The “Struggle against Venereal Diseases”: Sexuality and Social Control in the Postwar USSR

  • Date: –17:00
  • Location: Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES) Gamla torget 3, 3rd floor, IRES Library
  • Website
  • Organiser: Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES)
  • Contact person: Jevgenija Gehsbarga
  • Föreläsning

In the early 1970s, officials described the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic as the second most diseased republic in the entire USSR in terms of venereal infection. Experts claimed that between 1967 and 1972, the number of registered cases of gonorrhoea doubled and incidence of syphilis increased 36 times over. These shocking statistics caught the attention of central government in Moscow, who demanded that law enforcement organs and medical authorities in the Latvian SSR urgently develop solutions to the problem.

Rather than addressing the structural issues that led to an increase in rates of infection, Soviet leadership blamed the increase on the ‘moral debauchery’, antisocial behaviour, and ignorance of swathes of the population. Physicians at venereological clinics around the Latvian SSR presented venereal diseases as illnesses contracted by citizens who engaged in any form of anti-Soviet behaviour, ranging from casual sex to criminal activity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Latvian Ministry of Health embarked on an anti-VD propaganda offensive across all available media outlets. Leaflets, radio programmes, television broadcasts and newspaper articles mixed practical advice about sexual hygiene with explicit instructions regarding appropriate Soviet sexual behaviour. Law enforcement organs worked with medical personnel to prosecute individuals believed be spreading 'maliciously' venereal diseases across the republic.

This seminar will be based on a paper focused on the Latvian SSR to examine how medical knowledge intersected with issues of social control in the postwar Soviet Union. Drawing on files from the Latvian State and Party Archives, it will explore how Soviet leadership attempted to use criminal law and sex education to regulate sexual behaviour, and the challenges faced by medical personnel and law enforcement in the application of state policy.

Siobhán Hearne is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Modern Languages & Cultures at Durham University. Her research focuses on the history of gender and sexuality in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. She received her PhD from the University of Nottingham in 2017 and completed a Leverhulme Study Abroad Fellowship at the University of Latvia the year after. Her forthcoming monograph examines the state regulation of prostitution in the Russian Empire in the decades before 1917, and this will be published by Oxford University Press in 2020/2021. She has published articles about prostitution and venereal diseases in the journals Kritika, Social History, and Revolutionary Russia.