Russian authors and intellectuals of the late imperial period utilized their writings as a platform to debate prostitution. Were prostitutes the hapless victims of upper-class male seducers, as portrayed in Leo Tolstoy’s last novel Resurrection (1899) or were such women--as the era’s leading criminologists argued--genetically predisposed to sexual depravity? Adding to the urgency of this dilemma were fears of prostitutes infecting Russia’s male population with venereal disease. The health of the Russian nation became linked to the prostitute’s body, which was imagined in binary terms as both titillating and deadly. Such anxieties inspired Leonid Andreev’s controversial story “In the Fog” (1902), which details the debilitating effects of syphilis on a Petersburg student who kills a prostitute and then himself. Although quite different in their approaches, both Tolstoy and Andreev hoped to resurrect the “fallen woman” in the eyes of the public by removing eroticism in their depictions of the prostitute’s body. Comparing these two authors’ conceptualizations of prostitution demonstrates the major stumbling blocks facing Russian intellectuals of the period. Unable to see commercial sex as a viable option for working-class women, writers remained beholden to the belief that prostitutes were victims of male exploitation.
Colleen Lucey is Assistant Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at the University of Arizona. She received her Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality in Russian literature and visual culture. Currently, she is working on a book project that focuses on the portrayal of sex work and the commodification of women in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian works. Through an interdisciplinary approach that combines performance studies and critical theory on leisure culture, her research addresses how the figure of the sex worker embodied anxieties about women's shifting social roles in imperial Russia. Her research has been supported by the Title VIII Research Scholar Program, the US. Department of State, and the Foreign Language & Area Studies Program.