Barbara Alpern Engel, Breaking the Ties That Bound: The Politics of Marital Strife in Late Imperial Russia

By Clements, Barbara Evans | Kritika, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Barbara Alpern Engel, Breaking the Ties That Bound: The Politics of Marital Strife in Late Imperial Russia


Clements, Barbara Evans, Kritika


Barbara Alpern Engel, Breaking the Ties That Bound: The Politics of Marital Strife in Late Imperial Russia. xi+282 pp., illus. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. ISBN-13 978-0804149512. $39.95.

A. A. Il'iukhov, Prostitutsiia v Rossii s XVII veka do 1917 goda (Prostitution in Russia from the 17th Century to 1917). 558 pp., tables. Moscow: Novyi khronograf, 2008. ISBN-13 978-5948810492.

Sharon A. Kowalsky, Deviant Women: Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia, 1880-1930. 330 pp. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978-0875804064. $42.00.

These books cast light on the workings of Russian bureaucracy in its imperial and Soviet incarnations, on the views of the intelligentsia regarding female criminality, and on the consciousness of women who did not live within the rules. A. A. Il'iukhov considers the imperial government's regulation of prostitution. Sharon Kowalsky studies ideas about female crime held by criminologists in the 1920s. Barbara Engel analyzes petitions for marital separation considered by the Imperial Chancellery for Receipt of Petitions from the 1880s to 1914. The three historians find that officials were more sympathetic to the difficulties in women's lives than one might have expected, and that therefore some of the women who came under scrutiny because they were lawbreakers or were seeking to end unbearable marriages were able to work the system to their benefit. Documented as well are the ways in which long-standing gender values affected interactions among authorities, intellectuals, and ordinary folk. Il'iukhov and Engel trace change in those values in the late 19th century.

Il'iukhov was inspired to write his book by the visibility of prostitution in the post-Soviet period. He does not break with the Soviet analysis of the subject: that is, he sees prostitution as caused by women's subordination and fueled by capitalism, which generates the urban poverty that drives women into selling their bodies. Unlike some Western historians, Il'iukhov is forthright in his condemnation of the sex trade. He argues that, always and everywhere, it victimizes women, subjecting them to abuse and exploitation by brothel owners and pimps, clients, and police. He would probably find morally reprehensible the argument that prostitution, despite its horrors, enabled its most successful practitioners to achieve income and independence in societies that provided few other avenues to those benefits. (1)

The study concentrates on the history of the mess that was tsarist policy toward the sex trade. The government never repealed its laws prohibiting prostitution. Instead it sought to control the spread of venereal diseases by licensing brothels and requiring their residents to have regular medical examinations. Police were responsible for maintaining order in the environs of the brothels and arresting prostitutes who worked the streets, taverns, and flop houses. Committees of doctors and police were charged with implementing the medical provisions. The stupidity of this endeavor exasperates Il'iukhov. Most prostitutes were not in brothels, many of those who were avoided the examinations, and it was impossible to identify, let alone treat, the customers, had effective treatments been available. II'iukhov discusses the well-meaning attempts of social reformers, many of them physicians, to wrest regulatory control from the police, and he accepts their judgment that the police were often abusive and corrupt. He analyzes as well the reformers' notions about prostitutes, which combined sympathy for the poor with the belief that some women had a natural inclination to depravity. He does not study the efforts of charity groups to reform prostitutes.

Il'iukhov's findings duplicate those of Laurie Bernstein. (2) He does not cite her work, but he is familiar with the history of prostitution elsewhere in Europe. He spends more time than Bernstein on the government's recurring efforts to improve enforcement by tweaking the regulations. …

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