Prosecuting Procurement in the Russian Empire

Siobhán Hearne.

Panic over sex trafficking and the procurement of young women and girls for prostitution reached a crescendo in the early 1900s across Europe and the Americas. Government officials, doctors, jurists, and members of philanthropic organisations met at international congresses dedicated to tackling the problem and newspapers across the continents were filled with exposés of naive girls forced into prostitution by devious Lotharios or money-grubbing madams. Between 1895 and 1912, anti-procurement and anti-sex-trafficking legislation was introduced across Europe and North America. 

In state-driven and popular discourse in a variety of international contexts, the victims of sex trafficking and procurement were almost exclusively imagined as young, naïve, and crucially, white, women and girls. This unyielding definition of victimhood was evident in the language used to describe these crimes: in English and French, the ‘white slave traffic’ or traite des blanches, and in German and Russian, the ‘trade’ in girls or women (Mädchenhandel and torgovliia zhenshchinami). 

Figure 1. ‘My God! If only I could get out of here’
published in Ernest A. Bell (ed). Fighting the Traffic
in Young Girls: Or, War on the White Slave Trade 
(Chicago, 1910). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Popular representations of this criminal trade frequently emphasised the apparent racial difference between victim and perpetrator. Anti-procurement narratives provided an outlet for wider anti-Semitic or xenophobic sentiments, as many detailed the ensnarement of an innocent white victim by an unscrupulous Jewish or ambiguously ‘foreign’ pimp or brothel-keeper. 

Historians generally agree that although procurement and sex trafficking certainly occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, the fears propagated by the international ‘white slave panic’ were disproportionate to the reality. Instead, concern about the coercion of white women and girls into prostitution reflected wider anxieties about increased female migration, the disruption of patriarchal family structures, shifting sexual mores, and depopulation, at a time of increased female mobility, particularly across national and imperial borders.

With its racialized overtones, the ‘white slave panic’ became entangled with ideas about the ‘nation’ and its borders, which served to bolster national and international law enforcements in the early 1900s. Much of the discourse around procurement and sex trafficking popularised over a century ago remains in circulation and continues to inform contemporary anti-sex-trafficking campaigns

The Case of Imperial Russia 

Anti-procurement statutes were introduced in the Russian Empire in 1909. From this year, articles 524-529 of the Empire’s Criminal Code criminalised those who coerced, forced, and encouraged women to enter to world of commercial sex. Certain statutes constructed procurement as a crime exclusively committed against young women and girls, such as article 524 which criminalized the procurement of women under the age 21 for ‘lewdness’ (nepotrebstvo).

Anti-procurement statutes sat uncomfortably with the legal status of prostitution in the Russian Empire. From 1843 until 1917, prostitution was legally tolerated across Russia under a system known as the ‘supervision of prostitution’ (nadzor za prostitutsiei), whereby women who worked as prostitutes were required to register with the police and attend regular gynaecological examinations. Brothel-keepers could not legally open establishments without first securing a licence from the police. Women had to be over the age of 18 in order to register as a prostitute (and over 21 to work specifically at a brothel).

Regulation was implemented with the official aim of preventing the spread of venereal diseases, but the tsarist authorities generated valuable income under the system. Brothel madams often paid monthly dues to their local police based on how many women they had working at their establishment.[1] 

Figure 2. Headshots of registered prostitutes in Iur’ev (now Tartu, Estonia)
in the early 1900s. Source: National Archives of Estonia (EAA) 325.2.585

This income was important because municipal authorities across the Empire received limited financial support from the central government in St Petersburg, yet were expected to hire policemen and provide registered prostitutes with free medical treatment to prevent the spread of venereal diseases. Madams also informally supplemented the low salaries of policemen through bribes and cash gifts in order to bend the rules of regulation to their own benefit. Running an unlicensed brothel deprived the tsarist state of valuable income. 

Prosecuting Procurement at a Local Level  

In a recent article, I examined the application of the anti-procurement statutes in the Russian Empire and argued that the 1909 legislation gave local tsarist authorities a new method for extracting lost state income. This study focused on procurement court cases tried in the imperial provinces of Estliand and northern Lifliand, the region that now comprises independent Estonia. 

I chose a case study of the Estonian region because it is impossible to understand the application of empire-wide legislation within a huge, administratively complex, and incredibly ethnically and linguistically diverse Empire without regional studies. The ethnic composition of the Estonian provinces also obscured dominant cultural representations of procurement as a crime committed by Jews or foreigners. Lutheranism was by far the most commonly practiced religion in this region and the vast majority of inhabitants were ethnic Estonians. The region also fell outside the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement and had a miniscule Jewish population.

These factors meant that Jews were less likely to be imagined as the chief perpetrators of procurement, than they were elsewhere in the Empire. In the court cases I examined, all of the victims and accused were lower-class ethnic Estonians who practiced Lutheranism. Almost all ethnic Estonians were able to read (96% compared to an empire-wide average of 21%) and therefore were more likely exposed to the dominant discourses about prostitution and procurement in circulation in the early 1900s.[2]

Procurement court cases were suffused with popular ideas about the naivete of lower-class women and girls, who were presumed to be weak-willed and easily seduced by the prospect of treats. The women in the cases I examined were all under the age of 21. Like many of their peers, they had already entered the labour force in their mid-teens where they typically worked extremely long hours in unsanitary conditions for very low wages.

The prominence of discourses of entrapment and seduction crystallized the idea that every procurement story involved two contrasting characters: the young victim and the villain, intent on precipitating her downfall from innocence. The dominance of these tropes meant that other factors, including the sexual double standard, pitifully low women’s wages, and the adult men who paid for sex with young women and girls, were largely ignored by the tsarist authorities. Despite positioning themselves as dutiful protectors of teenage girls, tsarist authorities focused primarily on establishing whether they had been denied state income through the unlicensed exchange of money for sexual intercourse. 

Take, for example, the cases brought against Anna Negfeldt, a woman in her mid-thirties living in the city of Revel’ (now Tallinn, capital of Estonia). Negfeldt appeared in court twice between 1912-1914, accused of procuring 13-year-old Klavdiia Filipova and 18-year-old Amaliia Virt.[3] Both girls worked in the garment trade, where low wages, long hours, and seasonal dismissals were common. Filipova and Virt stated that Negfeldt had approached them on the street, offered them money and sweets, and invited them to escape the monotony of their work to play cards with other girls at her apartment. Both teenagers visited Negfeldt’s apartment regularly thereafter. 

Virt abruptly stopped visiting Negfeldt after she began pestering her to ‘earn good money’ by having sex with ‘respectable men’. Negfeldt continued to harass Virt in public, so Virt informed the police. Filipova’s mother contacted the police after her daughter had been missing for several days. Filipova told the police that on two occasions she had been encouraged to drink vodka and then forced to go to bed with middle-aged men, who attempted to rape her. Too ashamed to return home, Filipova slept in the courtyard of a local church after each incident. 

Figure 3. The first page of Anna Negfeldt’s sentence
for the procurement of Klavdiia Filipova. Source:
EAA.105.1.9544, lk. 124.

Multiple witness statements attested to the fact that wealthy middle-aged men, including engineers and city council members, regularly frequented Negfeldt’s apartment with the express purpose of engaging in sexual intercourse with teenage girls. One witness, 50-year-old Vilgelm Iakgeim, admitted to regularly having sex with teenagers between the ages of 15-17 at Negfeldt’s apartment. Although technically over the age of consent (between 11-14 years old in the Russian Empire depending on a girl’s ‘sexual innocence’), these girls were too young to be registered legally as prostitutes.[4]

But when investigating the two cases against Negfeldt, the tsarist authorities were more concerned with establishing whether money had been exchanged for sexual intercourse, rather than examining the psychological impact of attempted rape, and locating the other girls who were engaged in prostitution. For the procurement of Klavdiia Filipova, Negfeldt was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. Despite the fact that numerous witness statements corroborated Virt’s accusations, the second case against Negfeldlt was dropped due to lack of evidence. None of the men who admitted to frequenting Negfeldt’s apartment were prosecuted, because paying for sex with an underage girl was not a criminal offence. 

Negfeldt likely generated a substantial income from the procurement of teenage girls. She was able to immediately raise the 50 roubles required for her bail, an amount significantly higher than the average monthly wage for a woman in the 1910s, which was around 12-16 roubles per month depending on the industry.[5]

The Revel’ authorities’ lukewarm concern for the welfare of teenage girls is unsurprising, given that police actually helped to facilitate commercial sex between girls who were too young to be legally registered as prostitutes and adult men. In 1908, there were eighteen 17-year-olds, two 16-year-olds, and one girl of just 15 registered as prostitutes in the city.[6] Revel’ was not unique in ignoring the age limits for registered prostitutes: in 1909 in St. Petersburg, there were 124 minors working as prostitutes.[7]

By ignoring the age limit for registration and prioritising the recovery of lost state revenue through unlicensed prostitution, the tsarist authorities did not make any meaningful progress in preventing the procurement of young girls, despite their legislative hand-wringing over their welfare. 

Further reading

In recent years, lots of excellent research has been conducted on international responses to procurement and the application of anti-procurement legislation in the early twentieth century, for example Nancy M. Wingfield on late imperial Austria, Keely Stauter-Halstead on partitioned Poland, Julia Laite on Britain and the British world, Jessica Plileyon the United States, and Philippa Hetherington on Imperial Russia. 

Siobhán Hearne is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Modern Languages & Cultures at Durham University. Her research focuses on histories of gender and sexuality in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. She is also one of the editors of the website Peripheral Historiesa collaborative digital history project exploring ‘peripheral’ spaces in the Russian Empire, Soviet Union, and post-Soviet world.


[1] Latvijas Valsts vēstures arhīvs (LVVA) f. 51, apr. 1, l. 23469, lp. 6.

[2] Tovio U. Raun, ‘The Latvian and Estonian National Movements, 1860–1914’, Slavonic and East European Review, 64:1 (1986), p. 73.

[3] The two case files can be found in the National Archives of Estonia: EAA.105.1.9544 and EAA.139.1.4272. 

[4] Laura Engelstein, The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle Russia (Ithaca, 1992), p. 80.

[5] Barbara Engel, Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work, and Family in Russia 1860-1914 (Cambridge, 1996), p. 149. 

[6] EAA.31.2.4283; EAA.31.2.3722; EAA.31.2.4681; EAA.31.2.5037.

[7] ‘Stolichnaia Prostitutsiia’, Russkie Vedomosti, (4 May 1909).

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