How did famous writers portrayed the life of prostitutes in Imperial Russia

The public way of seeing prostitutes has always mesmerised many writers. When they wrote about them, they also took into consideration factors as injustice, poverty, moral choices and female freedom.

If the saying which states that behind every successful man, there is always a strong woman, then one could assume that behind every fallen woman there is usually a weak man who drove them to do so.

Prostitution has always been associated with shame

Prostitution has always been associated with frustration, embarrassment and shame. Prostitution was legalized in 1843 in Imperial Russia. Previously, in 1832, sex work was officially banned, but only eleven years later Tsar Nikolai I recognized sex work through the efforts of Interior Minister Count Lew Perowski as a somewhat legitimate activity.

All the sex workers had to register with the police and their passports were replaced with yellow ID’s.

The number of brothels was growing with the speed of the light. In 1852 there were about 152 brothels and 884 sex workers, and years later, in 1879, there were already 206 brothels with 1528 sex workers. The women had to undergo regular humiliating medical examinations in order to prevent and eradicate syphilis.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the number of brothels decreased dramatically due to public pressure. In 1909 were only 32 out of 206 left in St. Petersburg. But that didn’t impact the number of prostitutes, it only encouraged them to work more and more on their own.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the prostitution was banned

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, prostitution was once again banned by the Soviet government.

The most famous character portrayed as a prostitute is Sonetschka Marmeladowa. The character was created by Fyodor Dostoevsky and she was described as a „pretty blonde with beautiful blue eyes that stare with a stony look of horror”.

The young girl was the only daughter of a councilor and she started working as a prostitute in the attempt of saving her family from starvation. Her father was an alcoholic and her stepmother was very sick, if that wasn’t enough, she had to take care of her three step siblings as well. Despite her efforts, family members still insulted her for her work.

The girl was the only breadwinner of the family and she was described by another character named Rodion, as being a well that the family was exploiting. 

Another famous writer that wrote about the subject, was Leo Tolstoy. His work is called „Resurrection” and was written between 1889 and 1899.

Katyusha is the main character

Katyusha Maslowa is the main character in this novel. She was an orphan that grew up in the house of two noble old ladies and worked as a maid. At 16, she fell in love with a young aristocrat, Dmitri Nekhludov, who seduces her, pays her 100 rubles for intercourse and then leaves her.

After that, the girl finds out that she was pregnant, she was homeless, loses her pregnancy and ends up working in a brothel.

Tolstoi tried to present the problem of prostitution from a human perspective. 

When it was published in 1909, „Die Grube”, written by Kurpin, sparked an avalanche of criticism. While working on the story, the writer scrutinized prostitution in the Russian Empire. The author approached the delicate subject with rationality and common sense.

The main character of „Die Grube”, a prostitute named Schenja, gets infected with syphilis and out of anger, she decides to infect as many people as possible. She only stopped when she met a friendly gentleman named Kolja, who treated her with unexpected respect.

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