Trading the Red for the Bed: Part I

The Fall of Communism and Rise of Prostitution in Russia

(Read Part 2, Prostitution vs. Human Trafficking Rights Under the Russian Federation here)

The 1970s and early eighties in communist Russia marked a time period Soviet authorities later dubbed "The Era of Stagnation." With a twofold rise in power and misappropriation of internal assets, the country continued to slide further into oppression and hardship after the end of Brezhnev’s rule. Then, on December 26th 1991, the world watched as the Soviet Union fell and fifteen countries declared independence from its communist regime. With the end of The Cold War and the beginning of the new capitalist Russian Federation, Russia cast off the shackles of a deteriorating system of government.

However, the formerly communist social structure was unprepared for the repercussions of such an enormous shift in economic policy. The new market economy, privatization of public enterprises and countless other factors led to widespread industrial and economic collapse. In the years that followed, Russia would plumb the depths of poverty. Consequently, post-Soviet Russia would also see one of the largest spikes in prostitution documented in recent history.

While some peripheral factors resulting from the advent of new ideals can be counted as contributing to this phenomenon—like general changes in sexual attitudes and a vague Westernization—the greatest motivator in the rise of post-Soviet Russian prostitution was intense poverty. The speed of the decline in income and living conditions in the country was staggering, with the amount of people living in poverty skyrocketing in just a couple years. It was not a choice of finding a new job or taking less pay, because there were no jobs and no pay to be had by anyone anywhere. For many women, prostitution was the only recourse over death.

By the mid-nineties, the country was in the midst of a deep depression. This was capped off by the 1998 Russian financial crisis, when export prices for oil and the other raw materials experienced a huge drop. The very same year, a few desperate Russian cities began to consider the legalization of prostitution. Some hoped that government intervention could help curb child prostitution. The spread of disease was itself also becoming a large concern, and proponents of legal prostitution suggested health screenings and treatment for women. Many prostitutes voiced resistance to legalization however, due to how a government eye on their business would deter potential clients who wouldn’t want their activities tracked. One woman pointed out that they already had "protection," though the protection she was describing—from racketeers or corrupt police officers—is almost its own type of imprisonment. The idea was ultimately abandoned.

"Before the revolution, the czarist government allowed public brothels to operate, but they were strictly controlled. Even people who support legalization for health reasons express doubts that government brothels could work in today’s more lawless society."
—Alessandra Stanley, New York Times, 1998

On the flipside, the Tajik police ministry began to push for the criminalization of prostitution in the previously-Soviet Tajikistan ten years later. This idea was also abandoned, and many pointed out that higher penalization was adding insult to injury when prostitution itself was inhumane punishment resulting from poverty.

"the local sex industry is a product of poverty and social dislocation and will not be easy to eradicate"

—Anonymous, Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 2008

Sadly, lobbyists for the legalization or criminalization of prostitution in post-Soviet countries are sometimes motivated by essentially the same goals: the welfare and protection of citizens. This inability for government officials to find a better option in more extremely enforced or dismissed law has resulted in an ongoing stay in legal middle-ground: working as a prostitute in Russia is currently punishable by a fairly low fine (also true in Tajikistan), whereas the organization and operation of a prostitution business (or working as a pimp) in Russia is punishable by a prison sentence.

Rosemary Van Deuren, 2011.