You are in a wooden hut in the depths of Siberia, thousands of miles from the lands of your ancestors. You are young, male, a child, prepubescent. You are naked and in front of you is a large, hot, stove, burning coal and wood. A man you do not know approaches you. Two others hold your legs apart and your arms flat against your sides. All three understand you are scared because of the approaching pain, but believe that you know its spiritual and purifying purpose. The men do this because they think it is right, because all three had the same procedure happen to them. One man didn’t get cut until he was an adult and he had already sullied his flesh with fuck. This man is your father, and he will not have your soul and body desecrated like his once was.
The third man, the stranger, has yarn in his hands. He ties it in a tight loop around the base of your penis and the back of your scrotum. He pulls it tight and the yarn digs into the flesh between your legs, but this pain is nothing compared to the outpouring of bodily grief you feel as the pan hacks through the flesh under the knot until your undeveloped genitals can be held in his hands. He throws them into the fire with a casual flick and there is a sizzle as they hit the coal. The man then takes a blanket and, after wiping away the blood, sticks a nail into the hole at the centre of what was once your penis. Once this nail is secure amongst the river of blood, he takes a poker out of the stove and uses it to cauterise the hole between your held apart legs.
This sensation is different again, and due to the heavy loss of blood it registers as less painful. The sheets beneath you are sodden with blood, your father is shedding tears of joy as he holds you down, but your world is riven, torn apart before it even began. You have been ritualistically castrated and may now consider yourself a Skoptsy: a hardline Christian sect that survived in Russia for almost two hundred years, despite the fact that it castrated almost every single man it ever managed to recruit.
Laura Englelstein is an American academic, a History professor at Yale who specialises in Russia. Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale is a 1999 academic history book about the Skoptsy, an extreme Christian cult that got very into castration, and as a consequence of this suffered much persecution at the hands of the tsarist and then the Soviet governments. This kind of extremism (for men: removal of balls (known as the “minor seal”) and cock and balls (known as the “major seal”); for women: removal of nipples (“minor”), removal of entire breasts/labia/clitoris (“major”)) is obviously not a healthy thing to have going on within an empire, and was an especially bad thing to be happening in the midst of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when war was almost constant and the risk of losing unborn soldiers was terrifying. Also, this was the past, so Church and State were wrapped all up inside each other and refusal to worship in the Orthodox fashion was not just heretical, it was also treason. Sigh.
What is most interesting about the Skoptsy – other than their resilience – is the reason behind the wealth of information Engelstein was able to discover. She writes occasional passages in the first person whilst within Russian historical archives*, amazed by the depth of what she’s found. There are notes and letters and diaries and court records and photographs and drafts of books and actual books about the Skoptsy, a huge collection of paperwork that, together, allows her to chronicle the group’s state from its conception through to its end where it did.
Essentially, the Russians always found the Skoptsy compelling. Disgusting, horrible and compelling. These are photographs of what they looked like, those who had undergone the “major seal”:
A lot of the accounts of the Skoptsy contain vivid descriptions of castration. Engelstein includes a lot of them, describes in detail rusty nails used to keep a male urethra held open; describes in detail the knots used to tie a scrotum before cutting; she includes diagrams and descriptions of the tools used; she includes photographs of late Skoptsy and hand drawn diagrams of body-modifications from the 18th century. The Skoptsy were mainly peasants (a word it was apparently acceptable to use in 1999) and barely literate. Those who could read, or who learnt to read later on, left lots of material behind about themselves.
Skoptsy believed in the reincarnation of Jesus, and numerous leaders of the cult were seen by as the actualisation of Christ. They also believed in sobriety, and – obviously – chastity. The act of castration – whether before or after puberty – was a symbolic and literal gesture to remove sin from the body. In men, famously all the biggest/best sins are directly caused by hormonal impulses from the balls. Cutting them off, and cutting off the instrument (the wanger) used for sinful acts prevents error twice over. Without genitals, a man will almost certainly feel no lust, and any that he does feel he will be unable to do anything about. He cannot commit the sin.**
The group recruited people consistently for about 160 years (it was much harder once the Soviets took power and the government were making things seem appealing, ’cause by the time things went to shit in the Soviet Union all the Skoptsy were super old, condoms were widespread and there was no way people were gonna stop getting it on) and they recruited on the basis of purity. No drinking, no sex. There is less sweat if a man is castrated, and the sweat that does drip only comes as a result of toil. For peasants trapped into ever-expanding families coupled with massive infant mortality rates, with poverty and with a huge religious conscience to begin with, this cult appealed. And without children to support and sexual desires to distract, the Skoptsy often became very wealthy, in fact, this was the main reason why they the Soviets made efforts to shut them down – Skoptsy had lots of money and objected to the banning of property.
In the decades before their revolution, the Bolsheviks made an effort to connect with all marginalised groups in Russia, in the hope of shoring up extra support from people ideologically opposed to the status quo.*** Certain record keepers within the Communists got interested and got connections and back and forths began that would continue on until the eve of the Second World War. Though the Skoptsys were too inward-looking to be of revolutionary use, the Soviets were keen to keep a record of the country they inherited, so formalised all the notes they had and allowed academics to stay in contact with people they considered strange. Later on, these notes were made neat and put away until Laura Engelstein found the stack in a St Petersburg Cathedral and started exploring.
Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom is an interesting read. To be honest, it is too academic for the general reader and relies more on verifiable fact than human interest, but that was what I was expecting when I opened the text up. Engelstein’s book contains a lot of information about a strange group of people who I wouldn’t have learnt about otherwise, and I’m glad to have read it. Would I recommend it? Yeah, but only if you’re as into weird Christian things as I am. And look at the gruesome pictures (there’s another on my Instagram, link at bottom). That’s probably all you want, right?
* Her tone of “Russia’s new dawn”, “finally it is democratic here”, “this is the start of something wonderful” is drenched in mid-90s optimism and is a prediction as comically incorrect as those made by a Skoptsy preacher in 1915 about the future of the Russian Royal Family. Engelstein’s scoffing at an autodidact peasant not knowing about the Bolshevik Royal Assassinations a couple of years in advance is less embarrassing than publishing a book praising a country’s move to democracy in the same year as a man assumes power that he still, seventeen years later, is probably never going to recant.
** But we all know our Matthew 5:28, right, guys? (I didn’t know that off the top of my head, but am going to try to remember it, it’s the Bible quotation I come back to the most, the one about feeling desire being as bad as adultery. It’s a line clearly written by a self-justifying adulterer: “Oh, baby, what I feel most bad for was desiring her. It’s as bad that I wanted to do it as the fact that I did it. So stop going on about the way my dick smells and come back to bed.”
*** Did Status Quo go into the music industry cynically? They are middle of the road and their name is what it is.