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Sex in the City that Peter Built: The Demimonde and Sociability in Mid-Eighteenth Century St. Petersburg

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 January 2018


This article uses the materials of the Drezdensha affair, a large-scale investigation of “indecency” in St. Petersburg in 1750, to explore unofficial sociability among the Imperial elite, and to map out the institutional, social, and economic dimensions of the post-Petrine “sexual underworld.” Sociability and, ultimately, the public sphere in eighteenth century Russia are usually associated with loftier practices, with joining the ranks of the reading public, reflecting on the public good, and generally, becoming more civil and polite. Yet, it is the privately-run, commercially-oriented, and sexually-charged “parties” at the focus of this article that arguably served as a “training ground” for developing the habits of sociability. The world of these “parties” provides a missing link between the debauchery and carousing of Peter I's era and the more polite formats of associational life in the late eighteenth century, as well as the historical context for reflections on morality, sexual licentiousness, foppery, and the excesses of “westernization.”

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3. On the St. Petersburg police in this period, see Keenan, St Petersburg and the Russian Court, 39–42; Kosheleva, O. E., Liudi Sankt-Peterburgskogo ostrova Petrovskogo vremeni (Moscow, 2004), 4146 Google Scholar. On the policing of prostitution in Paris, see Benabou, Erica-Marie, La prostitution et la police de moeurs au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1987)Google Scholar; Riley, Philip F., A Lust for Virtue: Louis XIV’s Attack on Sin in Seventeenth-Century France (Westport, Conn, 2001), 1548 Google Scholar; Kushner, Nina, Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Ithaca, 2013), 1445 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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6. Some of the key works are: Vowles, Judith, “Marriage à la russe,” in Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, Costlow, J. T., Sandler, S., and Vowles, J. eds., (Stanford, 1993), 5374 Google Scholar; Pushkareva, N. L., “A se grekhi zlye, smertnye. . .”: liubov΄, erotika i seksual΄naia etika v doindustrial΄noi Rossii: X—pervaia polovina XIX v.: teksty, issledovaniia (Moscow, 1999)Google Scholar; Rosslyn, Wendy, “Women in Russia (1700–1825): Recent Research,” in Women and Gender in 18th-Century Russia, ed. Rosslyn, W. (Burlington, 2003), 134 Google Scholar; Engel, Barbara Alpern, Women in Russia, 1700–2000 (Cambridge, Eng., 2004)Google Scholar; Pushkareva, N. L., Chastnaia zhizn΄ zhenshchiny v Drevnei Rusi i Moskovii: Nevesta, zhena, liubovnitsa (Moscow, 2011)Google Scholar; Boškovska, Nada, Mir russkoi zhenshchiny semnadtsatogo stoletiia, trans. Gimadeeva, R. A. (St. Petersburg, 2014)Google Scholar. On sexuality in the context of courtship and marriage in this period, see Belova, Anna V., Chetyre vozrasta zhenshchiny: povsednevnaia zhizn΄ russkoi provintsial΄noi dvorianki XVIII-serediny XIX v. (St. Petersburg, 2010), 249–91Google Scholar. Levin, Eve, Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900–1700 (Ithaca, 1989)Google Scholar still provides the best overview on the subject in pre-Petrine period, while for the nineteenth century see Engelstein, Laura, The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle Russia (Ithaca, 1992)Google Scholar. Notably, a recent study of libertinage in Russian literature does not have much to say on the subject prior to Nikolai Gogol΄ and Aleksandr Pushkin. Lalo, Alexei, Libertinage in Russian Culture and Literature: A Bio-History of Sexualities at the Threshold of Modernity (Leiden, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On prostitution see Il΄iukhov, A.A., Prostitutsiia v Rossii s XVII veka do 1917 goda (Moscow, 2008), 8899 Google Scholar, and, for later periods, Engel, Barbara Alpern, “St. Petersburg Prostitutes in the Late Nineteenth Century: A Personal and Social Profile,” The Russian Review 48, no. 1 (January 1989): 2144 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bernstein, Laurie, Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia (Berkeley, 1995)Google Scholar. For the most recent general overview, see Hetherington, Philippa, “Prostitution in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia,” in Garcia, Magaly Rodriguez, van Voss, Lex Heerma, van Nederveen Meerkerk, Elise, eds., Selling Sex in the City: A Global History of Prostitution, 1600s–2000s (Leiden, 2017), 138170 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7. Smith, Douglas, Working the Rough Stone: Freemasonry and Society in Eighteenth-Century Russia (DeKalb, 1999), 54–90, esp. 56–59Google Scholar. Most recently, see Önnerfors, Andreas and Collis, Robert, eds., Freemasonry and Fraternalism in Eighteenth-Century Russia (Sheffield, 2009)Google Scholar.

8. Leckey, Colum, Patrons of Enlightenment: The Free Economic Society in Eighteenth-Century Russia (Newark, 2011)Google Scholar; Bradley, Joseph, Voluntary Associations in Tsarist Russia: Science, Patriotism, and Civil Society (Cambridge, Mass., 2009), 3855 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9. Smith, Working the Rough Stone, 5.

10. On the historical debates regarding the realities of the early modern public sphere more generally, see Gestrich, Andreas, “The Public Sphere and the Habermas Debate,” German History 3, no. 24 (July 2006): 413–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an overview of this sphere’s various institutional sites, see Van Horn Melton, James, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge, Eng., 2001), 226–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schaich, Michael, “The Public Sphere,” in A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Europe, ed. Wilson, Peter H. (Malden, 2008), 125–40Google Scholar; Breuniger, Scott, “Introduction,” in Breuninger, Scott and Burrow, David, eds., Sociability and Cosmopolitanism: Social Bonds on the Fringes of the Enlightenment (London, 2012), 14 Google Scholar.

11. Zitser, Ernest A., The Transfigured Kingdom: Sacred Parody and Charismatic Authority at the Court of Peter the Great (Ithaca, 2004)Google Scholar.

12. Keenan, St. Petersburg and the Russian Court, 24–26; Smith, Working the Rough Stone, 65–66. By the 1730s, according to a Swedish traveler, assemblies were no longer held, with the exceptions of gatherings hosted by some foreign ambassadors, while Russians “prefer[ed] drinking and playing cards in their own company behind closed doors.” K. R. Berk [Carl Reinhold Berch], “Putevye zametki o Rossii,” in Peterburg Anny Ioannovny v inostrannykh opisaniiakh: Vvedenie, texty, kommentarii, trans. Bespiatykh, Iu. N. (St. Petersburg, 1997), 166 Google Scholar.

13. For a useful overview of different ways of defining and approaching sociability in the eighteenth century, see Gordon, Daniel, Citizens without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociability in French Thought, 1670–1789 (Princeton, 1994), 2838 Google Scholar.

14. Darnton, Robert, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York, 1996)Google Scholar.

15. Cryle, Peter and O’Connell, Lisa, “Sex, Liberty, and License in the Eighteenth Century,” in Libertine Enlightenment: Sex, Liberty, and License in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Cryle, Peter and O’Connell, Lisa (New York, 2004), 2 Google Scholar.

16. Ibid. On libertinage, see also materials in Libertinage and Modernity,” Yale French Studies no. 94, (1998)Google Scholar.


17. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, ll. 8–8 ob., 10, 92; Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii. Pervoe sobranie. 1649–1825 (St. Petersburg, 1830)Google Scholar, (hereafter PSZ), vol. 13, №9789. For reasons of space, the women detained by the Commission could not be profiled here in any detail. For detailed profiles, see Roldugina, “Kalinkinskaia komissiia,” 75–82; and Roldugina, “An Attempt at Social Disciplining.” The Commission’s scribes mercilessly distorted and Russified the names of most of the foreign detainees, to the extent that guessing the original spelling is often impossible. Additionally, some detainees were referred to by nicknames derived from their place of origin, such as Drezdensha, or Kenigsbersha. In other cases, a -sha ending was added to their husbands’ names, as in Gaksha, or Berensha. In still other cases, rather than calling the girls by their father’s last names, the scribes made up a patronymic of sorts derived from the Russified names of their fathers, while the girls’ own first names were also Russified. Thus, there appeared “Maria Semenova, a foreigner,” and so forth.

18. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, ll. 8–11 ob., 110

19. Ibid., ll. 10–10 ob., 13, 15, 45, 47, 52, 55, 60, 72.


20. Ibid., ll. 52–52 ob.


21. Ibid., ll. 50–55 ob.


22. Ibid., ll. 49, 55.


23. Ibid., l. 137.


24. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 119, ll. 1–25 (The case of Osip Trezzini).

25. 121 kabaks selling vodka as well as 65 piteinyi pogrebs selling “grape drinks” (i.e. wine). Bogdanov, Andrei I., Opisanie Sanktpeterburga, eds., Logachev, K. I., and Sobolev, V. S. (St. Petersburg, 1997), 198200 Google Scholar; Kosheleva, Liudi sankt-peterburgskogo ostrova, 375–77; Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Voenno-Istorcheskii Arkhiv (RGVIA), f. 314, op. 1, d. 1632, l. 64; PSZ, vol. 8, №5333, §48; vol. 9, №6947.

26. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 10, ll. 10, 21–21 ob. (Regarding parties held in St. Petersburg with the permission from the police). A sample of a permission ticket issued by the police is in ibid., l. 29.

27. Ibid., l. 12.


28. On living arrangements and rental practices among the lower classes in St. Petersburg in a somewhat earlier period, see Kosheleva, Liudi sankt-peterburgskogo ostrova, 133–39, 363–79.

29. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, l. 6 ob.

30. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 10, l. 8.

31. Ibid., l. 19.


32. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, ll. 1–1 ob., d. 10, l. 7.

33. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 10, ll. 4 ob., 5 ob., d. 31, l. 8 ob. (The case of Maria Pashkeeva).

34. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 10, l. 4.

35. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 132, l. 13 ob. (The case of Johann [Peter] Gints).

36. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 10, ll. 13, 23; Semenova, Lidia. N., Byt i naselenie Sankt-Peterburga: XVIII vek (Moscow, 1998), 126 Google Scholar. Not surprisingly, recent studies treat them as a straightforward case of organized prostitution; see Keenan, St Petersburg and the Russian Court, 55–56; Roldugina, “‘Bliatskie domy i nepotrebnye zhenki i devki,’” in Gendernye aspekty, ed. D. B. Vershinina.

37. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 31, l. 8.

38. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 10, ll. 12, 2.

39. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 128, ll. 2–7 (The case of Andrian Pomlin).

40. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 132, ll. 13 ob.–15 ob., 27–27 ob., 38–39 ob.

41. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 29, l. 3 (The case of Charlotte Stein).

42. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 10, l. 23 ob.

43. Ibid., l. 26. The institutionalization of this domain is emphasized in Roldugina, “‘Bliatskie domy i nepotrebnye zhenki i devki,’” in Gendernye aspekty, ed. D. B. Vershinina.


44. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 12, l. 1 (The case of Anna Felkner, also known as Drezdensha).

45. Ibid., ll. 1–3 ob.


46. For more on Belosel΄skii, see Berkh, N. V., Zhizneopisaniia pervykh rossiiskikh admiralov ili оpyt istorii rossiiskogo flota, vol. 2 (St. Petersburg, 1832), 377–90Google Scholar; Alekseevskii, B., “Belosel΄skii Mikhail Andreevich,” in Russkii biograficheskii slovar΄, vol. 3: Betankur-Biakster, ed. Polovtsоv, A. A. (St. Petersburg, 1908), 651–52Google Scholar; Kurukin, I. V., Biron (Moscow, 2006), 118215 Google Scholar. Belosel΄skii’s own extremely laconic life chronicle has been published as Zapisnaia knishka pokoinogo kniazia Mikhaila Andreicha Belasel΄skogo,” Rossiiskii arkhiv: Istoriia otechestva v svidetel΄stvakh i dokumentakh XVIII-XX vv., vol. 14 (Moscow, 2005), 7173 Google Scholar.

47. A detailed list of these women was provided by one Matvei Kosulin, a pimp. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 129, ll. 20–22 (The case of Matvei Kosulin).

48. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 10, ll. 22–23 ob.; Keenan, St Petersburg and the Russian Court, 109.

49. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 12, l. 9; d. 10, l. 23.

50. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 12, l. 5.

51. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 12, ll. 3 ob.–4.

52. Ibid., ll. 4–4 ob.


53. On the social composition of cadets and the guards, see Fedyukin, Igor, “Nobility and Schooling in Russia, 1700s–1760s: Choices in a Social Context,” Journal of Social History 49, no. 3 (Spring 2016): 558–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the Emancipation, see Jones, Robert E., The Emancipation of the Russian Nobility, 1762–1785 (Princeton, 1973)Google Scholar; Faizova, Irina V., “Manifest o vol΄nosti” i sluzhba dvorianstva v XVIII stoletii (Moscow, 1999)Google Scholar.

54. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 12, ll. 3 ob.–6.

55. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d.10, ll. 4, 22 ob., 23.

56. Ibid., ll. 22–23 ob.; also RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 35, l. 16 (The case of Ekaterina Izvoshchikova); d. 129, l. 22.


57. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 12, l. 44.

58. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 12, ll. 2 ob.–3, 6–6 ob.

59. Catherine II, Zapiski, 369.

60. Danilov, “Zapiski,” 317. For a different version, see Pyliaev, Staryi Peterburg, 146.

61. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, l. 110

62. Ibid., 1. 8.


63. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 12, 1. 123 ob. (cf. Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Shepherdess,” for example).

64. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 12, ll. 55–55 ob.

65. Danilov, “Zapiski,” 316.

66. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 12, 1. 3 ob.

67. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, ll. 1–1 ob.

68. The Commission even requested the statistics on the numbers of foreign passengers who arrived in St. Petersburg by sea in the previous five years, and the data emphasizes the surprisingly negligible scale of passenger traffic between Russia and Europe: 137 women arrived in 1746, 56 in 1747, 50 in 1748, 37 in 1749, and only 8 in the first six month of 1750. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, ll. 13–13 ob., 17–25 ob., 55, 65, 76 ob.–77, 78, 116.

69. On July 10 the Commission reported that it had detained around seventy individuals, including fifteen Russians. By September 26, the Commission had 90 “foreigners” and 88 Russians under lock, while a further 12 Russian “whores” and 23 foreign ones were still at large. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, ll. 49, 59, 137. “Foreigners” eventually made up 36% of all those arrested by the commission. Roldugina, “An Attempt at Social Disciplining,” 102.

70. Keenan, St Petersburg and the Russian Court, 4.

71. Keenan, St Petersburg and the Russian Court, 93.

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75. Catherine II, Zapiski, 309–10; Keenan, St Petersburg and the Russian Court, 153.

76. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, l. 96, 137 ob.–138; d. 128, l. 5; d. 42, l. 3–4 ob. (The case of Maria Brinken); d. 10, l. 22. While the theme of cross-dressing was stressed during the interrogations, intriguingly, I could find nothing in the documents that could be read as references to homosexuality, either in the interrogators’ questions, or in the detainees’ answers.

77. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, l. 97.

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83. Note also the tradition of writing and/or translating obscene poetry emerging at about the same time within pretty much the same circle (among the authors of barkoviana were Sumarokov and Elagin), as well as the availability of commercially available imported pornography. Barkov, I., Devich΄ia igrushka, ili Sochineniia gospodina Barkova, eds., Zorin, A. and Sapov, N. (Moscow, 1992), 35 Google Scholar; as well as the materials in Marcus Levitt, C. and Toporkov, A. L., eds., Eros i pornografiia v russkoi kul΄ture (Moscow, 1999), 45, 201–4, 224–25Google Scholar.

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86. Elagin, I. P., “Zapiski o masonstve I. P. Elagina,” Russkii arkhiv 1 (1864), 100 Google Scholar.

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88. Ibid., 100.


89. Robert Collis, “Hewing the Rough Stone: Masonic Influence in Peter the Great’s Russia, 1689–1725,” in A. Önnerfors and R. Collis eds., Freemasonry and Fraternalism, 52. On Elagin’s masonic activities, see Faggionato, Raffaella, A Rosicrucian Utopia in Eighteenth-Century Russia: The Masonic Circle of N.I. Novikov (Dordrecht, 2005), 1627 Google Scholar.

90. Otdel pis΄mennykh Istochnikov Gosudastvennogo Istoricheskogo Muzeia (Moscow), f. 17, op. 2, ed. 304, ll. 54–55 ob. I am grateful to M.B. Lavrinovich for making me aware of this document.

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92. Crawford, Katherine, European Sexualities, 1400–1800 (Cambridge, 2007), 205 Google Scholar. On the Parisian demimonde, see, most recently, Kushner, Erotic Exchanges.

93. Lilti, Antoine, Le monde des salons: sociabilité et mondanité à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 2005)Google Scholar.

94. D’Ezio, Marianna, “Sociability and Cosmopolitanism in Eighteenth Century Venice: European Travellers and Venetian Women’s Casinos,” in Sociability and Cosmopolitanism: Social Bonds on the Fringes of the Enlightenment, eds., Scott Breuninger and David Burrow (London, 2012), 45–57, here 52Google Scholar.

95. Ibid., 52.


96. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, ll. 133–133 ob.

97. Ibid.


98. RGADA, f. 8, op. 1, d. 2, ll. 133–133 ob.

99. Roldugina, “An Attempt at Social Disciplining,” 57.

100. PSZ, vol. 13, № 9824.

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