Public Health and Prostitution in Revolutionary Petrograd, 1917–1918

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The February revolution of 1917 brought about the complete collapse of the tsarist autocracy and offered multiple possibilities for the reorganisation of society based on new principles of democracy, equality and citizenship. Amid societal reconfiguration, the tsarist system for the regulation of prostitution was repealed in July 1917. After this, the Provisional Government and later the Bolshevik Party looked for new methods to prevent the spread of venereal diseases (VD), which had reached epidemic proportions. The regulation of prostitution had been the tsarist government’s main form of VD control and it was frequently attacked by commentators across the political spectrum on both medical and moral grounds in the decades preceding February 1917. Therefore, its abolition was a political project that was interconnected with broader discourses of liberation and efforts to rid society of the unwanted remnants of the old regime. Physicians rallied around the issue of prostitution, and its eternal bedfellow VD, as part of their broader efforts to dominate the public health agenda of the new revolutionary state. In the Russian capital of Petrograd, the February revolution did not disrupt well-established class or gender stereotypes, which had profound implications for the way in which medical professionals and the police dealt with the issues of prostitution and VD. This article examines how experts, state bureaucrats and the police approached prostitution and VD in Petrograd throughout 1917 and 1918. In doing so, it traces continuities in administrative-bureaucratic regimes and informal policing practices across collapsing regimes and governments in revolutionary Russia.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEnglish Historical Review
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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