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

ple 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 Spasskoïe.

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

Spasskoïe, 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 Spasskoïe 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!