1] I. Sandomirskaia, ‘Skin to skin: language in the Soviet education of deaf-blind children, the 1920s and 1930s’, Studies in East European Though, (2008), 60:4, p. 321

[2] Ibid., p. 324.

[3] Olga’s career as an educator and author would begin proper in 1955, when she was approximately 45 (Sandomirskaia, 2008: 321)

[4] GARF, f.5446 op.81a d.22 ll.145-6

[5] Ibid.

[6] C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, Doctoral Thesis, UCL, p. 25.

[7] GARF, f.5446 op.81a d.22 ll.145-6; C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, p. 31.

[8] C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, p. 31.

[9] GARF, f.5446 op.81a d.22 ll.145-6

[10] C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, p. 29.