by Siobhán Hearne
Last month, the internet went wild about Vladimir Putin’s defence of Donald Trump, particularly his dismissal of the validity of the Trump-Russia dossier. Observers seemed most amused by Putin’s comments regarding Moscow sex workers, particularly his remark that they are ‘of course, the best in the world’. This has been quoted again and again in online news outlets, and the soundbite has been retweeted thousands of times on Twitter.
What was, more interesting about this portion of the speech, were Putin’s comments about the connections between prostitution and morality. Referring to sex workers as ‘girls with low social responsibility’ (devushki s ponizhennoi sotsial’noi otvetstvennost’iu), he suggested that they were somehow disinterested in engaging with society and instead, ostracise themselves from their wider communities by engaging in sexual labour. He also claimed that those who write so-called ‘fake news’ in an attempt to damage political regimes were ‘worse than prostitutes’. Here, sex workers’ ‘immorality’ apparently makes their political and social disengagement somehow deliberately subversive.
With these remarks, Putin seems to suggest that the only way to be socially and politically engaged in an appropriate manner is to be supportive of the current government. Crucially, Putin failed to mention the detrimental impact that corrupt policing practices, poorly funded health services and homophobic legislation have on the safety of Russian sex workers, especially those who identify as LGBTQ.
This classification of sex workers as ‘immoral’ and ‘removed from society’ helps Russian law enforcement agencies to justify their regressive policies and policing practices. This is by no means new. These ideas were replicated in official and popular discourse at a point when prostitution was legally tolerated in Russia. From 1843 until 1917, the tsarist authorities regulated prostitution under a system often referred to simply as nadzor, or supervision. Prostitutes could work legally as long as they registered their details with their local police and attended weekly gynaecological examinations.
Registered women then received an alternative form of identification, known as the ‘medical ticket’ (meditsinskii bilet). The system was implemented with the official aim of preventing the spread of venereal diseases, but the medical ticket’s accompanying regulations suggest that the authorities also endeavoured to control prostitutes’ movement and visibility within urban space. The system also rigidly defined prostitution as a transaction between a female prostitute and a male client.
The vast majority of registered prostitutes in late imperial Russian cities were lower class female migrants, either peasants, lower-class urban dwellers or soldiers’ wives born outside the city in which they worked. Removed from their husbands and fathers, these women fell outside the patriarchal authority of traditional family structures.
Regulation allowed the authorities to monitor the lives and bodies of these ‘unheaded’ women. Due to the prevalence of lower class women on the police lists, policing practices and discourses on prostitution in this period also reflect assumptions about gender, class and morality. In light of this, ‘lower’ class women were often typecast as morally lax and in need of state surveillance.
Despite ‘prostitute’ being a distinct legal identity and a recognised profession, moral condemnation permeated official discussions of prostitution. Regulatory legislation used the terms prostitute (prostitutka) and ‘woman engaged in debauchery’ (zhenshchina zanimaiushchaiasia razvratom) interchangeably. Local officials in charge of implementing regulation often conflated prostitution and extramarital sexual activity (considered ‘promiscuity’), using women’s sexual behaviour as evidence for their need to be registered onto the police lists.
In May 1915, a Riga police agent conducted a raid on a suspicious property and found Agaf’ia Iuran naked and sleeping in a bed with her partner, Aleksandr Ianulevich. As Agaf’ia had worked as a prostitute two years previously, they ignored the couple’s objections and registered her back onto the police lists. Likewise, in January 1911, Elena Lukshanova was registered onto the Riga police lists after a local police officer found her in a rented room with a ‘strange man’.
Divorce cases granted by the Holy Synod in the early 1900s show how the authorities linked apparent sexual immorality, as well as taboo behaviour, such as drinking, with prostitution. In September 1914, Pavel Baranov, a peasant from Astrakhan province in southern Russia, was granted a divorce from his wife Evfimiia. Three eyewitnesses claimed that she led an ‘adulterous life’, drinking heavily and having sex with various men ‘like a prostitute’.
Urban residents also linked immorality and prostitution. On 20 November 1915, the Riga police received a petition from a city pharmacist, protesting against the forced registration of Amaliia Soo. The pharmacist insisted that Amaliia was an ‘honest and moral’ woman, who was not working as a prostitute. Another petitioner wrote about her niece, Elena Vannag. She asked the police to remove Elena from the lists and promised to ‘monitor [her niece’s] morality personally’.
By typecasting women who worked as prostitutes as immoral, the imperial authorities were able to legitimise police repression and interference into the lives of lower class women. These ideas worked to further stigmatise women who worked as prostitutes, meaning that the authorities often dismissed cases of prostitutes’ abuse at the hands of law enforcement agents. Unfortunately, ideas about the ‘immorality’ of sex workers continue to influence policing practices today, in Russia as elsewhere across the world. By closely reading the language used by leaders like Putin, we can see how contemporary speech mirrors the political conditions of the past.
Siobhán Hearne is a third-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.
Next month, Siobhán will be hosting the two-day conference ‘Gender and Sexuality in Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia: Past and Present‘, to mark International Women’s Day.
 LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23557, l. 238.
 LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23539, l. 38.
 RGIA, f. 796, op. 199, otd. IV, st. 3, d. 547, l. 2, 3, 5.
 LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23557, l. 597.
 LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23477, l. 666.