An 18th-century Russian sect that castrated themselves

The Skoptsy, a radical religious sect that emerged in the late 18th century within the Russian Empire, was part of the broader Spiritual Christianity movement. Known colloquially as “castrates” due to their distinctive practice of physical mutilation, they believed in achieving purification of the soul through drastic means such as castration for men and mastectomy and vulvectomy for women.

The sect was founded by Kondraty Selivanov, a peasant from the Oryel Region, who proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Christ. Selivanov’s teachings gained traction after initial opposition, including confinement ordered by Tsar Paul I. The sect grew, drawing followers from various social strata, including peasants, nobles, and some clergy, indicative of widespread disillusionment with the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church.

Central to their doctrine was a literal interpretation of Biblical texts, particularly the sayings of Jesus about some making themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. The Skoptsy viewed sexual relations as inherently sinful and believed that castration—referred to as the “lesser seal” when involving only the testicles, and the “greater seal” when including the penis—would help members regain the prelapsarian purity of Adam and Eve. Similarly, from 1815, women in the sect began to undergo mastectomies and, in some cases, removal of the labia, to eliminate distractions from bodily and worldly beauty, thus enhancing spiritual focus.

The Skoptsy also engaged in “fiery baptisms,” where mutilation was performed without anesthesia and seen as a form of spiritual cleansing. Post-mutilation, some men engaged in self-flagellation after mystical dance sessions to reach spiritual trances. These practices were often coupled with communal living and an ascetic lifestyle, enhancing the appeal to those seeking a purer form of Christianity despite societal and ecclesiastical condemnation.

Throughout the 19th century, the Russian government and Orthodox Church persecuted the Skoptsy, enacting severe punitive measures against them including public ridicule and imprisonment. Nevertheless, their numbers peaked in the early 20th century, reportedly reaching up to 100,000 members. However, under the Soviet regime, the sect faced further crackdowns, leading to a significant decline in its followers. By the 1970s, the Skoptsy were believed to have mostly disappeared.

Despite their eventual decline, the Skoptsy have left a lasting mark on Russian cultural and religious history. Their extreme practices and beliefs have made them a subject of ongoing scholarly interest and they have been referenced in various literary works by notable authors like Fyodor Dostoevsky, including “The Idiot,” “Demons,” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” The Skoptsy continue to provoke discussion on the boundaries of religious expression and bodily autonomy.

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