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A cult, founded by Kondratji Selivanov, in Russia, during the 18th century. They are also known as the "Castrated." Having their roots in the earlier Flagellant movement, the Skoptsi took the Flagellant's credo of self-abnegation quite a few steps further. Disdainful of the body and of the sexual urge, they believed that the voluntary removal of the genitalia permitted vast amounts of spiritual energy to break free from the shackles of the flesh. This excess energy could then be rechanneled to more spiritual purposes, such as meditation and prayer, and ultimately be used to achieve unity with God.

Selivanov and his followers believed that the Old Testament command for circumcision was in fact a command for castration.

Thanks to Mr. Bungle (on Vanity Fair) for bringing this sicko cult to my attention

"...and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." - Matt. 19:12
aka Skoptsy, Skoptzy, Skoptzi, The Castrati

From the Russian for "eunuchs". The Skoptsi sect was a product of the Christian Sectarianism movement in Russia, which began in the second half of the 17th century. The sectarianism movement had first given rise to the Christ-believers, or klysts (klyst roughly translates as flagellant). The Christ-believers believed that Christ was incarnated in the leader of each Klyst "ship" (community).

The first historical mention of the Skoptsi sect was in the 1772 decree of then empress Catherine II to state councilor Alexander Volkov to investigate a Skoptsi sect in the Orel region. A peasant, Andrei Ivanov, was convicted of having persuaded thirteen other peasants to castrate themselves. He was assisted by another peasant, Kondratji Selivanov, who fled from the authorities. Selivanov began preaching in one of the Christ-believers' communities, who persecuted him as much as the authorities. In 1775, Selivanov was arrested and sent to Siberia. However, the Skoptsi sect continued to grow in his absence, and he eventually escaped Siberia and appeared in St. Petersburg. Once there, he proclaimed himself the Son of God incarnate, as well as the reincarnation of Tsar Peter III.

Selivanov was arrested again in 1797 by Paul I, son of the real Peter III, and probably was taken to see the Tsar—during which conversation he recommended that Paul I castrate himself. He was shortly thereafter sent to an insane asylum. He was liberated in 1802, under the rule of Alexander I, thanks to the patronage of some of the city's rich Skoptsi merchents (the Skoptsi sect attracted members from nearly every walk of life, from peasant to aristocrat). He enjoyed a period of fame among the aristocrats of the time, and stayed at liberty in the mansions of many high officials and nobility. In 1817, the merchant Solodovnikov built Selivanov his own mansion, which was used for his "mystical ecstatic sessions" attended by two to three hundred people. This revival lasted until 1820, when he was again arrested and sent to a monastery in Süzdal, where he stayed until he died in 1832 at an age probably over 100.

The Skoptsi sect continued to gain followers after his death however, and was viewed by the Russian authorities as extremely dangerous. Membership was illegal and punishable by exile to Siberia, where ~750 men and women sect members were sent between 1847 and 1866. By 1874, the sect numbered at least 5,400 (including 1,465 women), of which 703 men and 100 women had mutilated themselves. Many fled Russia to escape the persecution, mainly to Romania and Turkey, though Skoptsi communities survived in parts of Russia until being "liquidated" in the 1920's and early 30's.

A splinter sect, calling themselves the Neo-Skoptsi, was founded in Galati in 1871. They were not as hardline as the Skoptsi, and mainly practiced "spiritual castration" (i.e. chastity), although there were examples of physical castration among them as well. A peasant tailor, Kuzma Fedoseyev Lisin, arose as their leader and proclaimed that he was the second messiah as well as the reincarnation of both Peter II and Selivanov. He was arrested in 1876, and it is not known what became of him. The Neo-Skoptsi declined along with the Skoptsi, and disappeared in the 1920's as well.

"Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. - Matt. 18:8

The main tenet of the Skoptsi was that the principal evil of the world was rooted in lepost (sexual desire), and that these desires kept people from communicating with God. Hence if you uprooted the source of the desire, via castration, you could liberate your heart and mind from base and worldly things. Castration was refered to as their "baptism in fire", which cleansed the soul (makes getting dunked in a pool by a Baptist look pretty inviting in comparison). In men, there were two types of castration, "greater" and "lesser". Lesser involved only cutting off the testicles, while greater was the removal of both testicles and penis. Women too were "castrated", normally by the amputation of their breasts, although the labia was also removed/mutilated in some.

The Skoptsi lived in communities, which they also called "ships". Each ship's leaders were identified as "captains", "masters" or "prophets". These captains managed the day-to-day communal life, and were keepers of the faith. The communities included a large church that was used for prayer meetings. Attendees wore long, white shirts and referred to themselves as "White Doves". The ceremonies included hymn-singing and a frenzied dancing which was supposed to end in ecstasy (radenie) and prophesizing.

They also believed that the return of Christ would not come to pass until there were 144,000 Skoptsi (see Rev. 14:1), and apparently worked very hard to achieve this number. Not content with just witnessing to others, the sect was accused of resorting to bribes and violence. Children were bought from poor peasant families and raised up in the faith. Upon being chosen as a "prophet", the chosen one was to give over all land and possessions to the community and set out into the world to spread the word, apparently by any means necessary.

Other Notes

  • The Skoptsi sect is mentioned in Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, where in the future they take the next step beyond castration and sever all their nerves, literally rendering themselves senseless.

All pages referenced 5/7/2004.

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