1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Skoptsi

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SKOPTSI (Russian skopets, a eunuch), a secret religious sect of Russia. It is an offshoot of the sect known as the “People of God” or Khlysti (see Russia: Religion). It was in 1771 in the government of Orel that the Skoptsi were first discovered by the authorities. A peasant, Andrei Ivanov, was convicted of having persuaded thirteen other peasants to mutilate themselves. His assistant was another peasant, known as Selivanov. A legal investigation followed. Ivanov was knouted and sent to Siberia; Selivanov fled, but was arrested in 1775. Skoptsism, however, increased, and Selivanov escaped from Siberia and proclaimed himself the Son of God incarnate in the person of Peter III. Peter had been popular among the Raskolniki (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 a self-inflicted mutilation. For eighteen years he lived in St Petersburg, in the house of one of his disciples, receiving double homage as Christ and tsar. In 1797 he was rearrested by order of 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 Sùzdal, where he died in 1832 in his hundredth year. Skoptsism was, however, not exterminated, and grave scandals constantly arose. The most remarkable feature of this extraordinary sect has always been the type of people who joined it. Nobles, military and naval officers, civil servants, priests and merchants were to be found in its ranks, and so rapidly did the numbers increase that 515 men and 240 women were transported to Siberia between 1847 and 1866 without seriously threatening its existence. In 1872 many trials of Skoptsi took place all over Russia. In 1874 the sect numbered at least 5444, including 1465 women. Of these 703 men and 160 women had mutilated themselves. Repressive measures proving useless, an unsuccessful attempt was made to kill the sect by ridicule: Skoptsi were dressed up in women's clothes and paraded with fools' caps on through the villages. In 1876 130 Skoptsi were sentenced in a batch to transportation. To escape prosecution some of the sect have emigrated, generally to Rumania, where they are known as Lipovans. But though the law is strict—every eunuch being compelled to register—Skoptsism still continues to hold its own in Russia.

As their title indicates, the main feature of the sect is sexual mutilation. This they call their “baptism of fire.” Of this there are two kinds, the “lesser” and “greater seal” (i.e. partial and complete mutilation) In this the Skoptsi maintain that they are fulfilling Christ's counsel of perfection in Matt. xix. 12 and xviii. 8, 9. A terrible operation with similar purpose is sometimes performed on the women. The earliest records of such female mutilations date from 1815. Usually the breasts only are amputated. The Skoptsi do not absolutely condemn marriage, and some are allowed to have one child, those at Bucharest two, before being fully admitted. They are not pessimists, desiring the end of the species, but aim rather at the perfection of the individual. Their religious ceremonies include hymn-singing, addresses and frenzied dancing ending in ecstasy, like that of the Khlysti and the Mussulman dancing dervishes. Strict oaths of secrecy are demanded from all members, who form a kind of mutual-aid association. Meetings are held late at night in cellars, and last till dawn. At these the men wear long, wide, white shirts of a peculiar cut with a girdle and large white trousers. Women also dress in white. Either all present wear white stockings or are barefoot. They call themselves “White Doves.” They have a kind of eucharist, at which pieces of bread consecrated by being placed for a while on the monument erected at Schlusselberg to Selivanov are given the communicants. The society has not always been content with proselytism. Bribes and violence have been often used. Children are bought from poor parents and brought up in the faith. The Skoptsi are millenarians, and look for a Messiah who will establish an empire of the saints, i.e. the pure. But the Messiah, they believe, will not come till the Skoptsi number 144,000 (Rev. xiv. 1, 4), and all their efforts are directed to reaching this total. The Skoptsi's favourite trade is that of money-changer, and on ’Change in St Petersburg there was for long a bench known as the “Skoptsi's bench.” Of late years there is said to have been a tendency on the part of many Skoptsi to consider their creed fulfilled by chaste living merely.

See 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.).