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Driving out prostitutes from turn of the century Vilnius

N.Žukovo nuotr. / Photos show prostitutes in the Russian Empire in early 1900
Šaltinis: 15min

“To His Grace, the Governor of Wilno. From landlord Leiba Abramovich Kikulkin. I have the honour of informing Your Grace that I have three rooms in my house on Kopanica Street that can be leased for the said purposes. The premises are available for tenancy starting on 29 September 1900.”

The extract from correspondence between Vilnius citizens and the city authorities does not concern the opening of some strategic object – as one might assume, judging by the solemnity of the addressee. One of the gravest problems in turn-of-the-century Vilnius was how to move brothels from the city centre to suburbs.

At the time, the suburbs were located around present-day Konstitucijos Avenue. Vilnius brothels were eventually moved to the location where Vilnius Municipality Building now stands.

Bad neighbourhood

A century ago, prostitution was legal throughout the Russian Empire that Vilnius was a part of. The authorities had put in place strict regulations, requiring courtesans to have regular health checks. Moreover, each woman would have a personal file and a work certificate of sorts. These contained photos and doctor signatures after each check-up.

However, despite meticulous regulation, prostitution and brothels became a problem for the city in late 19th and early 20th century. Scuffle, mugging, even occasional murder were a constant nuisance in narrow streets near brothels. The clientèle frequenting the institutions – drunken townsfolk and military officers – did not add to the prestige of the neighbourhoods either.

Eventually, city authorities could bear it no longer and decided to move brothels out of the town centre.

“Moving any institution is quite bothersome, especially when it is a brothel,” says Nikolai Zhukov, journalist and amateur historian who has spent days in archives researching the history of prostitution in Vilnius.

He came across some photos in File No. 330 of the Governor of Vilnius Chancellery, “On moving brothels of Wilno.”

Industrialist opposition

The story began in 1889. Vilnius police master Rayevski decided that the city centre must be purged of prostitutes. Who knows why the venerable police master had a problem with girls making an honest living, but he decided to rid Vilnius monasteries, churches, and government institutions of the undignified neighbourhood.

An order was issued to move brothels to Poplavski Street (now, Paupio Street) and Safjan Street (now, Maironio Street). As soon as in 1890, there were 4 brothels on Poplavski Street, 6 on Safjan Street, and one more in Užupis.

The problem was solved for a time being – brothels and prostitutes were moved to parts of town where hardly anyone went and could be bothered. But it was the time of fast expansion, when factories and industrial plants sprang up one after another. Right in the neighbourhood of the resettled brothels.

“Obviously, factory owners were unhappy. Oftentimes, their workers would visit prostitutes instead of going to work,” Zhukov says. “Owners began sending complaints to the city authorities. And since industrialists were people with money, the issue was settled in no time.”

Vilnius authorities quickly ordered to move all brothels to Užupis. “Next to the cemetery,” as they put it in the edict. However, the new home would not last for long either.

Stir among clergy

Residents of Užupis, or Zarzecze, were not happy with the new neighbours and also set out on a campaign of complaints. They pointed out that lands next to the pleasure houses belonged to Vilnius Orthodox Archdiocese. And according to prevailing norms, an institution like brothel could not operate in the vicinity of religious sites. Area next to the cemetery was deemed unsuitable as well. Moreover, there were three orphanages in Užupis.

“Kids are curious. They will observe swingers and drunkards walking by. All these arguments induce us, Your Grace, to ask You to revoke Your decision,” residents wrote.

There was also a Jewish prayer school not far from the brothels. The school management wrote to the Governor, saying that, to their knowledge, brothel owners were planning to buy rooms just opposite the school – so prostitutes would soon be working right in front of a Jewish religious school.

The Governor was desperate – what to do with the prostitutes? Someone advised him to send them behind city limits, to a place that is now Ukmergės Street. “And again the same story – letters of complaint, residents unhappy,” Zhukov grins.

War and business

Another group that earnestly participated in the debate were military officers stationed in Vilnius.

“They suggested that brothels be moved to Šnipiškės, the military cantonment. One officer wrote in a letter to the Governor that, on the one hand, moving brothels there would present some inconvenience, but on the other hand, if doctors could control prostitutes and they were obliged to have regular check-ups, this would be a good decision, preventing soldiers from contracting venereal diseases,” Zhukov says.

The officers suggested a few novelties without precedent elsewhere in the Russian Empire. First, prostitutes were to have certificates with their photographs. Second, all men would have to present documents on medical examination, to prove they were healthy, before indulging in carnal pleasures. Third, it was forbidden to admit drunk men.

Prostitutes on group action

However, when the issue seemed finally settled, prostitutes themselves protested. They were unhappy to be exiled to a place without streets or houses.

Women demanded for a temporary permission to move their trade to Vilkomirski Street (what is now Konstitucijos Avenue). To the spot where Vilnius Municipality Building now stands.

City residents did not have any serious objections to that, only demanding that brothels take out leases for no shorter period that three years. After all, prostitutes could not operate in just any house. According to regulations, the premises needed to have a common room, a dining room, a room for the madame, and separate rooms for each prostitute.

In order to avoid going bankrupt, brothel mistresses organized into a proto-union and made demands to the Governor that brothels be allowed to settled in a permanent location and they would not have to move every one to three years. The letter was signed by all manageresses of Vilnius brothels: Haja-Rivka Fegelson, Rivka Bernar, Sara Koch, Hana Virshup, and Koila Krupnik.

In the end, the authorities decided that lowbrow brothels would be moved near the military cantonment, while prestigious houses would be allowed to settle just across the Green Bridge, in Piromantski Street on the other side of the river.

Unfortunately, at the time, many of the wealthier citizens had their summer houses just across the Green Bridge. The Governor received another round of protests.

“File No. 330 does not give information how things developed after that. Probably a new file was opened and put into a new big binder,” Zhukov interrupts the story.

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