‘An amoral lifestyle’ – criminalizing female sexuality in the Soviet 1960s

by Mirjam Galley

That the USSR did not turn out to be the utopia of gender equality that some revolutionaries had dreamt of in 1917 can no longer really surprise anyone. A glimpse into how the Soviet authorities dealt with juvenile delinquency allows us to fathom the extent to which boys and girls were thought of and treated differently. Looking at how deviance and sexuality were addressed in the 1960s also point to the limits of so-called ‘liberalization’ under Nikita Khrushchev.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet leaders were left with a difficult legacy. His successor Khrushchev had to find a way of reinventing Soviet socialism and removing the taint of Stalinist terror. To prevent the destabilization of the Soviet regime, Khrushchev needed to come up with a way to ensure public order and impose certain norms of behaviour without ubiquitous state terror.

The Soviet 1960s were shaped by a fear of deviance, a fear which was rekindled time and again by actual or perceived waves of juvenile crime. These fears were predominantly evoked around the image of unsupervised youths hanging out in the streets, in staircases, and in the dvory (courtyards), where they were thought to be drinking, smoking, and gambling, all seen as gateways into delinquency and crime.[1]

These anxieties were often personified by the ‘hooligan.’[2] The ‘hooligan’ was the concept most widely invoked in Soviet society to label deviant behaviour. As Brian LaPierre has shown, hooliganism was mainly a ‘crime’ committed by working class

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Group of young people walking through Moscow, 1964 (courtesy of CREEES, UVA, via Wikimedia Commons)

men. This might suggest that in the Soviet Union, deviance was ‘male’. A closer look at convictions of underage boys and girls, however, shows that there was also ‘female’ deviance, and that Soviet notions of delinquency and deviance were deeply gendered. Archival documents reveal surprisingly conservative notions of gender roles and sexuality within the Soviet system of justice and even among youths.

At first glance, this seems surprising in a state claiming to have ‘freed’ women and reached the equality of the sexes. Instead, bureaucrats worked with crude impressions of ‘fallen women’ and resorted to victim blaming in cases of sexual abuse and rape. Although there were also girls who committed crimes, it seems like girls were mostly sent to institutions for delinquent minors (reform colonies or ‘special’ schools) for promiscuity (amoral behaviour), or even prostitution – if they could prove that money had been exchanged. Boys, on the other hand, would be sent away most frequently for hooliganism, theft, or assault.

To compare these gendered notions of deviance, I will look at two inspection reports from 1962 about so-called collection and distribution points (priemniki), one for boys in Leningrad and one for girls in Pushkin. Minors would be brought to these places by the police, and wait there to be transferred to an institution. The Leningrad priemnik mostly held boys waiting to be sent to a reform colony. These boys were accused of theft, hooliganism, drunkenness, and ‘refusing to study or work.’ The report also mentions particularly bad previous cases, such as stealing state property, breaking into apartments, organizing gangs, escaping from a colony, and rape.[3]

In contrast, the report about the 11 girls waiting in the Pushkin priemnik for their place in a colony shows most interest in their sexual behaviour, which is vividly described. The girls would either roam around at night or had left home to stay with some guy. The men in question are named as shady people, foreigners (in one case Swedish tourists), soldiers, delinquent people, ‘unknown’ men, people from the Jazz scene – covering every possible stereotype of a bad match for ‘good Soviet girls.’ According to the report, most of the girls were either skipping school, misbehaving or drinking and smoking. Five of them lived in a boarding school, two were students, four had dropped out or were between jobs. Their families (often single parents) are mostly described as drinkers, as leading ‘an amoral lifestyle,’ or as mentally ill.

The report emphasizes cases in which girls exerted a bad influence on their environment, either literally by catching (and potentially spreading) venereal diseases – two of them had been hospitalized for gonorrhoea – or more metaphorically by ‘having amoral conversations in her boarding school’s dorm,’ and ‘tainting’ the other girls at her school. Another common feature is the failure of other agencies to influence or re-educate them, be it schools, factory ‘collectives’, the Komsomol, the police or house committees.

Only one of the girls committed an actual crime; aside from all of her deviant acts, she committed a rather grim act of cruelty against animals.[4] Although the boys and

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Young women walking through Revolution Square, Moscow, 1964 (image courtesy of CREEES, UVA, via Wikimedia Commons)

girls found themselves in similar institutions and came from similar social(ly destitute) backgrounds, they are convicted for very different offenses and could hardly have been described more differently.

Another such case demonstrating the gendered notions of deviance is the conviction of a 14-year-old girl to a reform colony for leading an ‘amoral life style’, which included running away from school and petty theft. The Latvian prosecution chose to protest against this conviction, as the story behind it is rather tragic, and the girl was not known for misbehaving. A 20-year-old man had (illegally!) started a relationship with this girl and was terrorizing her emotionally. When her schoolmaster found out that the girl was sexually active, he persuaded her mother to send her to a boarding school. The man continued pursuing the girl and threatened to break up with her if she did not come to see him at once.

Scared, she ran away from school, stole some clothes to wear, and went to meet him. She was picked up by the militsiia (police) and brought back to school, where the headmaster chose to put her in ‘quarantine’ for three weeks and then had her sent to a colony, bullying her mother into agreeing to this. At the time of the prosecution’s protest, the girl was stuck in a priemnik, awaiting transfer. The prosecutor demanded for her to be sent back, and for the security forces to charge the guy who had abused and pressured her instead, as seemingly no one had thought of this before. The commission in charge followed that recommendation, although this came quite late for the girl: the trail of documents suggests that between the decision to send her to a colony and its reversal a whole year had passed.[5]

The tendency to blame girls for having sex even goes as far as influencing the outcome of rape trials. In the 1960s in Latvia, a rapist was charged but not arrested, because the victim had been a ‘promiscuous’ girl – which is a gross, but sadly familiar, trivialisation of rape.[6] In a discussion about juvenile crime among senior Latvian education, health, and juvenile justice officials, a law scholar considers rape a serious problem amongst minors. He inexplicably links it to the phenomenon of uneducated single mothers, somehow implying that it is the father’s job in a family to tell his sons not to rape anyone, or that such basic moral ground rules require a certain level of schooling. To explain the status of rape among such youngsters, the scholar evokes the case of three boys being tried for raping a 26-year-old. Towards the end of the trial, one of the accused admitted that he actually did not take part in the crime, but asked the court ‘not to tell anyone because it would embarrass him in front of his friends.’[7]

These examples bear witness to an underlying culture of criminalizing female but not male sexuality, and of victim blaming in the case of rape – a culture so widespread and unquestioned that not to rape a girl could apparently be cause for embarrassment.

Mirjam Galley is a third-year PhD student in Sheffield’s History Department. Her doctoral research deals with children in care in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, exploring both how the Soviet leadership sought to ‘form’ children in institutions into productive workers, and how children coped in these institutions. Her research interests include cultural history, especially the history of everyday life, of violence, and of marginalised groups. She is one of the co-founders of the Sheffield Modern International History Group. You can reach her on Twitter @M_E_Galley.

References

[1] Susan Reid, ‘Building Utopia in the Back Yard. Housing Administration, Participatory Government and the Cultivation of Socialist Community,’ in Karl Schlögel (ed.), Mastering Russian Spaces: Raum und Raumbewältigung als Probleme der russischen Geschichte (Munich, 2011), (149-186), pp. 171-172.

[2] Deborah Field, Private Life and Communist Morality in Khrushchev’s Russia (New York, 2007), p. 22.

[3] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, del. 203, ll. 126-133. (1962)

[4] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, del. 203, ll. 119-125. (1962)

[5] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 1982, pp. 7-8. (1963)

[6] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 2283, (86-115), p. 100. (1964)

[7] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 2283, (86-115), p. 100-101. (1964)

Full Image Attributions

Image 1: By CREEES.UVA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: By CREEES.UVA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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‘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.

 

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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.

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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.

References:

[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.

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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

References:

[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’ https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/prostitution.htm

[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.