The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

‘Dangerous Women’ – Prostitution in Late Imperial and Post-Revolutionary Russia.


In this, the first student-authored article of 2012, Siobhán Hearne presents a comparative overview of state attitudes towards prostitution in late imperial and early post-revolutionary Russia. The period between the introduction of state regulation of prostitution in 1843 and the end of Lenin’s NEP in 1928 were years of extensive political and socio-economic upheaval in Russia. Here, Siobhán considers how a study of evolving attitudes and official policies towards prostitution during this time provide us with an interesting window into wider issues of class, gender and shifting ideological perceptions during this tumultuous time.


‘Dangerous Women’ – Prostitution in Late Imperial and Post-Revolutionary Russia

By Siobhán Hearne.


Regulating Prostitution in Late Imperial Russia


In late imperial Russia, women who engaged in prostitution were perceived as dangerous social elements. Venereal disease reached record levels during the late nineteenth century; the  the prostitute was typecast by Tsarist authorities as a ‘human transmitter’, described as ‘dangerous fonts of disease whose very existence necessitated state intervention’.[1] In 1843, an Empire-wide system of regulation was introduced, requiring any woman working as a prostitute to register with the medical-police. Regulation aimed both to control levels of venereal disease and extend central state control over prostitution. Hygiene was central to regulation policy: prostitutes were instructed to wash regularly in cold water, change linen after each client and forbidden from practicing during menstruation. If a woman was found to be infected with venereal disease, this usually resulted in immediate hospitalization, and until 1912, infected prostitutes would be transported to institutes on foot; a humiliating experience described by one spectator as an ‘ugly spectacle, insulting to public morality’ which left these women vulnerable to harassment.[2] Registered prostitutes were subject to a number of oppressive controls, including weekly medical examinations and increased police surveillance. Most significantly, the prostitute was required to substitute her internal passport for a medical document, or ‘yellow ticket’, attesting to her sexual health. This ‘yellow ticket’ carried a stigma, and as internal passports were required for to rent property and secure employment, the prostitute would often be confined to living in deprived neighbourhoods and prevented from gaining alternative employment in any other profession. This also meant that regulation largely targeted lower-class women and raids were generally carried out in taverns and flop-houses in working-class areas.


Brothel-keepers were also required to comply with various restrictions: regulation provided a set of thirty rules for brothel-keepers who faced prosecution if women failed to attend their weekly medical examinations. The brothel was to be hidden; they could not open onto the streets, their windows had to be kept permanently blackened and they could not be located within 30 metres of churches or schools to ensure that the reputation of an area was not tarnished. Interestingly, images of the Imperial family were forbidden, and as Bernstein comments, this illustrated that in late Imperial Russia ‘brothels would be tolerated but not blessed’.[3]


The Imperial system of regulation was spectacularly unsuccessful: a combination of poor planning and lack of resources meant that it actually exasperated many of the problems it set out to solve. Inadequate hospital facilities and ineffective treatments ensured that the central aim of controlling venereal disease was not achieved. Kalinkin Hospital in St Petersburg, probably the best facility for the treatment of venereal disease in imperial Russia, was extremely crowded, with patients often having to share beds. For example records indicate that on January 1st 1907, 8,143 hospital beds were occupied by 10,460 patients. Stites estimates that three quarters of registered prostitutes were infected with venereal disease, and it is likely that levels of infection among those who remained unregistered were even higher.[4] In addition, the notoriously oppressive reputation of the medical-police actually caused many prostitutes to engage in clandestine prostitution, while others plied the trade only intermittently.


In addition to medical concerns, imperial regulation can also be perceived as a product of the social stresses and strains resulting from modernization. The late nineteenth century saw an influx of young, unattached peasantry who migrated from rural Russia to larger provincial towns and cities, seeking employment. The crippling redemption payments and losses of land resulting from the 1861 emancipation from serfdom led to a rise in urban migration. Many of these internal migrants were young, unattached women, who left the restrictions of the village for the freedoms and relative independence of factory work and urban life. For example the female population of Moscow rose by 57% between 1897-1912.[5] Attitudes towards prostitution therefore also reflected wider concerns about social dislocation and gender norms, as many of these young women were viewed as ‘unheaded’. Once registered as a prostitute, women were firmly brought under state authority and surveillance. Regulation also increased female dependency on men; whether indebted to the medical-police committee or relying on the protection of a pimp to avoid them, the prostitute could never be her own mistress. Alpern argues that regulation set out to ‘scrutinize the behaviour of lower class women’, while also Bernstein believes that the regulation of prostitution gave the tsarist state an ‘additional mechanism of control over the urban lower classes’.[6] Therefore, regulation was not only driven by medical concerns, but also by a desire to reinforce traditional gender and social hierarchies in Tsarist Russia at a time of social and economic upheaval, placing lower-class women firmly at the bottom.


Post- 1917: ‘Prostitution is the poisonous flower in the bourgeois way of life!’


After the revolutions of 1917, the Tsarist system of regulation was quickly abolished. Marxism attributed the existence of prostitution to capitalist exploitation and inequality:  Lenin once commented that ‘so long as wage-slavery exists, inevitably prostitution too will exist’ while August Bebel stated that ‘marriage constitutes one phase of sex relations of bourgeois society; prostitution constitutes the other’.[7] The prostitute was thus depicted as a victim of an unjust social system, and in direct contrast to traditional ideas blaming prostitution on the loose morals of the lower class, socialist writers also tended to focus upon the economic dominion and insatiable sexual appetites of upper class males: the exploitation of the prostitute illustrating the barbaric nature of capitalist violation, both of women and of the working class. It was assumed that the abolition of capitalism and consecutive implementation of socialism would cause the vice to disappear. Between December 1917 and January 1919 the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks were officially renamed from March 1918) drafted a series of laws aimed at kick-starting a programme of women’s emancipation, including political and legal equality, the legalization of divorce, and the abolition of state regulation of prostitution. The practice of prostitution was formally decriminalized in the Criminal Code of 1922. However, while prostitution itself was no longer defined as a punishable offence, anybody who refused to participate in ‘socially useful labour’ could be sent to labour camps and Alexandra Kollontai, founder of the Zhenotdel (Women’s Movement) called for new laws condemning ‘truancy from work through unproductive means’, including prostitution. Kollontai believed that the practice of prostitution, the ‘poisonous flower in the swamps of the bourgeois way of life’ was usually accompanied by work desertion, venereal disease and immorality.[8] Therefore, after 1917 official policy on prostitution initially focused on two main aims: control of venereal disease and preventing women from engaging in this unproductive and ‘immoral’ work.


Prostitution as a Matter for Medical and Moral Concern.


In Tsarist Russia, sexual education had been heavily censored by the state, with laws in place disallowing doctors from conducting public lectures on sexual health unless the police were present and able to stop talks deemed inappropriate without explanation. Therefore, the Communists saw the need for ‘sexual enlightenment’, launching a mass education programme to combat the spread of venereal disease through prostitution, equating the sexual health of the individual with the health of the new regime. A series of educational posters were issued during the 1920s demonstrating the dangers of syphilis, depicting workers as victims of ignorance and encouraging a new sense of awareness to combat the spread of venereal disease.


Poster: ‘We Will Cure Syphilis’ (from the early 1920s).

Poster: ‘Syphilis’ (1923).


Coupled with the graphic images, the poster above does include a specific warning that ‘syphilis is primarily passed through prostitution’. However, the Communist campaign also emphasised individual responsibility for sexual health, in contrast to the Tsarist era, where prostitutes were frequently held solely responsible for the spread of venereal disease.  In further contrast to regulation, those in the medical profession condemned repressive measures against prostitutes and involved themselves in producing an analysis of prostitution in the campaign against the vice in the 1920s.


During the NEP period (1921-28) women were particularly vulnerable to economic hardship; the chaos of the Civil War meant low wages and frequent redundancy, as most employers preferred men of higher skill, ignoring official decrees forbidding gender discrimination. In 1918 women made up 45% of the industrial labour force, however by 1928 this had fallen to just 28.6% despite numerous communist decrees on ‘gender equality’.[9] The introduction of NEP created ideal conditions for prostitution to flourish: mass unemployment, desperation and a wealthy new class of client – the ‘NEPman’.  The economic instability of the NEP period required a more identifiable enemy than simply venereal disease, causing the prostitute to be depicted as the sexually dangerous single woman – the ‘NEPwomen’, associated with money and excessive sexuality and described by Kollontai as ‘tarted up like a streetwalker…[with] furs draped over one shoulder and rings sparkling on her fingers’.[10]


Poster: ‘Casual Sex: The Main Source of the Spread of Venereal Disease’

Poster: ‘Casual Sex’.


In 1926, Article 150 of the Russian Republic’s Criminal Code made those spreading venereal disease criminally liable (both men and women), demonstrating a new preoccupation with the medical rather than the moral implications of prostitution. The Soviet Health Commissariat created a Central Council for Combatting Prostitution, which sought better employment and education for women and launched positive propaganda campaigns. A number of labour clinics were also established during the 1920s, aiming to solve the problem of prostitution and transform the prostitute into a ‘new Soviet woman’. Clinic organizers claimed that prostitutes required financial assistance, and the promise of another form of income, to prevent them from returning to the streets for money. The clinics worked to  provide prostitutes infected with venereal disease with vocational, political and social education, aimed at reintegrating them back into the working world, and reclaiming them as ‘productive Soviet citizens’. The clinics were designed to aid the prostitute in making the transition from street-work to ‘productive’ work. The promise of a job at the end of the programme was used as an incentive during a period of high unemployment. However, the economic hardship of NEP caused many unemployed women to pretend to practice prostitution to gain entry to these programmes, resulting in the clinics only accepting women with official referrals from a venereal dispensary. Even then, the clinics were of poor capacity: on opening in 1928, the Leningrad facility had 700 applicants for its 100 places, so many women were turned away.[11]


Propaganda campaigns included accounts published by former residents to demonstrate success; however reports written by medics working at the clinics showed that around 50% of women chose to leave the clinics, either voluntarily or as a result of ‘bad behaviour’, while others returned to prostitution at the end of their course of ‘treatment’. These substantial levels of failure present the difficulty of ‘reforming’ prostitutes, and encouraging them to opt for low-wage factory work over a considerably larger wage from prostitution, during a period of economic instability. Regardless, by the middle of the 1920s, the tax-exemption of the clinics had been revoked, meaning that they were no longer financially viable, demonstrating the government’s lack of financial commitment to the fight against prostitution.


Immediately following the revolution of 1917, Communist ideology depicted the prostitute as an emblem of capitalist female exploitation, and a victim of social circumstance, however during the 1920s, a period of sustained economic hardship and limited employment, the prostitute slowly became vilified as an enemy of Communism, and stereotyped as a ‘NEPwoman’  who profited during a difficult financial time. Communist prostitution policy quickly became less concerned with the pre-revolutionary moral implications, and more concerned with practical, economic aspects: the prostitute as a ‘work-shirker’, who hindered levels of production.  It is evident that concerns over venereal disease as a hindrance to production also greatly influenced the Communist campaigns of sexual education in the 1920s. The labour clinics of the 1920s provided some attempt to ‘reform’ prostitutes, however their success was limited. In the troubled economic climate of the 1920s  they were not viable, and closed before any real progress could be made. Despite the Criminal Code of 1922 decriminalizing prostitution itself, women continued to be sentenced to imprisonment for ‘prostitution’ in the courts, demonstrating that a shift in policy did not necessarily equate to a change in popular opinion.


The Russian Prostitute: Victim or Villain?


Theoretically the 1917 revolution marked a watershed, ushering in radically new attitudes towards prostitution. However, in practice, many similarities and continuities can be found between the imperial and communist approaches. Both regimes perceived prostitution as an issue provoking medical and moral concerns. Health-wise, both systems employed the analogy of state and body, be this to ensure traditional autocratic control, or advanced economic production. Both regimes linked the prostitute to a certain social class (the inferior lower class during the imperial era, and the despised decadence of the upper echelons of capitalist society under communism). Both ultimately presented the prostitute as a villain, as a ‘dangerous woman’ whether as the wretched lower-class transmitter of venereal disease, or the labour deserter, intent on wrecking industrial production. Furthermore neither had a lucrative model for solving the problems caused by prostitution, as they failed to recognise that regardless of policy and propaganda, there would still be a market for ‘world’s oldest profession’.[12]

[NB: All images used here are taken from Frances Bernstein, ‘Visions of Sexual Health and Illness in Revolutionary Russia’ from Sin, Sex and Suffering: Venereal Disease and European Society since 1870, ed. Roger Davidson and Lesley A. Hall (London and New York: Routledge Press 2001]


About the Author:

Siobhán Hearne has just completed her BA in History and English Literature at Swansea University. In her final year of study, Siobhán researched and wrote her History dissertation about prostitution in late Imperial and early Communist Russia. Siobhán will begin her MA in Twentieth-Century History at the University of Liverpool in October 2012


[1] Laurie Bernstein, Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia, (Los Angeles and London: University of California Press 1995).

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism 1860-1930, (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1978).

[5] Barbara Evans Clements, Daughters of Revolution: A History of Women in the USSR, (Illinois: Harlan Davidson 1994).

[6] Barbara Alpern Engel, Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work, and Family in Russia, 1861-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996); Bernstein, Laurie, Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia, (Los Angeles and London: University of California Press 1995).

[7] V. I,  Lenin, ‘Capitalism and Female Labour’ (1913), available via Lenin Internet Archive, accessed at ; August Bebel, “Women and Socialism Chapter XII ‘Prostitution a Necessary Social Institution of Bourgeois Society’” (1879) available via Marxists Internet Archive, accessed at

[8] Alexandra Kollontai, Speech to the third all-Russian Conference of Heads of the Regional Women’s Departments, 1921, ‘Prostitution and ways of fighting it’, available via Kollontai archive at:

[9] Barbara Alpern Engel, “Women in Russia and the Soviet Union”, Signs, Vol. 12, No. 4, Within and Without: Women, Gender, and Theory (1987), pp. 781-796.

[10] Elizabeth A, Wood, The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997)

[11] Frances Bernstein, ‘Prostitutes and Proletarians: The Soviet Labour Clinic as Revolutionary Laboratory’ from The Human Tradition in Modern Russia, ed. Husband, William B. (Deleware: Scholarly Resources 2000)

[12] R. Barri Flowers, The Prostitution of Women and Girls, (North Carolina: McFarland & Co 1998)


June 18, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , ,

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