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.

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