• Peripheral Histories

Researching Female Urban Prostitution in the Provinces of Late Imperial Russia

Updated: Jun 16

Author interview with Siobhán Hearne


Siobhán Hearne’s recently published Policing Prostitution: Regulating the Lower Classes in Late Imperial Russia (OUP, 2021) opens up the complex world of commercial sex in the Russian Empire in the period from 1840s until 1917. In this interview with fellow Peripheral Histories? co-editor, Catherine Gibson, Siobhán discusses how her understanding of the social history of prostitution in late imperial Russia was shaped by examining experiences across the empire, with a particular focus on the provinces that comprise today’s Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Arkhangel’sk in northern Russia.


What motivated you to write a book about prostitution in late imperial Russia?


I have been interested in the history of the Russian Empire since I began studying the 1917 revolutions at my secondary school aged 16. When I went to university, I was drawn to the history of prostitution because it was at the meeting point my various research interests, including gender history, the history of sexuality, and histories of crime and deviance. I also read some fantastic books on the history of prostitution as an undergraduate, such as Judith Walkowitz’s Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (1980), Luise White’s Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nigeria (1990) and Laurie Bernstein’s Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia (1995). I found these books hugely inspirational, and they all informed my own perspectives on the topic. How did your experience of doing research outside of St. Petersburg and Moscow shape your understanding of how the tsarist state attempted to regulate prostitution? Did you encounter any challenges in the course of conducting research for the book in different countries and archives?

Doing research in a variety of different locations was integral to my understanding of the tsarist regulation of prostitution. Regulation was organised and funded by provincial authorities, so there was significant variation in the formulation and implementation of policy across the Russian Empire. Looking solely at documents held in the imperial capital of St Petersburg only gives us part of the story. Capital cities usually have the most developed policing apparatus and are home to the most socially and ethnically diverse populations. Looking beyond the metropole allows us to see how the policing of prostitution was influenced by the social, cultural, and environmental characteristics of a particular place. For example, prostitution was more likely to be understood as just another form of seasonal labour in regions where labour migration was crucial for the economic survival of the local population. In the port city of Arkhangel’sk, which was engulfed in ice for almost half of the year, the police allowed women to easily register and de-register as prostitutes depending on the season and the commercial activity of the port.

I was really lucky as I didn’t encounter any challenges in terms of accessing the archival material. Archivists and reading room staff raised their eyebrows at times when I explained my project, but I was never denied access to materials nor asked to explain why I was interested in the topic of prostitution. With the exception of one very unpleasant encounter with the Russian Federation Migration Service back in 2015 when UK-Russia relations were particularly sour, I didn’t experience any problems in any of the archives that I worked at. This is likely because I was researching the late imperial period and because the research subjects died a long time ago. When I have worked with documents from the late Soviet period, I have sometimes been asked to sign a form indicating that I will not publish any names of VD patients or sex workers that appear in the file. I struggled with the question of whether to anonymise registered prostitutes, brothel madams, and clients in my book but I ultimately decided not to, as I feel that anonymising in this case could reinforce the stigma associated with prostitution. As I explain in my book, prostitution was work in late imperial Russia and the commercial sex industry was an acknowledged and contested aspect of everyday urban life.


Map of houses where future brothels could be opened, Vilnius (1902), Lietuvos Valstybės Istorijos Archyvas (Lithuanian State Historical Archives) f. 383, apr. 1, b. 40, l. 100.

Policing Prostitution focuses on urban prostitution in the towns and cities of European Russia but a big part of the story is about mobility. A large proportion of prostitutes were migrants who relocated to towns and cities either temporarily or on a more long-term basis for wage labour, while many of the men who paid for sex were seasonal labours, soldiers, or sailors. To what extent can the history of prostitution in imperial Russia also be used as a lens to study the history of lower-class mobility and the authorities’ attempts to regulate migration? For me, histories of prostitution and migration are inseparable. Studying prostitution can tell us a lot about strategies of economic survival employed by lower-class migrant women in urban centres, as well as the impact of widespread rural-to-urban migration on ideas about sexuality, gender, and morality. Prostitution can also shed light on the different migration regimes in operation across the Empire. The tsarist authorities attempted to control peasant migration through the internal passport system with the dual aims of maintaining social order and controlling the movement of men eligible for military conscription. Anyone living or working further than 33 miles away from their district birth required an internal passport. These documents were issued by an individual’s local township board, usually on a short-term basis (less than six months), and the migrant had to return back to their home region in order to renew their passport. Women required the permission of their head of household or elder in their rural district in order to obtain a passport. Registered prostitutes handed over their internal passports to the authorities when they became inscribed on the police lists. Because of this, they were able to circumvent some of the restrictions placed upon women’s migration. They did not have to return home to renew their passports and they could travel across the Empire with just their medical tickets once they had received police authorisation for their journey.

Attempts to regulate migration also had an impact upon the lives of other people interacting with the commercial sex industry. Venereal disease control in the late imperial period was all about preventing the importation of infections like syphilis and gonorrhoea from the ‘debauched’ city into the ‘pure and innocent’ countryside. Therefore, the perceived primary customers of registered prostitutes were also subject to venereal disease screening in certain towns, cities, and garrisons, such as male migrant factory workers, as well as low-ranking soldiers and sailors.


Medical ticket, Arkhangel’sk (early 1900s), Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Arkhangel’skoi Oblasti (State Archive of Arkhangel’sk Oblast’), f. 37, op. 1t2, d. 3821, l. 9.

You draw on a wealth of rich – and sometimes very humorous! - source materials in your book to analyse the voices of the lower classes and their interactions with authorities, especially in the form of petitions and letters penned by prostitutes, men who paid for sex, brothel madams, and concerned citizens. Can you tell us about how you approach working with these sources from a methodological perspective?

Just like with any other primary source, it’s important to approach petitions and letters from ordinary people to the authorities with a critical eye. When people wrote to tsarist officialdom, they did so with a specific objective in mind, so the extent to which these letters can provide information about an individual’s internal world is questionable. Informed by the pioneering work of James C. Scott and Natalie Zemon Davis, I approach these letters as a performance, in which people roleplayed characters, invoked official discourses, and used specific rhetorical techniques to achieve certain ends. Examining these documents in this way allows us to explore the complicated relationship between subject and state in the late Russian Empire, as well as the engagement of ordinary people with official and popular discourses about sexuality, morality, and gender.

To give one example, on 30 June 1900, Emiliia Verter wrote a letter to the Riga police chief after she had been forcibly registered as a prostitute. Verter had been staying at a hotel with a male friend when policemen burst into her room at midnight and registered her on the police lists of prostitutes shortly after. Verter employed judicial language to propel the recipient of her petition into action, questioning, ‘is it legal to do this to an old widow who has fully-grown children?’ She invoked official and popular discourse about the importance of upholding female morality, stating that she had three ‘gentlemen’ who could vouch for her character and that the situation must be resolved because she had ‘her honour to protect’. We cannot know how Verter truly felt, but her categorisation of prostitution as indecent and immoral echoed official discourses on commercial sex and was a technique used to secure her removal from the police lists. Therefore, her letter tells us more about how lower-class people employed rhetorical techniques to their own ends, rather than how they felt about prostitution.


Petition to the Riga Police Chief from Petronela Sinkevich asking for the de-registration of her 18-year-old niece Varvara Iakimenko, from the police lists (4 April 1900). Sinkevich explained that her niece had travelled to the town of Tukums for a domestic service position, but when she arrived realised that she had actually been tricked into working at a brothel. Sinkevich asked the Riga Police Chief to intervene so that her niece could ‘live honestly again’. Latvijas Valsts Vēstures Arhīvs (Latvian State Historical Archives) f. 51, apr. 1, l. 23471, lp. 857

Despite their marginalised position in society, prostitutes were incredibly well-documented by the imperial Russian state. The high degree of regulation by the authorities and complex system of police and medical surveillance left vast paper trails in archives. However, were there any aspects of the topic that proved more tricky to research or left you with (as yet!) unanswered questions? Frustratingly, there is very little information available on same-sex female prostitution. This is likely because the imperial authorities conceptualised prostitution strictly in heteronormative terms, as a transaction that could only be legally entered into by a female prostitute and a male client. The imperial authorities’ refusal to acknowledge female same-sex relations in prostitution legislation demonstrates their dismissal of sex between women as ‘innocent’. Unlike sodomy, sex between women was never criminalised in the Russian Empire, so we cannot easily turn to police files to find information. There is no doubt that some registered women would have engaged in same-sex relations (either paid or unpaid) especially given that we have fragmentary evidence from the wonderful work of Laura Engelstein and Dan Healey.

The book builds out of material which originally formed part of your PhD. How was your experience of transforming your research from a doctoral dissertation into a book? Do you have any advice for current postgraduate students and early-career researchers about how to navigate this process?

My experience of transforming my thesis into a book was generally positive. Before I got started with the process, I thought that it was going to monumentally difficult, probably due to nagging insecurities about my ability to write a book! I had also read a handful of quite snarky and unhelpful book reviews in which the reviewer remarked that it was clear that the book was the author’s PhD thesis as a shorthand for highlighting problems with the work. In reality, the process was much more straightforward that I had initially imagined. I had to shift my perspective on my project from a PhD thesis (something required to demonstrate specific skills and obtain a qualification) to something that fit together as a cohesive whole and could potentially tell us something new and interesting about imperial Russia. I spent a lot of time re-reading the thesis to find a new narrative arc and making lists upon lists of things I would change. Once I’d figured out the new structure and the overall story that I was trying to tell, I wrote a book proposal and sent it to as many people as possible for comments. OUP asked to see a sample chapter alongside the proposal, so I chose one of the PhD chapters that I was happiest with and rewrote it to fit with the new focus of the project. In terms of advice, I have two recommendations. First of all, start out by focusing on the small tasks. Read through your PhD thesis and make a list of what you think is good and what requires work, and from there it will be easier to see both the strengths of the project and the roadmap for the work that needs to be done. Second, talk to as many people as possible about your book project. Send your book proposal to your friends and colleagues, as everybody will have a different perspective that can be used to strengthen the overall work.

Finally, your book focuses on the regulation of prostitution in imperial Russia's north-western regions. Do you have any recommendations for our readers interested in learning more about prostitution in other areas of the empire? The history of prostitution in the Russian Empire is a rapidly developing field and there are a series of works in Russian and English that readers could turn to learn more. For example, in English there’s Yulia Uryadova’s work on the Ferghana valley, Andrew Gentes on Sakhalin, and Jeff Sahadeo includes a short discussion of prostitution in Tashkent in his important book. Keely Stauter-Halstead’s wonderful book focuses on prostitution in the Polish provinces of the Russian Empire. Scholars have written extremely detailed empirical studies in Russian, including Tat’iana Voronich on Minsk, Svetlana Malysheva on Kazan and Vasilii V. Tiutiunik on the far eastern region.


Siobhán Hearne is a historian of gender and sexuality in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. She is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University. She received her PhD from the University of Nottingham in 2017, and has since completed postdoctoral research in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. She tweets at @siobhanhearne.

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