The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 19

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Old Gods in Christian Worship


WHILE hunting in the provinces of Novgorod in the forests round the railway station of Luban, I was staying for a time in the little village of Marjino. Not very far away from the village was the estate of the Princes Golitzin, descendants of the Ruriks, one of the oldest aristocratic families in Russia.

One evening my host, a peasant of the name of Basil Batonin, whispered mysteriously into rny ear:

"Do you want to come and see the 'radenye' (serice) of the Chlysts?"

I knew that the Chlysts are Sectarians, and that their "radenya," or religious mysteries, are distinguished by particular savagery, so I agreed to accompany my host out of sheer curiosity.

It was already nine o'clock in the evening, and the dark autumnal night had come on.

Leaving home, we went in the direction of the ducal estate. My host led me into a large, rough-looking hut at the back of the courtyard.

The huge hall was sunk in dusk, as it was lighted only with seven wax candles placed along the walls. The atmosphere was suffocating with close on a hundred people; men and women, grown-ups and mere youths, many little girls amongst them, were crowded into the room. At its far end was placed a table covered with a white sheet, upon which I noticed in the light of a solitary candle a holy picture blackened with age, a large holy water-pot, and a thick volume bound In a wooden cover.

Near the table, which represented an altar, stood a powerfully built peasant, whose long, black hair was girdled over the forehead with a narrow leather strap, and whose patriarchal beard was neatly trimmed.

As soon as the crowd formed in even ranks, and the noise of trampling feet and whispers were silenced, the sturdy peasant read out from the book some ancient Slav text, making signs of the cross over his brow and bosom, kneeling down and bowing to the ground after each sign. I noticed that his movements became every time quicker and more violent, and that the eyes of the congregation were fastened with intent on the "priest." Suddenly the latter leaped to his feet, and exclaiming, "Pray ye, and offer sacrifice," he snatched from a heap of sticks in the corner of the room a rod (in Russian: chlyst), with which he began to beat his head and shoulders. When the rod cut the air with a whizz I was reminded of the bloody mysteries of the dervishes which I had witnessed in Turkey and the Crimea. Meanwhile the "priest" threw off his coat and shirt, uncovering himself to the waist The beating with the rod increased in speed and strength. His back was entirely covered with wheals, till blood gushed out and poured down his back in red streaks. At this sight the whole crowd, including my host, snatched the rods from the heap. A mass beating began. The sharp whizzing of the tough and pliant rod mingled with the heavy pantings and groans of the crowd, who began to tear off their clothes in order to reach the height of torture.

The "priest," lashing himself unceasingly, began to turn round on one leg. Others at once started to imitate him, and in a few moments the whole crowd was whirling round, hitting one another, stuttering and shouting with groans that had a weird and yearning sound.

After a short time some sank down exhausted, and at last the "priest" himself fell to the ground, but others leaped and leaped and turned round, trampling upon the bodies scattered on the floor.

The air was thick with vapour, the exhalations of perspiring bodies tired to death, the smell of boots and dirty clothing. Someone blew out the candles, leaving only the one burning on the altar-table. I could barely; see the half-naked male and female bodies in a heap, exhausted, imbrued with blood, almost dead.

Such was the "radenye."

I do not know on which texts of the Scriptures a sect of such unwholesome mind and morals could build its tenets. I think its origins could be traced to the Apocryphal books, which for a long time were accumulated In great numbers in the Christian Byzantine Empire, to which Russia was always linked by close moral and religious ties.

The sect of the "floggers" spread particularly during the reign of Tsar Paul I, when it penetrated not only into the houses of the rich merchants, but also of the aristocracy and into the Court. The Commander of Paul's palace, where the Tsar was afterwards strangled by his courtiers, was with all his family a confessor of this sect. The story of his conversion still exists.

He had a very beautiful daughter, who had strong religious inclinations. The "floggers" resolved to take advantage of this side of her character to gain her adherence to their sect. Through her they expected to win for themselves as many influential people at the Imperial Court as possible, as the rumour had spread of measures about to be taken which pointed to approaching persecutions.

The son of a rich merchant, a member of the sect, was sent to the young girl. The young man was good-looking, and having been introduced, he made himself much liked, and became a standing visitor in the Commander's house. One evening, speaking of the floggers, he allured her imagination, and invited her to come and see the Sectarian mysteries. The young merchant was himself the "priest." His religious ecstasy, his inspired voice, and handsome appearance evidently impressed the young lady all the stronger, as the circumstances were extraordinary and mysterious.

She was carried away in rapturous excitement when the young "priest" began the ritual dance. He turned round with such speed that it was impossible to discern his face, and increased the rapidity of his movements to such a degree that the current of air he made extinguished all the candles.

Notwithstanding the young lady's accession to the sect, and her bringing in with her her family and many members of the aristocracy, Paul I instituted a cruel and pitiless persecution of the "floggers"; they were beaten to death in public squares to the accompaniment of military drums, exiled to Siberia, tortured in prisons. Since then the sect has almost disappeared from the capital cities, although I remember that in 1911 there were discovered in Petersburg mysteries of the "floggers" who were members of the merchant class and the aristocracy.

They are most numerous in the provinces of Yaroslav, Saratov, and Ujim, where the most prominent priests of this sect live and hide in the houses of rich merchants.

There exists in Russia another, perhaps still more immoral sect.

When one visited in Moscow or Petersburg those quarters of the town where the small Russian money-changing counters were, one was struck by the yellow, faded, sleepy, and hairless faces of the stout, womanly-shaped men.

They were the owners of the exchange offices, small bankers, who formed almost a separate caste.

They are all "skoptsy," confessors of a special sect, which taught that mankind should exist as long as human society contained men who would, of their own free will, deprive themselves of the capability of perpetuating their race. And so long Antichrist would not be able to descend upon the earth.

They call themselves the "white doves," which means the innocent. Some become "skoptsy" in their infancy, others at a mature age. In families which have belonged to this sect for centuries, there always must be a "white dove." And if no member of the family consents to become one, then with complete dis* regard of expense, the "skoptsy" persuades some outsider to enter the sect and to receive the "seal of the white dove."

The police and the courts in Russia have paid very keen attention to these activities which were severely punished, although the perpetuation of "geldings" within traditionally sectarian families was tolerated.

The provinces of Yaroslav and Kostroma, from which all these rich bankers with yellow and faded faces came, were for centuries the seat of this sect.

The religious origins of the sect are unknown to me, but I am bound to say that in the most ascetic Orthodox monasteries there exists a sinister, mediæval custom of receiving "the great seal," when the friar submits to the operation which deprives him of his manhood.

Thus it would appear to be some primeval remnant of ancient worship, perhaps of Brahminism or Dervishism, perhaps of even older cults of Egypt and Babylon. In the worships of Astarte and Izis can be discovered traces of similar rituals, which have permeated Christianity and are so glaringly expressed in the "skoptsy."

This sect suffered many severe persecutions at the hands of the Government, but always succeeded in saving itself from most trying circumstances, and owed its salvation to the large funds accumulated in families belonging to the creed.

They are slow, quiet, wise men, with great cunning and commercial cleverness. But they are also vindictive, malignant, and despise those who do not belong to them.

The first "skoptsy" existed as early as the first century of our era, and the "seal of the white dove" has never disappeared from Christendom, but it is only in the Eastern Church that it has lasted until the twentieth century. During the reign of Paul I these Sectarians were energetically suppressed, and many families were exiled to Siberia, as far as the Yakut country, the coldest part of Siberia, where the soil thaws only six inches deep during the short summer.

I have been to those scowling places of exile and torment, for it was here that Russian Governments dumped for long years the most dangerous revolutionary agitators. It is a country of virgin forests, immense rivers, and unexplored marshes. But there also exist oases of culture. They were founded by the "skoptsy," exiled there during the time of Paul I. They adapted themselves to the climatic conditions, and learned to raise crops of potatoes and grain, having by careful selection cultivated special species of these cereals. In the Yakut country they developed cattle breeding most successfully. And they refuse to return to Russia, although they were amnested long ago, because they find it easier in Siberia to maintain the traditions of the sect, which have there their Mecca, their spiritual centre.