The Skoptsy ( _ru. скопцы, also transliterated as Skoptzy, Skoptzi, Skoptsi, Scoptsy and other spellings) were a secret
sectof Christianityin imperial Russia. The Skoptsy are best known for practicing castrationof men and the mastectomyof women in accordance with their teachings against sexual lust. The movement originated as an offshoot of the sect known as the "People of God" and was first noted in the late eighteenth century. The Skoptsy were persecuted by the imperial government and later by the Soviet Union, but enjoyed substantial growth before fading into obscurity by the mid-twentieth century.
Beliefs and practice of castration
The name "Skoptsy" is a plural of "skopets", an archaic word meaning "
castratedone" in the Russian language.
As their title indicates, the main feature of the sect was castration. They believed that after the expulsion from the
Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had the halves of the forbidden fruit grafted onto their bodies forming testiclesand breasts. Thus, the removal of these sexual organs restored the Skoptsy to the pristine state before the Original Sin.
There were two kinds of castration: the "lesser" and "greater seal" (i.e. partial and complete castration). For men, "lesser" castration was the removal of the testicles only, while "greater" castration was the removal of the penis as well. In this the Skoptsy maintained that they were fulfilling Christ's counsel of perfection in Matthew 19:12 and 18:8,9. The earliest records of female castrations date from 1815. Usually the breasts only were amputated, according to the
1911 encyclopedia. Other accounts suggest that the labia were also removed.
The Skoptsy also believed that a chief evil of the world is rooted in the "lepost" (bodily beauty,
human sexuality, sex appeal, etc.) which prevents people from communicating with God. The way to perfection begins with the elimination of the cause followed by the liberation of soul. Castration ensured that all sins caused by "lepost" could not be committed.
The Skoptsy were first discovered by the Russian civil authorities in
1771in the Oryolregion. A peasant, Andrei Ivanov, was convicted of having persuaded thirteen other peasants to castratethemselves. His assistant was another peasant, known as Kondratii Selivanov. A legal investigation followed. Ivanov was knouted and sent to Siberia. Selivanov fled, but was arrested in 1775.
Skoptsism, however, increased, and Selivanov escaped from Siberia and proclaimed himself the
Son of Godincarnate in the person of the late Peter III of Russia. Peter had been popular among the Raskolniks (schismatics, or dissidents) because he granted them liberty of conscience, and among the peasants because when pillaging the convents he divided their lands among the labourers. Selivanov claimed the title "God of Gods and King of Kings", and announced his accomplishment of the salvation of believers through castration.
For eighteen years he lived in
St Petersburg, in the house of one of his disciples, receiving double homage as Christ and tsar. In 1797he was arrested again by order of Tsar Paul I and imprisoned in a madhouse. Under Alexander I Selivanov regained his liberty, but in 1820was again shut up, this time in a monastery at Suzdal, where he died in 1832in his hundredth year. Skoptsism was, however, not exterminated, and scandals continued to arise.
Membership in the Skoptsy sect was not restricted to the peasant class. Nobles, military and naval officers, civil servants, priests and merchants were to be found in its ranks, and its numbers were so great that 515 male and 240 female members were transported to Siberia between
1847and 1866without seriously threatening its existence. In 1874the sect numbered at least 5444, including 1465 women. Of these 703 men and 100 women had castrated themselves.
Repressive measures were tried along with ridicule: male Skoptsy were dressed in women's clothes and paraded with fools' caps on through the villages. In
1876, 130 Skoptsy were deported. To escape prosecution some of the sect emigrated, mostly to Romania, where some of them mixed with old believer exiles known as Lipovans. The well-known Romanian writer I.L. Caragialeacknowledges that toward the end of the 19th century all the horse-powered cabs in Bucharest were driven by Russian Skoptsy (Scopiti in Romanian).Though the law was strict in Russia — every eunuchwas compelled to register — Skoptsism did not abate in its popularity.
The Skoptsy became known as moneylenders ("New York Times" 1910), and a bench known as the "Skoptsy's Bench" stood in St. Petersburg for many years.
The Skoptsy may have had as many as 100,000 followers in the early twentieth century, although repression continued and members of the sect were put on trial ("New York Times" 1910). Increased repression and
collectivizationunder the Soviet Unionreduced the numbers to a reported few thousand in 1929, and the sect is believed to have nearly died out today (Lane 1978).
Other practices and beliefs
The Skoptsy did not absolutely condemn marriage, and some were allowed to have one child, those at Bucharest two, before being fully admitted. They were not pessimists, desiring the end of the species, but aim rather at the perfection of the individual. Their religious ceremonies include hymn-singing, addresses and frenzied dancing ending in ecstasy, like that of the
Chlystyand the Muslim whirling dervishes. Strict oaths of secrecy were demanded from all members, who form a kind of mutual-aid association.
Meetings were held late at night in cellars, and last till dawn. At these the men wore long, wide, white shirts of a peculiar cut with a girdle and large white trousers. Women also dressed in white. All present wore white stockings or went barefoot. They referred to themselves as "White Doves."
The Skoptsy were
millenarians, and looked for a Messiahwho would establish an empire of the saints, i.e. the pure. They believed that the Messiah would not come until the Skoptsy numbered 144,000(Rev. 14:1,4), and all their efforts were directed to reaching this total. By 1911, there was said to have been a tendency on the part of many Skoptsy to consider their creed fulfilled by chaste, solitary living.
* A sect of castrates living in the
Siberian countryside is depicted in "The People's Act of Love", a 2005 Booker Prizelonglisted novel by James Meek. The author states in the Acknowledgements that they are based on the Skoptsy.
The Stars My Destination" - science fictionnovel by Alfred Besterfeaturing a futuristic version of the Skoptsy sect, in which members have all sensory nerves severed.
*Vanity Fair, a song by the California Alternative group,
Mr. Bungle, specifically references the Skoptsi in the lyrics.
Shakers—believed in total sexual abstinence
Origen—early Christian author who castrated himself
* Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, The Empire of the Tsars (Eng. trans., 1896), vol. iii.
* E. Pelikan, Geschichtlich-medizinische Untersuchungen über das Skopzentum in Rußland (Gießen, 1876)
* K. K. Grass, Die geheime heilige Schrift der Skopzen (Leipzig, 1904) and Die russischen Sekten (Leipzig 1907 &c).
* cite book
last = Engelstein
first = Laura
title = Castration and the heavenly kingdom: a Russian folktale
year = 1999
publisher = Cornell University Press
location = Ithaca, N.Y.
id = ISBN 0-8014-3676-1
* cite book
last = Lane
first = Christel
title = Christian Religion in the Soviet Union: a Sociological Study
url = http://books.google.com/books?id=VSmdHtacha8C
accessdate = 2007-12-19
year = 1978
location = Albany, N.Y.
id = ISBN 0-8739-5327-4
pages = 94-95
* cite news
author = Staff writer
title = Skoptsy Members on Trial
url = http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9A0DE6DA1F39E333A25750C1A9669D946196D6CF
format = PDF
The New York Times
page = 6
date = 1910-10-06
accessdate = 2007-12-19
* [http://etor.h1.ru/castrati.html The Castrati ("Skoptsy") Sect in Russia: History, Teaching and Religious Practice] by Irina A. Tulpe and Evgeny A. Torchinov
* [http://src-h.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/sympo/94summer/chapter1.pdf From Heresy to Harm: Self-Castrators in the Civic Discourse of Late Tsarist Russia] by Laura Engelstein (Chapter 1 PDF)
* "Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale" (2003) by Laura Engelstein
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