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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Venereal Disease and Migration on the Russian Empire's Western Periphery

Siobhan Hearne

In 1906, sailors at the Port of Emperor Alexander III in the Baltic town of Libava (now Liepāja in western Latvia) had the highest rates of venereal infection of the entire Russian Imperial Navy. In this year, 41.5 per cent of sailors were infected.1 One year later in 1907, almost three quarters of Libava’s sailors had a venereal disease.2 These figures horrified both state and naval authorities. The depletion of fighting power owing to illness had the potential to compromise Russia’s line of defence. In the years that followed, naval physicians and city authorities debated why venereal diseases were so much higher in Libava than in other Russian ports. Often they gestured to the regional characteristics of the Baltic provinces as an explanation, outlining Libava’s status as a hive of population movement. So, why were venereal diseases so rampant on the Russian empire’s western periphery? Did the specific social conditions of the Baltic provinces lead to their abundance?

Map of Kurliand province. Libava is on the southwest coastline Map available via Runiverse

According to the city’s police chief, Libava had a prostitution problem. Women were working temporarily as prostitutes outside Russia’s official system for the regulation of prostitution, which remained in place from 1843 until 1917. The system dictated that in order to work legally prostitutes needed to register with their local police and attend compulsory weekly gynaecological examinations to prevent the spread of venereal diseases. In 1908, the city had just 190 women registered as prostitutes, but local authorities arrested 370 women for working outside regulation, which suggests that the majority of women were working in prostitution sporadically or temporarily while based in Libava.3

Libava’s substantial migrant and sailor populations would have provided women temporarily working as prostitutes with an ample customer base. The city had both a military and commercial port, and was an important centre of emigration from the Russian empire, particularly for Jews fleeing the pogroms and discrimination of the Pale of Settlement. Emigrants swelled the city in the early 1900s, especially after the state relaxed emigration laws and launched its own direct passenger line from Libava to New York in 1906.4 The Libava-Romny railway connected the city with inland provinces, as the railway line ran from the coast at Libava to the provinces of Vilna, Kovno, Minsk, and Poltava.

The Russia-America Line, which connected the Russian empire with New York via Rotterdam

In 1912 and 1913, 106,471 people emigrated through Libava, whereas the city’s registered population was just 90,000 in 1909. 5 Shipping companies provided facilities for first, second and third class passengers to stay in Libava before their departure to western Europe or North America, in order to complete their medical examinations and even obtain a passport from the province’s governor. Libava city authorities complained that women were able to work as prostitutes ‘secretly’ and avoid medical examinations as they blended in with the high concentration of migrants and were undetectable to the police.

Naval doctors described Libava city as an especially infectious space that had a corrupting influence on naval recruits. Sailors could easily access Libava from the nearby military port, as the two destinations were connected by an electric tram system. One physician reported that in any of Libava’s twenty-seven beer markets, twenty-two tea houses, twenty inns or six bathhouses, men were guaranteed to find ‘satisfaction for their sexual needs’. 6 The authorities also recognised that like other large port cities, Libava attracted hundreds of prostitutes, as 51 per cent of all registered prostitutes for the entire Kurliand province lived in the city.

Libava had the first electric tram line in the Baltic provinces. It was installed in 1899 and it is still in operation today

Libava’s location on the Baltic Sea at the western periphery of the Russian empire was also used as an explanation for rife disease. In 1913, an article in the Russian Journal of Skin and Venereal Diseases suggested that the Baltic provinces were particularly infectious spaces. The author claimed that the provinces of Estliand and Kurliand (now Estonia and Latvia) had seen huge increases in venereal infection in recent years as in Tallinn, the number of people infected with venereal diseases had jumped from 8 per cent in 1875 to 55.8 per cent in 1911.7 This apparent ‘astonishing rate’ of infection was due to the geographical position of the Baltic provinces, which all had good railway connections to central and eastern Russia, as well as Western Europe and various busy commercial and military ports, like Libava. The Baltic coast was also home to several major resorts, and as the area was well connected to the capital by rail, tourists flocked to these provinces during the summer months. While temporarily away from home, people allegedly behaved differently, engaging in promiscuous and commercial sex, allowing the spread of infection.

The case of Libava reveals how migration and venereal diseases were perceived as inseparable in late imperial Russia. According to local authorities, the mass movement of people around the Russian empire’s western periphery apparently made the region more susceptible to rampant infection. Attempts to solve this problem focused on making certain populations more static and ‘known’ to the authorities. Local police focused on rooting out clandestine prostitutes and naval authorities turned their attention to the corporeal examination of sailors.

Siobhan Hearne is one of the Peripheral Histories? editors. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham writing her thesis on female prostitution in urban Russia 1900-1917. She tweets from @siobhanhearne __________________________________________________________________________________

1 Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Voenno-Morskogo Flota (RGAVMF hereafter), f. 408, op. 1, d. 1581, ll. 10-12.

2 The assistant to the chief medical inspector of the port reported that 73.1 per cent of all sailors were infected. RGAVMF, f. 408, op. 1, d. 1658, l. 18..

3 RGAVMF, f. 928, op. 1, d. 587, ll. 45-46.

4 T. Balkelis, ‘Opening Gates to the West: Lithuanian and Jewish Migrations from the Lithuanian Provinces, 1867-1914’, Ethnicity Studies, 1-2 (2010), p. 60

5 The majority of emigrants hailed from Minsk, Volyn and Grodno provinces. V. Kukushkin, From Peasants to Labourers: Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration from the Russian Empire to Canada (Montreal, 2007), p. 53. The chief of police for Libava gives the 90,000 figure in a letter to the Kurliand medical department in April 1909. RGAVMF, f. 408, op. 1, d. 1581, l. 2.

6 RGAVMF, f. 408, op. 1, d. 940, l. 12.

7 ‘Rasprostranenie i bor’ba s polovym bolezniami, glavnym obrazom v Revele’, Russkii Zhurnal Kozhnikh i Venericheskikh, 9-10 (September-October 1913), pp. 273-274.

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