A portrait by Vasily Perov of Fyodor Dostoevsky, a popular 19th-century Russian writer
A portrait by Vasily Perov of Fyodor Dostoevsky, a popular 19th-century Russian writer

Prostitutes Seen as 'Paradoxical' Figures in Russian Literature

UA researcher Colleen Lucey explains that famed Russian authors of the 19th century reimagined prostitutes as martyrs.
March 15, 2017
Colleen Lucey conceptualizes how famous 19th-century writers and artists redefined prostitutes as deserving of public charity.
Colleen Lucey conceptualizes how famous 19th-century writers and artists redefined prostitutes as deserving of public charity.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Leo Tolstoy are among the 19th-century Russian writers who discuss the experiences of prostitutes, and attempt to remake the image of the "fallen woman" into a virtuous heroine.

Such authors, among others, reimagine the prostitute as a victim of urban poverty, deserving of the sympathies and charity of the greater public, said Colleen Lucey, a visiting assistant professor in the University of Arizona's Department of Russian and Slavic Studies.

"Every canonical Russian author of the 19th century discusses prostitution. It was one of the major questions of the era," said Lucey, who investigates the embedded nature of prostitution in Russia's social and political domains.

"Interesting, though, is that several authors — in an effort to portray a more realistic version of brothel life — would go to bordellos and interview prostitutes. Some writers even tried to marry them, merging their life with their aesthetic beliefs."

Lucey's study into classical Russian literature is informative of both prostitution and the status of women from Russia's Imperial period, spanning the late 17th to early 20th centuries, to the beginnings of the Soviet Union.

Lucey argues that writers "imagine brothel workers and streetwalkers as victims of social inequality and urbanization." While commercial sex was legalized in Russia during the 1840s (prostitution is no longer legal in Russia), prostitutes still were seen as deviant figures by many judicial and medical authorities.

"Famous writers saw a problem in the common belief that a certain percentage of women had to be sacrificed as prostitutes in order to contain unbridled male desire," Lucey said.

Popular classical writers took up the task of humanizing the prostitute for the reading public, she said, noting that writers commonly wrote about male characters trying to encourage prostitutes to leave brothels in search of other work. "These women are seen as pure, virtuous and penitent, despite their former profession," Lucey said.

For example, in Dostoevsky's famous novel "Crime and Punishment," the prostitute Sonia Marmeladova is forced to sell herself on the streets of St. Petersburg because her family has no other means of support, Lucey explained. Sonia's decision is seen as an act of sacrifice — and ultimately it is she, not the other characters, who becomes the source of truth and wisdom in the novel.

Interestingly, however, courtesans were not depicted in the same way — and therein lies the paradox, said Lucey, adding that a general acceptance of prostitution typically was found in high society at the time.

"Courtesans were seen as manipulative, astute consumers who use men to climb the social ladder. In comparison, the streetwalker and impoverished prostitute were believed to have no choice in their decision to engage in commercial sex," Lucey said. "Russia's real-life versions of Dostoevsky's Sonia Marmeladova were believed to choose prostitution because they could not otherwise participate in the economy."

The courtesan, however, was seen as a new class of urban woman, one who was connected to an emergent market economy, Lucey said.

"Courtesans are depicted in visual culture as threatening because they use the market — and their sex appeal — to their advantage," she said. "They are seen as both consumers and objects of consumption."

Some members of Russia's social and cultural elite, then, normalized the idea that women are generally "beautiful commodities for men to purchase, use and discard," Lucey said.

"It is important that in these works the voices of Russia's real-life prostitutes and courtesans were not heard. Whether in art or in literature, these were romanticized versions of reality," she said. "Nevertheless, it is a fascinating paradox that continues to inform discussions of women's political, social and sexual autonomy in today's Russia."