They will say – sex workers in Russia are country’s third-class citizen. While in the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Russian prostitutes are best in the world”. But, according to media reports, Russian sex workers mostly operate in a hidden world outside the law and out of sight – almost like shadow – making them doubly vulnerable to infection and abuse. Identified cases of infected sex workers in Russia in 2016 was 1,03,000 – 5 percent higher than the previous year, while the actual figure is likely to be significantly higher. Writes Andrya Borikova
Spending more than six years as a sex worker in St Petersburg city before becoming an activist in 2003, Irina Maslova said, “Russian prostitutes are absolute [outcast] who have no real way of defending themselves”.
While prostitution is illegal in Russia, it is punishable by a fine of just US$ 27. According to Irina Maslova, this legal ban on prostitution is often used by police as an excuse not to investigate crimes against sex workers. Rights groups are demanding legalization of prostitution in the country. Sex workers are also looking for forming ‘Trade Union for Sex Workers’.
Prostitution in old-days in Russia
In the old days prostitution in Russia worked in much the same way as it did in other parts of Europe. The authorities and public opinion condemned the trade in human bodies, but were less bothered about stopping it or punishing its perpetrators than they were about other offences. For example, a bundle of straw on a stick outside a house meant that a passerby might avail himself of sexual services there. Clients would recognize the sign, but the police turned a blind eye to this blatant advertising.
By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, prostitution was regulated, at least in the bigger cities. The women had regular medical examinations and were issued with so-called ‘yellow cards’, although the police confiscated their ID papers so their movements were restricted. Prostitution as such was not a punishable offence, although pimping was.
The public were generally sympathetic towards prostitutes. We meet them as characters in the work of many major Russian writers – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kuprin, Leskov – where they are treated as the victims of harsh social circumstances. Lev Tolstoy’s last novel, ‘Resurrection’, tells the story of a peasant girl who turns to prostitution after being seduced by a young aristocrat, and is then condemned to hard labor in Siberia on false charges of poisoning a client.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 officially put an end to ‘the exploitation of man (and woman?) by man’. Prostitutes started talking about their rights and even tried to set up trade unions. The communist authorities, however, refused to accept workers in the oldest profession as members of the working class on a par with seamstresses or weavers. In one incident Lenin sent a telegram to Nizhny Novgorod suggesting that several hundred prostitutes be shot for allegedly getting soldiers drunk on vodka.
At the same time, Revolutionary Russia almost pioneered a sexual revolution, half a century before the West. Young revolutionaries enthusiastically embraced the ‘glass of water’ theory, which stated that sex was humans’ only basic need and should be satisfied as simply and easily as thirst by a glass of water. It would throw the prostitutes out of work, of course, but again, the Bolshevik authorities weren’t keen, and Lenin declared that ‘our young people have quite lost their minds to this theory’.
The salon for intimate services in Russian cities
All the cities in Russia are having the so-called salons, which actually are sex salons, where sex workers attend their clients. For example, on Vladimirsky Prospekt in St Petersburg – a flat in a five storey building dating from the time of the last Tsar. There’s the standard steel door faced in wood, a doormat to wipe your feet, a peephole. The only thing that’s different from the other flats in the building is the hidden camera that gives a clearer picture of whoever is on the doorstep. Plus – the fact that 50-70 people, sometimes more, and all of them men, wipe their feet on the mat every day.
Because this is St Petersburg’s largest salon for intimate services. Or, as its employees put it more bluntly – brothel.
It is said, in Russia, it is easier finding a prostitute than a lawyer.
There is, of course, no sign on the house on Vladimirsky Prospekt. Clients learn that eight qualified prostitutes await their pleasure on the fifth floor only from the internet and specialized magazines and newspapers. In the 90s and the first years of the new century more than a third of the small ads in free newspapers were for sexual services, but then these were banned and the internet took over.
Now in any large Russian city you only need to visit a few websites to find what you are looking for, whether your needs are simple or rather more upmarket.
In Petersburg there is one site that offers the services of prostitutes on just one, not very long, road, Kommendantsky Prospekt, where it’s much easier to find a prostitute. But we are talking about the facility on Vladimirsky Prospekt.
The customer chooses a ‘girl’ and phones her either on her mobile number or through a supervisor. The meeting usually takes place in the ‘salon’. Sometimes a client can be visited at home, but that costs twice or three times more and it’s not just a question of travelling time, but also the prostitute’s safety.
These days, few Russian prostitutes work on the streets. Many of them also work in sex salons such as this one whose rooms are traditionally furnished with a large bed, wall mirror and a plasma screen.
The salons take safety seriously. New clients get a thorough look-over on the camera monitors and are refused admission if they seem to be high on something. The client is then met at the door by a supervisor who takes them to the prostitute’s room, and if the young woman doesn’t measure up in person to her photo on the site, he can choose another.
The salon also offers more specialized services: one room is equipped as a BDSM chamber with a whipping bench, a bondage chair and a small rack. Offering the services of a dominatrix marks a salon out as high class. The rest of the rooms are pretty standard – a large bed and wall mirror and a huge plasma screen. Some of these show erotic movies on a loop, either to help the client get aroused or teach him new tricks.
For particularly sophisticated clients there is a room with a Jacuzzi, and a small bar serving champagne. Customers can also order a video of their fun and games (with the prostitute’s face pixilated, of course).
An hour-long session on Vladimir Prospekt costs between US$ 70-150), depending on the age, qualifications and attractiveness of the sex worker involved.
Some have their own list of ‘regulars’ and know in advance who they will be meeting, but for most it’s almost like a lottery.
The salon is run by an older woman, Vera Ivanovna. She sets the prices and deals with the police, but she can’t really be called its boss – the salon operates more like a workers’ cooperative.
In the USSR prostitutes did not exist – but they could still be sent to the gulag. According to secret research carried out in the late 1920s, almost 60 percent of urban Soviet men were using the services of prostitutes. A husband having a quick fling with a hooker on holiday was a minor and forgivable sin.
Prostitutes were the subject of jokes, and myths about their high earnings, and there were, of course, no brothels. A man looking for sexual services could find them in a few cafes – or at railway stations. Taking a bunch of keys from his pocket and jingling them around would be a signal to a prostitute that he had a room or a flat he could take her back to – a rare enough thing at the time, given cramped Soviet living conditions.
Each city had its known places where prostitutes could pick up punters. In Leningrad, for example, one of them was the tram stop next to the ‘Officers’ House’ on Liteiny Prospekt (and only two stops away from the ‘Big House’, the city’s KGB headquarters). There was even an expression, ‘a Liteiny girl’, and a phrase reportedly repeated by ‘decent’ women: ‘That’s not what I am; I’m just waiting for the tram’.
There was also a separate category of prostitutes, the ‘inter-girls’ who worked in hotels for foreign tourists and accepted payment only in foreign currencies. Women who worked in ordinary hotels and at stations often had protection from the local police, but those in the luxury hotels were under the wing of the KGB. They were not only mere sex workers – in most cases, they also were working as KGB spies.
There was also, of course, the lowest caste of prostitute – those who serviced long distance truck drivers in the cabins of their vehicles, sometimes just for food and a free lift.
At least half the prostitutes in Moscow and other major Russian cities work on their own, as so-called ‘individuals’, and often emphasize this in their online ads, believing that many clients prefer to avoid the sexual conveyer belt of the salons. And ‘individuals’ offer services, such as unprotected sex, which are often unavailable in the salons. They also have their own safety rules: they work in pairs, and only see one client at a time. Often a friendly cop or Mafioso provides them with protection – a ‘roof’, as it’s known in Russian. And some end their online ad with the words, ’And thieves – forget it. The most valuable thing in the flat is me’.
The early 90s, immediately after the collapse of the USSR, saw a real boom in prostitution in Russia. This was highlighted by the writer Vladimin Kunin’s novel ‘Intergirl: a hard currency hooker’, about the adventures of a young prostitute working for foreign clients. But it was also a dangerous time for both prostitutes and their customers. On the one hand, criminal gangs would hire a woman and organize an ‘orgy’ – in other words a gang rape. On the other, there were prostitutes who would slip a customer a Mickey Finn and rob him. It was not the best of times for the general public either: criminal gangs would attack ordinary young women, taking them for prostitutes who wouldn’t pay protection money, and hotel guests were prevented from sleeping by constant phone calls from hookers asking, ‘Would you like a good time?’
And while in Soviet times prostitutes tried not to advertise their services independently, in the 90s some streets in the large cities turned into a living exhibition of their wares. In Moscow their initial haunt was the historic Tverskaya Street (Gorky Street in the Soviet period), running from the Kremlin past the City Hall, but after the politicians complained the police moved the hookers on and they relocated to Bersenevskaya Embankment, beside the Moscow River.
These days very few prostitutes actually work the streets – what’s the point when you’ve got the internet? And anyway – most of them realize that they will never become ‘intergirls’, sipping wine with foreigners under the watchful eye of an FSB officer.
Many prostitutes are simply young women who wanted to work in a big city and have ended up literally as sexual slaves.
As soon as it was admitted that prostitution existed in Russia, both parliament and the public began to discuss what to do about it. Some politicians (the most prominent being Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the controversial leader of the Liberal Democratic Party) have argued that it should be legalized. Others, especially the Communists, take the opposite view, and believe it should be criminalized. But all this talk is likely to remain just talk. None of today’s politicians in Russia, not even Zhirinovsky, are going to push for the legalization of prostitution, but it’s also clear that even a totalitarian government won’t be able to get rid of it.
Russian cities may never have a red-light district, but there will always be flats where lonely men will find sexual comforts. There always were, and probably always will be.
Video of a Russian Secret Brothel