The Soviet Union outlawed prostitution when it formed its communist bloc in the early 20th century, though there was still an underground market for sex, as there always is. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, although the industry in no way disappeared, the Russian government targeted prostitution and increased penalties to try to deter sex workers and tamp down on what had turned a prolific trade into a potential breeding house.
Historically, regulating the sex industry in Russia hadn't really been a concern until Peter the Great and his 18th century military reforms. After that, Russia started keeping track of sex workers, giving them licenses to sell themselves and even setting up official brothels to entertain the troops.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, Russian red light areas in Moscow and St. Petersburg grew. Called tochka — Russian for "location" or "spot" — the outdoor markets where women sold themselves in Moscow's or St. Petersburg's red light districts became centers of organized criminal activity, and rampant abuse of the sex industry caused a trafficking crisis that authorities were reluctant to acknowledge and address.
Despite the industry's large and lengthy geopoliticial history, the negative elements of prostitution and the sex trade in Russia today are as widespread as ever. Today, the Wilson Center estimates that one billion people in Russia are living in what can be fully considered modern sex slavery.
In 2013, Russia was downgraded to Tier 3 in the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for "Not working to combat trafficking and failing to comply with the US minimum standards." Russia has long attempted to regulate the industry with inconsistent oversight, turning a blind eye to workers' rights and other protective measures. According to the Wilson Center:
"[The Russian government] has made the task of assisting trafficking victims a political one. From its policy of silence on [the subject, the passage of a number of laws aimed at closing shelters that assist trafficking victims, and the promotion of government-sponsored media that politicize [the issues], it is clear that the Russian government views human trafficking as layered in political controversies."
In 1843 under Czar Nicholas I, Russia set up committees to register and inspect sex workers. When a woman appeared before the committees, she surrendered her passport in exchange for a "yellow card" or "yellow ticket." This yellow card was meant to be a way that the police could monitor the industry, keeping track of where workers sold their wiles as well as to make sure they had regular medical inspections. Yellow cards were issued to those who worked in regular institutions and included a range from the elite to more low-income variants.
The cards made it difficult for women to hide from authorities and to keep one's profession a secret. It also made it difficult for individuals to carry on business, although handlers and "individual" workers did exist. Individual workers caught by the police and examined were given "blank sheets" and were the most vulnerable in Russia.
Punitive actions aimed at preventing this type of work do exist in modern Russia, where running a cathouse can result in a five-year jail sentence. As a result, many simply don't have a formal manager and workers conduct business on their own. The estimated three million women in modern Russia who participate in the industry are able to pay rent and afford a guard while pocketing the rest of their money in what many women consider to be a perfectly respectable profession. Not everyone is able to thrive, however, and there are still dangers around every corner. According to a filmmaker who documented prostitution in Moscow,
"Often the clients have knives, knuckledusters, even guns sometimes. They beat up the guard and rob the women. When I asked why the police didn’t help them, one of the ladies told me it was ‘like the Wild West.'"
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 ushered in a revolution of sorts while simultaneously bringing about concerns for the survival of Communist Russia. Communist revolutionaries like Alexandra Kollontai wrote about ending this type of work to insure worker solidarity, but also to end the stereotypical role women played in society. She argued that:
"...the [T]ask is to cut out the roots that feed prostitution. Our task is to wage a merciless struggle against all the remnants of individualism and of the former, type of marriage. Our task is to revolutionize, attitudes in the sphere of sexual relationships, to bring them into line with the interest of the working collective. When the communist collective has eliminated the contemporary forms of marriage and the family, the problem of prostitution will cease to exist."
Ladies of the evenig were not considered part of the working class that was so valued in Russian society, however. At one point, Vladimir Lenin "sent a telegram to Nizhny Novgorod [a city in Russia] suggesting that several hundred workers be shot for allegedly getting soldiers drunk on vodka."