This may sting a little.
Away from the prying eyes of the orthodox authorities, a group of believers gather secretly in a Saint Petersburg cellar. They chant the name of Jesus Christ as if it were a mantra and enter a state of rapturous exaltation before dancing and spinning like dervishes singing, prophesying and howling in spiritual ecstasy until they collapse in a delirious sweaty heap of bodies.
These are the Skoptsy, a strange castration cult that spread throughout Russia in the late eighteenth century and survived until well into the twentieth.
The sect’s origins lay in the 1760s when a wandering peasant (some sources say a runaway soldier) named Kondratii Selivanov joined a movement known as the Christ Faith. This was in itself a breakaway sect from The Old Believers, who were a breakaway from the Russian Orthodox Church…
Selivanov was recognised as the son of God in his congregation and soon introduced radical innovations. The Father Redeemer (as his followers called him) declared himself to be Jesus Christ and advocated an extreme form of chastity as the way to salvation – castration.
The Fiery Baptism
The justification for this was a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew 19:12:
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
For men this could mean an operation called the Minor Seal – the removal of the testicles. The Major Seal was the removal of the penis. Originally, the operation was carried out with a red hot iron in a process referred to as the ‘fiery baptism’. Later blades were used, though the hot iron was still used to cauterise the wound.
For women the nipples, breasts or clitoris were removed, scarred or cut.
The operations were carried out by elders of the congregation or perhaps by the believers on themselves. There appears to have been no use of anaesthetic. Some of the adherents claimed the operations were painless while others boasted of the agony they endured for their salvation.
Many adults brought their children into the sect, with all that that entailed…
Apart from the genital mutilation and ecstatic whirling, the Skoptsy (which is Russian for Eunuch) lived pretty normal lives. Most were textile workers, peasants or merchants and were hard-working and industrious. They were allowed to marry and have a child before their fiery baptism. They were organised into small congregations called ‘ships’ and each was led by a preacher who called himself Christ and a woman chosen from the group who would be called the Mother of God.
Greenish Like a Young Potato
This is how one writer described the Skoptsy after visiting a Rumanian branch of the sect:
Not one drop of blood in the face: it is sallow and deathly pale. This is neither the paleness of an old man nor that of a sick one, nor that of a dead body – something is missing from under their skin. Their skin somehow differently sticks to the muscles, not as tight as ours: it is thinner and looser, as if wanting to slide down. I’m not a physiologist who can explain this anomaly; but at-a-glance and by touch I can differentiate the skin of a Skopets from ours. When you shake a hand of a Skopets, you feel that the skin on it is soft, slack, and cold […]. The colouring of Skoptsy is constantly more or less greenish like a young potato, and certainly dull. They have no sheen, not in their skin, nor in their eyes, even their hair does not have any shine – everything is lifeless (Vasilii Kelsiev).
The Skoptsy were seen as both dangerous and blasphemous and faced persecution from the Tsarist authorities and the Orthodox Church. Selivanov himself had to go on the run but was eventually caught and exiled to Siberia. In 1795 he turned up in Moscow calling himself Tsar Peter III and was promptly arrested and taken to Saint Petersburg where he met the real Tsar, Paul I. Selivanov recommended that the Tsar castrate himself, though the Emperor of Russia decided instead to send him to an asylum.
When Selivanov was released after pressure from well-off Skoptsy merchants, he returned to Saint Petersburg where he began gathering more followers, including some of high status, and many from the aristocracy attended his ecstatic rituals. Sometimes two or three hundred filled these meetings. Selivanov was eventually confined to a monastery in 1820 where he died twelve years later at the (supposed) age of 112.
His followers believed that the Second Coming would involve Selivanov returning in glory to Moscow to usher in the Last Judgement as a Tsar-Redeemer.
The Skoptsy became a mass religious movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with adherents numbering in the hundreds of thousands, though it’s thought that less than half actually mutilated themselves. They spread throughout Russia and beyond, despite persecution and exile.
The sect survived well into the 1920s and 1930s when they were finally persecuted out of existence in Russia, though there are reports of exiled communities surviving until much later.
It’s easy to scoff at the Skoptsy. They’re weird, ignorant, backward. We would never do anything like that in our enlightened age. Or would we?
With the Skoptsy we can see what happens when religious sexual conservatism goes too far, and it’s pretty disturbing. In our secular, socially and sexually liberal age, strange enthusiasms express themselves differently, and may wear the cloak of science, medicine or health – but express themselves they do. They blow through our consciousnesses as hysterias, zealous enthusiasms and psychologically contagious fads, fashions and fears.
So what would it look like for our secular sexual liberalism to go too far? Surely, we wouldn’t take our contemporary metaphysical beliefs to such horrible extremes as the Skoptsy did? Metaphysical beliefs such as the possibility of being born in the wrong body, or there being 112 genders or that people can change the biological fact of their sex simply by an act of self-declaration, for example?
These are modern secular creeds and we do indeed take them to the same drastic and irreversible conclusions as the Skoptsy did with their fiery baptisms…
Emeliantseva, Ekaterina ‘Icons, portraits, or types? Photographic images of the Skoptsy in late Imperial Russia (1880-1917)’, Religion and Photography: The Sacred before the Camera (2009), pp.189-20
Engelstein, Laura, From Heresy to Harm: Self-castrators in the Civic Discourse of late Tsarist Russia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press (1999) available at: https://srch.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/sympo/94summer/chapter1.pdf
Tulpe, Irina and Torchinov, Evgeny, ‘The Castrati (Skoptsy) sect in Russia: History, teaching and religious practice’, The International Journal for Transpersonal Studies vol 19 pp.77-87(2000) Available at: https://archive.ph/20120709063405/http://etor.h1.ru/castrati.html#selection-805.0-805.77