Weird History

Inside The World of Russian Prostitution

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.