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The Skoptsy (Russian: скопцы, also transliterated as Skoptzy, Skoptzi, Skoptsi, Skopzi, Scoptsy, Skapetz and other spellings) were a secret sect in Tsarist Russia. The Skoptsy are best known for practicing castration of men and the mastectomy of 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 18th 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-20th century.
Beliefs and practice of castration
Skoptsy is a plural of "skopets", an archaic word meaning "castrated one" 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 testicles and breasts. Thus, the removal of these sexual organs restored the Skoptsy to the pristine state before the Original Sin. In this the Skoptsy maintained that they were fulfilling Christ's counsel of perfection in Matthew 19:12 and 18:8-9.
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. Men who did the "greater seal" used a cow-horn when urinating. The castrations were made with primitive tools such as a shaving knife without using any anesthetic.
The earliest records of female castrations date from 1815. Usually only the breasts were amputated, according to the 1911 encyclopedia. Other accounts suggest that the labia were also removed, making it a form of female circumcision.
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 1771 in the Oryol region. A peasant, Andrei Ivanov, was convicted of having persuaded thirteen other peasants to castrate themselves. 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 increased and Selivanov escaped from Siberia and proclaimed himself the Son of God incarnate 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 Saint Petersburg, in the house of one of his disciples, receiving double homage as Christ and tsar. In 1797 he was arrested again by order of Tsar Paul I and imprisoned in a madhouse. Under Alexander I Selivanov regained his liberty, but in 1820 was again shut up, this time in a monastery at Suzdal, where he died in 1832 in his hundredth year. Skoptsism was, however, despite the furious investigations of the Third Department (the tsar's secret police), 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 1847 and 1866 without seriously threatening its existence. In 1874 the sect numbered at least 5444, including 1465 women. Of these 703 men and 100 women had partaken in bodily mutilation.
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. Caragiale acknowledges that toward the end of the 19th century all the horse-powered cabs in Bucharest were driven by Russian Skoptsy (Scopiţi in Romanian). Though the law was strict in Russia — every eunuch was 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 20th century, although repression continued and members of the sect were put on trial (New York Times 1910). Increased repression and collectivization under the Soviet Union reduced 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 aimed rather at the perfection of the individual. Their religious ceremonies included hymn-singing, addresses and frenzied dancing ending in ecstasy, like that of the Chlysty and the Sufi whirling dervishes. Strict oaths of secrecy were demanded from all members, who formed a kind of mutual-aid association.
Meetings were held late at night in cellars, and lasted until 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 Messiah who 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 Prize longlisted novel by James Meek. The author states in the Acknowledgements that they are based on the Skoptsy.
- A future variant of the Skoptsy's appear briefly in The Stars My Destination, a science fiction novel by Alfred Bester. These Skoptsys have their sensory nerves severed, rendering them deaf and blind and unable to feel their bodies.
- "Vanity Fair", a song by the California alternative music band Mr. Bungle references the Skoptsi in the lyrics.
- Outside the Dog Museum by American novelist Jonathan Carroll, references the Skoptsy.
- In the book The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky mentions Skoptsy tenants in a boarding house. Dostoevsky also mentions Skoptsy in the 1872 novel Demons.
- Mentioned in A Splendid Little War by Derek Robinson, 2013.
- The arch "The Moveable Feast", part of the Nikolai Dante serie, published in the 2000 AD 1128-1130 (1999), presents a sect called Skoptzy , based on the Skoptsy.
- Mentioned in The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning, the first novel of her Balkan trilogy.
- The title of Cincinnati-based dance rock band Fluffer's debut album, Skopsi, is an altered spelling of the practice.
- The 1999 Alicia Giménez Bartlett novel, Mensajeros de la oscuridad, is about a series of castrations committed by a cult called "skopis".
- Alexandre Dumas, père, writes about the sect, calling them scopsis, towards the end of his account of his journey through Caucasia, "Le Caucase, Memoirs d'un Voyage", 1858, where he meets them in Georgia.
- The Heaven's Gate sect also practiced castration
- Shakers—believed in total sexual abstinence
- Origen—early Christian author who allegedly castrated himself
- Skoptic syndrome—the wish to become a eunuch
- "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."
- "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. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
- , "Le Caucase, Memoirs d'un Voyage", 1858Alexandre Dumas, père
- Panchenko, Aleksandr. "Strange faith" and the blood libel
- 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).
- Engelstein, Laura (1999). Castration and the heavenly kingdom: a Russian folktale. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3676-1.
- Lane, Christel (1978). Christian Religion in the Soviet Union: a Sociological Study (Google Books). Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press. pp. 94–95. ISBN 0-87395-327-4. Retrieved 2007-12-19.
- Staff writer (1910-10-06). "Skoptsy Members on Trial" (PDF). The New York Times. p. 6. Retrieved 2007-12-19.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- The Castrati ("Skoptsy") Sect in Russia: History, Teaching and Religious Practice by Irina A. Tulpe and Evgeny A. Torchinov
- 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