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In the early s, Tallinn had a reputation amongst medical experts as a city with a venereal disease problem. Second only to the capital of St Petersburg in incidence of syphilis and gonorrhoea, Tallinn outranked much larger cities in the Russian Empire in terms of infection, including Moscow, Warsaw and Riga.
In this piece, I trace explanations given by various contemporary observers and place Tallinn within the wider context of disease control across the Russian Empire. In the final decades of the Russian Empire, prostitution and venereal diseases were interconnected in official and popular imagination. In , the Ministry of Internal Affairs introduced the Empire-wide regulation of prostitution with the stated aim of preventing the circulation of venereal infection. Under the regulation system, women who sold sex were required to register their details with their local police and swap their internal passports documents required for travel and employment for a new form of identification known as a medical ticket.
Registered prostitutes were legally obliged to attend medical examinations twice a week, the results of which were recorded on their identification. If a woman was found to be infected with a venereal disease, she was supposed to go immediately to hospital for treatment. The official aims of regulation were medical, but the additional rules that accompanied the medical ticket suggest that the tsarist authorities used regulation to limit the autonomy and visibility of women who sold sex.
As well as enforcing these rules, local police forces were required to issue licenses to brothel keepers and close down any rowdy or unsanitary brothels. In , Tallinn had a modest 7 state-licensed brothels and registered prostitutes . The city was hardly a centre of prostitution in the Empire, as it ranked 27th in terms of its population of registered prostitutes, which numbered just 2.
All but one of the original wooden brothel buildings were destroyed during the aerial bombardment of the city by the Soviet Air Force in The exception is number 3, which now ironically houses an AIDs information and support centre. The Russian imperial authorities endeavoured to monitor all women thought to be selling sex. Most had worked as prostitutes for under five years, and had migrated to Tallinn from other towns or villages.