History; Literature; Social conditions & trends
Fyodor Dostoevsky's celebrated novel Crime and Punishment (1866) exposes complex moral issues testing the urban population of nineteenth century St. Petersburg. Prostitution is one theme that complicates the novel, and Dostoevsky invites readers to consider the prostitute’s point of view. In 1843, the tsarist Ministry of Internal Affairs appointed “medical-police committees” to regulate prostitution in Russia. Registered prostitutes were typically poor urban women, and they became subject to strict rules. Sonia Marmeladov, an emblem of virtue in Crime and Punishment, endures the horrors of commercialized sex. Though her virtue and religious faith far exceed that of the average person, her character is representative of the voiceless, faceless woman who resorts to prostitution because she is desperate to escape poverty. Dostoevsky's social commentary of the holy prostitute defends the dignity of the marginalized woman and condemns society for condoning the industry as an unavoidable practice. The history of prostitution in St. Petersburg helps shed light on the stigmas of the profession in Dostoevsky's time.