Russian President Vladimir Putin recently quipped that Russian prostitutes are “the best in the world”.
But the reality is that Russian sex workers operate in a hidden world outside the law and out of sight — making them doubly vulnerable to infection and abuse, as AFP journalists found after being granted rare access to an illegal brothel.
In a grand Stalin-era tower block in the northwestern city of Saint Petersburg, a woman in her 30s opens the door of an apartment, introducing herself as Inna, the receptionist of this so-called salon. The women only agree to speak because they trust an accompanying activist from the only NGO in Russia for sex workers called Serebryanaya Roza, or Silver Rose. The activist, Regina Akhmetzyanova, spends her evening going to such clandestine brothels to give out condoms and to offer sex workers an HIV test.
This is particularly important for prostitutes since infection rates in Russia are currently growing, with more than 1,03,000 new cases identified in 2016, up 5% on the previous year, while the real total is likely to be significantly higher.
“Russian prostitutes are absolute [outcasts] who have no real way of defending themselves,” says Silver Rose’s founder, Irina Maslova. Ms. Maslova (in her 40s) says she spent six years selling sex in the city before becoming an activist in 2003 and one of the few public advocates for prostitutes’ rights.
While prostitution is illegal in Russia, it is punishable by a fine of just 1,500 rubles ($26). Activists say this legal ban is often used by police as an excuse not to investigate crimes against sex workers. Ms. Maslova believes that only legalisation of prostitution can bring an end to the abuses against the women and aims to create what she calls a “trade union for sex workers”.
There seems little prospect of this currently as officials and lawmakers back conservative policies and stress the importance of fidelity in HIV prevention campaigns.
In Saint Petersburg, activists estimate there could be between 4,000 and 6,000 women who earn their living from prostitution. Only some 10% work on the streets, while most work in brothels in city apartments, shared by a group of prostitutes with a security guard and receptionist, who takes calls from clients.