Taboos Abound

In 1985, women in the Soviet Union saw their chance to finally get the liberation from the ignorance towards women and their bodies that was rampant in Russian society. With Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, women began using their bodies as the tool to wage this war. Von Geldern says that this revolution, so-to-speak, occurred in waves, the first being the subject of prostitution. Now, prostitution is a universal societal taboo, but the Russian press had only recently made any note of its existence.

The article on Nina of Minsk provides an interesting commentary on foreign-currency prostitution. This was “doubly taboo” in this era because of the sexually immoral nature of the act, but also the profit that could be made when foreign currencies were exchanged for rubles. The article, written in 1986, says that this ” certain category of women” (interesting that he doesn’t rightly call them prostitutes, a sign that Russians weren’t ready to discuss prostitution in the media) had no desire to cover up what they did for a living, “They ceremoniously exchange greetings with doormen and hail policemen in a familiar and friendly way. In the hotel, bar and restaurant they know everyone and everyone knows them too. For these damsels, there is no such thing as public opinion.” To which Mysiakov goes on to explain that these prostitutes believe their jobs are better than most, that there is a sense of security because of the constant demand for their services. He paints them as women who believe that they are above the law, skirting around formalities in the least-strenuous way possible, with some women even making a business out of it. This is where “Nina” comes in.

Intergirl (1985) Poster for the movie about a foreign-currency prostitute. Source: Electronic Museum of Russian Posters. 2004.
Intergirl (1985)
Poster for the movie about a foreign-currency prostitute.
Source: Electronic Museum of Russian Posters. 2004.

She owned a flat that was near the town center, which she used for her clients and her girls. She was prosecuted for running a “house of ill-repute” and completing illegal foreign-currency transactions. While her employees got off with a small charge, she received the brunt of the punishment. However, Mysiakov makes an interesting statement, saying that these women were “bringing greater discredit to our morality than to themselves,” meaning that their presence in Minsk (and other Russian cities) was giving Russian society as a whole a bad image, rather than ruining their own reputation. He also states that Minsk was relatively lucky, that Moscow and other large cities had it much worse, something that Freeze notes in his text as well, “the explosion of prostitution (with 4,000 brothels in Moscow alone) raised sexually transmitted diseases to epidemic proportions (the syphilis rate, […] increased seventyfold in the 1990s…”

So, yes, the issue of prostitution had clearly gotten out of control, but it makes one wonder about the timing of addressing these issues. If it hadn’t been such a taboo subject, would the “revolution” be just as effective? The avoidance of discussing prostitution for decades likely gave the title more power, because it wasn’t discussing in the press–giving the Russian citizens an excuse to be slightly igorant. If women’s sexuality would have been embraced earlier in its history, what change could it have had on Russian society? As always, Russia was a latecomer to tackling these issues, which had a profound impact on the way that this problem spread throughout the cities.


Freeze, Gregory, Russia: A History, p. 483

49 Responses

  1. This is a really good post. I definitely agree with you that the ultra-taboo-ness of subjects like sex and prostitution gave them greater influence throughout society. If Soviet society had been prepared to talk about these moral and social issues I certainly think the associated problems (like rise of STDs) could have been curtailed to a greater extent. I thought it was interesting while reading the Seventeen Moments page on sex or prostitution (whichever page the picture you have came from) that in an interview with Western press one Soviet interviewee actually exclaimed “Sex! We have no sex here!”. It really goes to show the lack of ability Soviet society had for talking about sensitive issues.

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  4. Originally, in the heady days of the early October revolution, there was little resistance to “open” or “modern” relationships. Prostitution was (erroneously) thought as rather obsolete since who would need to do anything for money if it could be done for free?! Kollontay was one of the early “emancipated” Bolshevist women who under Lenin rose to various high positions, in the Soviet Union as well as Ambassador abroad, who minced no words about sexuality as far as records are extant. However, prostitution has a connotation of exploitation and I think, a good percentage of the reticence to discuss this is in Russia “back when” had not only to do with some Victorian bashfulness over the subject but because it was inconceivable that a capitalist scourge could be found in the Soviet Union to any great extent and not just as an occasional “aberration”.

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