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The Self-mutilators

The thirst for perfection, the ardent desire to draw near to God,
sometimes takes the form of an unhappy perversion of reason and common
sense. The popular soul knows no hesitation when laying its offerings
upon the Altar of the Good. It dares not only to flout the principles
of patriotism, of family love, and of respect for the power and the
dogmas of the established church, but, taking a step further, will even
trample underfoot man's deepest organic needs, and actually seek to
destroy the instinct of self-preservation. What even the strictest
reformers, the most hardened misanthropists, would hardly dare to
suggest, is accomplished as a matter of course by simple peasants in
their devotion to whatever method of salvation they believe to be in
accordance with God's will. Thus came into existence the
self-mutilators, or _skoptzi_, victims, no doubt, of some mental
aberration, some misdirected sense of duty, but yet how impressive in
their earnestness!

The sect having been in existence for more than a century ought perhaps
to be excluded from our present survey; but it has constantly
developed, and even seemed to renew its youth, so merits consideration
even if only in the latter phases of its evolution.

The _skoptzi_ were allowed, at the beginning of the twentieth century,
to form separate communities, and the life of these communities under
quite exceptional social conditions, without love, children, marriage
or family ties, offers a melancholy field for observation. Indeed,
these colonies of mutilated beings, hidden in the depths of Siberia,
give one a feeling as of some monstrous and unfamiliar growth, and
present one of the most puzzling aspects of the religious perversions
of the present age.

After being denounced and sentenced, and after performing the forced
labour allotted to them--a punishment specially reserved for the
members of sects considered dangerous to orthodoxy--the _skoptzi_, men
and women alike, were permitted to establish their separate colonies,
like those of Olekminsk and Spassko´e.

The forced labour might cripple their limbs, but it did not weaken
their faith, which blossomed anew under the open skies of Siberia, and
seemed only to be intensified by their long sufferings in prison.

The martyrs who took refuge in these Siberian paradises were very
numerous. It has been calculated that at the end of the nineteenth
century they numbered more than sixty-five thousand, and this is
probably less than the true figure, for, considering the terrible
ordinances of their religion, it is not likely that they would trouble
much about registering themselves for official statistics. We may
safely say that in 1889 there were about twelve hundred and fifty in
the neighbourhood of Yakutsk who had already accomplished their term of
forced labour. They formed ten villages, and it would be difficult to
specify their various nationalities, though it is known that in
Spassko´e, in 1885, there were, among seven hundred and ten members of
the sect, six hundred and ninety-three Russians, one Pole, one Swede,
and fifteen Finns.

To outward view their colonies were rather peculiar. Each village was
built with one long, wide street, and the houses were remarkable for
the solidity of their construction, for the flourishing gardens that
surrounded them, and for their unusual height in this desolate land
where, as a rule, nothing but low huts and hovels were to be seen. A
house was shared, generally, by three or four believers, and--perhaps
owing to their shattered nervous systems--they appeared to live in a
state of constant uneasiness, and always kept revolvers at hand. The
"brothers" occupied one side of the building, and the "sisters" the
other; and while the former practised their trades, or were engaged in
commerce, the women looked after the house, and led completely isolated
lives. On the arrival of a stranger they would hide, and if he offered
to shake hands with one of them, she would blush, saying, "Excuse me,
but that is forbidden to us," and escape into the house.

The existence of the "sisters" was indeed a tragic one. Deprived of
the sweetness of love or family life, without children, and at the
mercy of hardened egoists, such as the _skoptzi_ usually became, their
sequestered lives seemed to be cut off from all normal human happiness.

According to the author of an interesting article on the _skoptzi_ of
Olekminsk, which appeared in 1895 in the organ of the then-existing
Russian Ethnographical Society, these women were sometimes of an
astonishing beauty, and when opportunity offered, as it sometimes did
(their initiation not always being quite complete), they would marry
orthodox settlers, and leave their so-called "brothers." Cases are on
record of women acting in this way, and subsequently becoming mothers,
but any such event caused tremendous agitation among the "brothers" and
"sisters," similar to that provoked in ancient Rome by the spectacle of
a vestal virgin failing in her duty of chastity.

Platonic unions between the self-mutilators and the Siberian
peasant-women were fairly frequent, so deeply-rooted in the heart of
man does the desire for a common life appear to be.

The _skoptzi_ loved money for money's sake, and were considered the
enemies of the working-classes. Although drawn for the most part from
the Russian provinces, where ideas of communal property prevailed, they
developed into rigid individualists, and would exploit even their own
"brothers." Indeed they preyed upon one another to such an extent that
in the village of Spassko´e there were, among a hundred and fifty-two
_skoptzi_, thirty-five without land, their portions having been seized
from them by the "capitalists" of the village.

Their ranks were swelled chiefly by illiterate peasants. As to their
religion, it consisted almost exclusively in the practice of a ceremony
similar to that of the Valerians, the celebrated early Christian sect
who had recourse to self-mutilation in order to protect themselves from
the temptations of the flesh.[1]

The lot of the _skoptzi_ was not a happy one, but they were upheld and
consoled by their belief in the imperial origin of their faith.
According to them, Selivanoff, the prophet and founder of the sect, was
no other than the Tsar Peter the Third himself (1728-1762). They did
not believe in his assassination by the Empress Catherine, but declared
that she, discovering to what initiation he had submitted, was seized
by so violent a passion of rage that she caused him to be incarcerated
in the fortress of Petropavlovsk. From there they believed that he had
escaped, with the help of his gaoler, Selivanoff, and had assumed the
latter's name. What strengthened them in this belief was the marked
favour shown by the Tsar Alexander I for Selivanoff. Alexander being
naturally inclined to mysticism, was impressed by this strange
character, and requested him to foretell the issue of the war with
Napoleon. He was equally well disposed to the sect of Madame
Tartarinoff, which closely resembled that of the self-mutilators, and,
influenced by his attitude, all the Russian high officials felt
themselves bound to pay court to the new religions. One of the
Imperial councillors, Piletzky, who was supposed to be writing a book
refuting the doctrines of the _skoptzi_, defended them, on the
contrary, with such warmth that his volume--obviously inspired by the
opinions of the Court--was prohibited by the Bishop Filarete as

But though they could talk volubly of the illustrious origin of their
leader Selivanoff, "the second Christ," and of their "divine mother,"
Akoulina Ivanovna, their doctrines were in fact obscure and nebulous,
and they avoided--with good reason--all religious argument. They
insisted, however, upon the sacredness of their initiation
ceremony--which invariably ended in deportation for life, or the
delights of the prison-cell.

From the physiological point of view, the _skoptzi_ resembled the
Egyptian eunuchs, described by M. Ernest Godard. Those who had
undergone the initiation at the age of puberty attained extraordinary
maxillary and dental proportions. Giants were common among them, and
there was frequently produced the same phenomenon that Darwin
discovered in the animal world--enlargement of the pelvic regions.

This doctrine, which ought to have repelled the populace, attracted
them irresistibly. The young, the brave, and the wealthy, in the full
flower of their strength, abandoned at its call the religion of life
and yoked themselves to that of death. It seemed to fascinate them.
After conversion they despised all human passions and emotions, and
when persecuted and hunted down they took their revenge by expressing
profoundest pity for those who were powerless to accomplish the act of
sacrifice which had brought them "near to divinity."

They often let this pity sway them to the extent of running into danger
by preaching their "holy word" to "infidels." Like the ascetics of
Ancient Judea, who left their retreats to make sudden appearances in
the midst of the orgies of their contemporaries, these devotees of
enforced virginity would appear among those who were disillusioned with
life, and instruct them in the delights of the supreme deliverance. In
their ardent desire to rescue all slaves of the flesh, some rich
merchants of Moscow, who had adopted the doctrine, placed the greater
part of their fortunes at the disposal of their co-religionists, and in
this way the sect was enabled to extend its influence throughout
Russia, and even into neighbouring countries.

At one time in Bucharest and other towns certain carriages drawn by
superb horses attracted much admiration. These were some of the
strange presents--the price of a still stranger baptism--with which the
"Church of the Second Christ" rewarded its members!

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