Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale

Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale

Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale

Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale

Synopsis

Of the many sects that broke from the official Russian Orthodox church in the eighteenth century, one was universally despised. Its members were peasants from the Russian heartland skilled in the arts of animal husbandry who turned their knives on themselves to become "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake.' Convinced that salvation came only with the literal excision of the instruments of sin, they were known as Skoptsy (the self-castrated). Their community thrived well into the twentieth century, when it was destroyed in the Stalinist Terror.

In a major feat of historical reconstruction, Laura Engelstein tells the sect's astonishing tale. She describes the horrified reactions to the sect by outsiders, including outraged bureaucrats, physicians, and theologians. More important, she allows the Skoptsy a say in deeming the contours of their history and the meaning behind their sacrifice. Her deft handling of their letters and notebooks lends her book unusual depth and pathos, and she providesa heartbreaking account of willing exile and of religious belief so strong that its adherents accepted terrible pain and the denial of a basic human experience. Although the Skoptsy express joy at their salvation, the words of even the most fervent believers reveal the psychological suffering of life on society's margins.

No foreign tribe or exotic import, the sect drew its members from the larger pant society where marriage was expected and adulthood began with the wedding night. Set apart by the very act that guaranteed their redemption, these "lambs of God" became adept at concealing their sectarian identity as they interacted with their Orthodox neighbors. Interaction was necessary,Engelstein explains, since the survival of the Skoptsy depended upon recruitment of new members and on success in agriculture and trade.

Realizing that some prejudices have changed little over the centuries, Engelstein cautions

Excerpt

This book is about a community of mystical Christians that came to light in the central provinces of the Russian Empire during the reign of Catherine the Great and lasted well into the Soviet era. Similar in their ascetic practices and horror of procreation to the Shakers, who emerged at roughly the same time in a very different context, the Russian mystics went so far in their search for purity and eternal life as to adopt the practice of ritual self-castration. Following the call of a charismatic vagrant who claimed to embody the reincarnated Jesus Christ, the believers subjected themselves to pain and mutilation in the expectation of redemption. Disconcerting to its neighbors, abhorrent to church and secular authorities, still the community managed to sustain a coherent culture and attract new adherents across 150 years, surviving even the advent of a new political order.

Such devotional hyperbole is fascinating, there is no doubt. But what can a historian derive from studying an example of spiritual extravagance that diverges so sharply from the cultural norm as to evoke contempt, disgust, and continuous persecution for decades? How to get beyond morbid curiosity or simple revulsion? How to discover in the enactment of extremes some link to the host environment or to the basic human condition? These were the questions I asked myself as I stumbled onto the literature, mostly a century old, concerning this reviled group and found I could not pull myself away. What was I doing with this subject?

I had written a book about the cultural meanings of sexuality in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russia, which examined a world of entirely secular discourse. Here was an occasion to explore the meanings attached to the absence of sex and to enter a world with an otherworldly . . .

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