Director of Silver Rose sex workers’ movement, Saint Petersburg
From 25 May 2018, we have seen the work of law enforcement agencies intensifying in preparation for the World Cup. It looks like they are trying to cleanse the city and take “unwanted people” away from the streets. They do this by intimidating people to ensure that the towns hosting the championship “make a good impression” to the world. The majority of sex workers, understanding that they are in a no-win situation, have decided to stop working during the championship because pressure on them has become unbearable.
Whenever these major events take place I stop being treated as a citizen and resident of my own city, and I don’t like it when that happens. I remember May 2003 very well, when there was a planned celebration for the 300th anniversary of the city of Saint Petersburg. The authorities always want to show that everything is well in Russia, and this brings with it a harsh cleansing. In Saint Petersburg, “unwanted elements” were removed, just as before ahead of the Olympic games in the 1980s, when all marginalized people were sent beyond the “101st Kilometre”, beyond the borders of the town centre, where tourists rarely went.
Our movement Silver Rose, a movement to defend the rights of sex workers, began to exist the moment we saw that police officers, who are supposed to protect citizens, were not only abusing their authority but were turning into unaccountable aggressors and acting above the law. Rage was growing within us to see that the state and the authorities did not deal with people humanely. At first, we operated as a small self-help group. Later, we evolved into a sex workers’ movement calling for health, dignity and human rights.
My goals are to ensure that the police properly protect the people in this city, to achieve the decriminalization of sex work, and to repeal the law that prohibits sex work.
In 2003, since sex work is illegal in Russia, I was arrested and taken to the Petrogradsky District police station where I spent 48 hours in solitary confinement. It was raining when I was taken in, and it was raining when I was released. It was the first time that I felt, in my own skin, what captivity was. This was not only about liberty. It was about that awful smell that penetrated my skin and my clothes, which I had to discard later. Even after three hours in the bathroom washing and scrubbing, I was not able to get rid of that smell. I felt like I was rubbing my skin off, until it bled, trying to remove it completely and regenerate a new one.
I can still sense this smell when I hear other sex workers’ stories or take up cases of crimes perpetrated against them. This smell is terrible, but it triggers my desire to fight. Defending the rights of sex workers is more than a job for me — it is my mission and my life’s work. My goals are to ensure that the police properly protect the people in this city, to achieve the decriminalization of sex work, and to repeal the law that prohibits sex work. This is the main reason why the dignity, health and human rights of millions of people in Russia are undermined. It is more than just fining sex workers — it is a cornerstone of the whole system of violence and corruption.
The police conduct “buy-and-bust” operations against sex workers. In other words, they use sex workers’ services and then detain them for providing these services. This is usually accompanied by physical and psychological intimidation, such as threats to ‘out’ sex workers before friends and family, subject them to stigmatization, or to call in television cameras to show how “prostitutes are apprehended”.
This is followed by pure violence — raids on the premises and confiscation of valuables, money, electronics, personal belongings and cosmetics. Police officers steal their bedding, food from the fridge, toilet paper and detergent. This is robbery and abuse of their authority.
The law only allows for this administrative detention to last for three hours. But in practice, sex workers are held for up to three days during which time they are forced to give statements implicating themselves. Only around 10 to 30 percent of all those statements get to court, as sex workers prefer to pay their way out to avoid the court process. Fines might be 10 times less than a bribe ($25-30 and $80-250 respectively). So why do detained sex workers pay bribes to become free? Because the fine is just a fine, but you cannot regain the time spent in police custody. People buy their liberty.
Apart from fines, the Ministry of Internal Affairs keeps a special federal database. Its records never expire and cannot be removed. So, a sex worker cannot get another job as many large companies vet their candidates through such databases. This affects not only sex workers themselves, but also their families. Children of the “prostitute mother”, as they call us, cannot apply to the police academy or serve in the Kremlin regiment. This is a deprivation of human rights. And this has been going on for more than 70 years.
In preparation for the FIFA World Cup, the authorities started their “cleansing” operations in Saint Petersburg at the end of April 2018. I think soon they will proceed to more severe measures. Some sex worker businesses were told to close down for a very specific time frame. Those who have been in the business for a long time have already planned vacations during the World Cup. They will leave the city, and I think it is the right thing to do.
During the Sochi Olympics in 2014, we expected something like this to happen. I wanted to go there to somehow protect other sex workers. My lawyers tried to talk me out of it. And it turned out that they were right. After I went, I was not able to help others and I ended up being detained.
Over many years, some unofficial estimates have calculated the number of sex workers in Russia to be at three million, and their clients at 30 million. People come and go, but the figures remain the same. Despite the elevated figures, there is an absence of prevention programs, lack of sex education and attempts to replace it with some kind of alternative, including harm reduction, and high cost of condoms. This has led to an HIV epidemic and the government refuses to admit it.
As soon as the World Cup is over, everything will crash here. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS that has been sponsoring HIV service organizations in Russia for 14 years is leaving the country in July, and no one knows whether it will ever come back. Russia contributes to the Global Fund to stop the AIDS epidemic around the world, but now organizations that work and campaign here in the country get registered as “foreign agents” for receiving money from the Global Fund. Only 10 organizations that carry out high-quality and effective harm reduction programs are left. Russia has the third highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, after South Africa and Nigeria. I’m afraid that after those organizations are forced to shut down, Russia will take first place very soon.