The documents of the medieval period mention vagrant women, who earned their living with the help of prostitution. It was ordered to arrest them and send them to do involuntary works. Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich issued a decree in 1649, in which it was ordered to get rid of idle street women. Nevertheless, it is believed that there was no phenomenon of prostitution in Russia until the era of the Russian Tsar Peter I. Prostitutes were not actually in demand before that time, the stable market of prostitutes appeared in Russia as a result of Peter’s reforms, when he set up large communities of unmarried men (soldiers, sailors, officials).
The first aristocratic brothel was opened in Petersburg in the middle of the XVIII century. The brothel was founded by a German woman from Dresden, she rented a gorgeous house in Voznesenskaya Street and hired foreign girls to work there. The brothel was closed because of a scandal: one of the girls was attracted there by fraud and she submitted “a high complaint.”
Ekaterina II was noticeable for her pragmatism: she was very concerned about the epidemic of syphilis in the Russian army. She signed “The Charter of City Piety,” pursuant to which all public women were supposed to undergo medical examination, and the document also specified the areas of the capital, where they would perform their activities.
Tsar Pavel I was known for his passion for uniforms and decorations, so he granted a special uniform to prostitutes. Public women were supposed to wear special yellow dresses. It did not take them long to wear such clothes, but it was enough for the yellow color to become the symbol of this profession. A medical certificate of a public woman was called “a yellow card.”
The legalization of prostitutes meant that the state was going to control this kind of activity. Nikolay I arranged a tough system of medical and police control over public women. The state did not feel shy to pull up their skirts twice a week for medical reasons, but the state never looked into their pockets, for it was believed that collecting taxes from the money, which was earned with the help of perversion, was immoral.
Humiliating medical examinations were taking place at police stations, and the progressive society was very indignant about that: the examinations were cancelled in 1909. The progressive society was celebrating its victory, but prostitutes were not sharing that joy. Some of them even tried to re-institute medical examinations, since the fear to catch a sexually transmitted disease scared a lot of their clients away.
Those women, who lived in brothels, were relieved of a lot of problems: a landlady gave dwelling to them, as well as clothes, security, etc. But prostitutes did not have any rights in front of the owner of a brothel (only a woman could own a brothel, this was the law). If a girl owed some money to her landlady, then she could not leave a brothel, and a girl eventually became a slave.
There were three categories of brothels. Fancy furniture was the major attribute of expensive brothels. Girls were dressed very well there, a client could spend a hundred rubles just during one visit. One woman could serve not more than 5-6 men a day.
The clients of the middle-class brothels were basically officials, students, officers of low rank. The services cost there between one or three rubles per visit and up to seven rubles per night. A middle-class prostitute’s norm was 10-12 men a day.
And finally, cheap brothels were meant for soldiers, craftsmen and vagrants. The norm was up to 20 men daily, and the prices were very low – 30-50 kopecks.
A prostitute’s income was rather high, as a rule. A brothel girl could earn up to 40 rubles a month, whereas a factory girl – 15- 20 rubles. The monthly income of an expensive prostitute was 500 –600 rubles.
There were up to two thousand officially registered brothels in Russia by the end of the XIX century. However, this number dropped a lot by the beginning of the XX century. For example, there were 206 brothels in Petersburg in 1876, and only 32 in 1909. This does not at all mean, that the number of prostitutes reduced. They started their independent activities: a registered prostitute rented a separate room, which was the place to take her clients to.
The majority of prostitutes came from peasants’ families. Village girls were often trying their luck in big towns, finding a job there was not easy, and they were offered to do the nasty business at railway stations, or near factories. Twenty-three percent of prostitutes started their professional activity under 16 years of age.
A public woman’s place in the Russian culture of the XIX – the beginning of the XX centuries was basically determined with the notion of “humiliated and aggrieved.” The progressive society perceived a prostitute as a victim of social injustice, it was believed that a girl was selling her body in order to be able to feed her family or relatives. Such well-known Russian writers as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Kuprin, and others wrote about prostitutes. The line between literature and real life was rather vague at that time, so readers started protecting prostitutes’ rights too. Romantic young men would marry whores in order to bring them back to normal life.
The revolutionist government of Russia failed to conduct a sexual revolution in the country. The local governments were trying to legalize the refusal from family arrangements. One of the documents says: “All women between 18-32 years of age are announced to be the state property from May 1, 1918. Every single girl of 18 years old should be registered in the bureau of free love, which is attached to the committee for charity. A registered girl has a right to choose a man between 19-50 years of age. Men between 19-50 years old have a right to choose a woman, even without the consent of the latter, in the interests of the state.” This was not a common practice, of course, nothing like that actually happened. It is just a very good example of the attitude of the new government to the issue of marriage.
Prostituted vanished from Russia’s streets during the time of the civil war and military communism in Russia. The policy of military communism destroyed the role of money, and the professional activity of a prostitute was very hard under the condition of natural exchange. Just imagine: a client visits a girl, and then he gives her a sack of potatoes, a bottle of kerosene, or a piece of meat. The number of young men reduced a lot too as a result of the civil war and the revolution. And finally, the refusal from the institute of church marriage and very easy ways to get a divorce erased the line between an incidental affair and a legal marriage.
The new socialist government of Russia believed that prostitutes were the vestige of capitalism, so they became the first in the line of those, for whom the government was going to do a lot of good. It was officially proclaimed that communism was the grave of prostitution. The state was doing a lot for public girls: opening cooperative associations for them, helping them to find other jobs. The criminal code of 1992 stipulated for criminal persecution of pimps and owners of the brothels. Organized forms of prostitution were totally eliminated, but it still was out there as illegal business.
The USSR had to acknowledge the existence of prostitution in 1986. This issue became rather fashionable during the “perestroika” period: selling your body was perceived as a way to stand against the totalitarian ideology. But the romantic period was over very quickly, and the realistic one never came. Up to 80 thousand people are involved in prostitution nowadays in Moscow, the monthly income from this business makes up $15-50 million.
In a weary world of endless US military interventions, sanctions, trade tariffs and chaos, let’s pause and take stock of the shining house on the hill