‘Girls with Low Social Responsibility’: Putin, Pre-Revolutionary Policing, and Prostitution in the Language of ‘Immorality’.

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.


List of women registered as prostitutes in Tallinn in 1908. The columns ask for her name, social class, occupation before prostitution, nationality, age, address, where she was registered as  a prostitute, how long she had worked as a prostitute, and the name of her current brothel. (Source: EAA.21.2.5037)

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.

Headshots of prostitutes in Tartu c.1900. (Source: EAA.325.2.585)

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.[1] 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’.[2]

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’.[3]

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.[4]  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’.[5]

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.


[1] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23557, l. 238.

[2] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23539, l. 38.

[3] RGIA, f. 796, op. 199, otd. IV, st. 3, d. 547, l. 2, 3, 5.

[4] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23557, l. 597.

[5] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23477, l. 666.

Monumental time and the Soviet dream: music and (a) post-Utopian temporality

(Source: Public Domain Pictures)

By Claire McGinn

The ‘language’ of music is demonstrably unlike the language of literature. Still, music is considered to be as potently (if less specifically) ‘expressive’ a medium as literature. It should, therefore, not be overlooked as a ‘social text’ in its own right;[i] if literary works from the Soviet-controlled Baltic states can be read as postcolonial, [ii] it stands that other contemporary arts could be similarly loaded.

While it can’t articulate the referential specificities of verbal language, music, as a temporally framed and linearly experienced medium, is a performative embodiment of such fundamentals as the quality and direction(s) of time(s).

One example of a goal-oriented music (and/or mode of listening) with apparent ties to goal-oriented currents of thought is the case of Mozart and the Enlightenment.[iii] We can reasonably expect that, in Classical music in this vein, loose ends will be tied up: goals will be implied, progressed towards, and ultimately reached. Musical motion (harmonic, melodic, etc.) will be meaningfully directed and fulfilled through departure from and journey back to a ‘rightful’ home key or tonal area.

For the purposes of this discussion, the teleology characteristic of some strands of Enlightenment thought will be considered commensurable with currents in ‘modernism’ (when provisionally defined as one half of a dichotomy completed by postmodernism).

Within this ‘Enlightenment’ framework, the presumed time of these ideals is felt as a deliberate movement through or against something to become the master of nature and history. Meanwhile postmodernism’s time is ‘outside’, unconcerned with (rather than ‘against’) the entropic or hostile forces that threaten to sabotage the realisation of anthropocentric Enlightenment goals. In this sense, a conceptualisation of time with the implication that humans can shape their own destiny is more likely to characterise a conquering power than a conquered one.[iv]

Composer Veljo Tormis (Source: WikiCommons)

Conversely, postmodern/postcolonial temporality may constitute a disruption of, or disregard for these narratives; a transcendence of antagonistic linear time in favour of the endless stasis and cycles of the temporality that Kristeva describes as ‘monumental time’.[v]

The meaninglessness of, or play on, linear historical narratives is a recurring theme in postcolonial literatures.[vi] Maire Jaanus suggests that monumental time, conceptually or aesthetically speaking, is the time of Estonia. As explained by the narrator of the postcolonial Estonian novel Piiririik, ‘historical time has been the imperialist’s time, the conqueror’s time, and therefore it is not his [the Estonian’s] time.’ She proposes that Estonians ‘have had little opportunity to demand much of reality or of historical-linear time, because these could not yield much’ and that, as a result ‘they have always remained acquainted with monumental time.’[vii]

So what would a musical monumental time look like? Music by Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis – two internationally renowned contemporary Estonian composers – is commonly described as ‘mystic’, ‘minimalistic’, and ‘ritualistic’. Circular shifting; static harmony; symmetry; continuous repetition of short units, and a sense of ‘not going anywhere’ lend these works a monumental temporality.

Arthur Versluis claims that the Soviet utopian dream (the establishment of a perfected communist society) was a type of ‘secular millennialism’: the belief that history is directed towards an inexorable goal or end-point. Such belief systems in practice have historically been characterised by a tendency towards fundamentalism and even violence; the erasure of obstructive ‘heretics’ supports the suggestion of parallels between religious and Marxist determinism and dictatorship.[viii]

Soviet teleology in these terms is a ‘lunatic meta-narrative’,[ix] the disavowal of which is generally held to have been characteristic of late twentieth-century postmodernist thought. This fixation on an ‘end’ can be mapped onto music in the sense that the latter is temporally bounded or ‘framed’ in a similar fashion to historical or literary narrative. You could say of either musical or narrative content that it starts [here], travels [this way] through [these points], and ultimately ends [there] – or, alternatively, that it starts [here] doing [this], stays [there] doing [that], and repeats for [however long].

Thus, monumental time is outside the historical time of Soviet millennialism. If ‘post-’ is understood as ‘against-’ or ‘outside of-’, it follows that the temporality of this music is a post-utopian time.

Claire McGinn is a first year PhD student at the University of York (Music department), funded by WRoCAH. With the title ‘Ritual, time, and space in post-Soviet Baltic music’, she is studying music by composers from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania written from around 1991 to the present day. More generally, she is interested in exploring fundamental concepts like repetition and how these might function in music as reflections of the same phenomena as manifested in wider (historically- and culturally-inflected) spheres of art and thought. 


[i] See John Shepherd, Music as Social Text (Cambridge, 1991).

[ii] For analysis of Baltic postcolonial literature and cultural thought (as well as the question of whether or not ‘postcolonial’ is an appropriate label in this context), see Violeta Kelertas (ed.), Baltic Postcolonialism (Amsterdam, 2006).

[iii] See Nicholas Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment (London, 1992).

[iv] Maire Jaanus, ‘Estonia’s Time and Monumental Time’, in Violeta Kelertas (ed.), Baltic Postcolonialism, (Amsterdam, 2006), pp. 219, 221.

[v] Maire Jaanus, ‘Estonia’s Time’, pp. 213-4. For more detail see Julia Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time’ (transl. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake). Signs 7/1 (1981): 13-35.

[vi] Brian Edwards, Theories of Play and Postmodern Fiction (London, 1998), pp. 86, 103-4, 126, 203; see also Jaanus ‘Estonia’s Time’.

[vii] Jaanus, ‘Estonia’s Time’, pp. 218-219; 221.

[viii] Arthur Versluis, The New Inquisitions: Heretic-hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism (Oxford, 2006), pp. 58, 67, 88.

[ix] Ibid., p. 149.