Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

IX. The Skopzi

341. Various Russian Sects.—As Russia has always been a hotbed of political secret societies, so it has always been overrun by secret religious sects. Among these we may name the Soshigateli, or Self-burners, who regard voluntary death by fire as the only means of purification from the sins and pollution of the world. They abound in Siberia; within the last twenty years groups of such fanatics, numbering fifteen, twenty, fifty, yea, a hundred men and women, burned themselves in large pits or solitary buildings filled with brushwood. About the year 1867 no less than seventeen hundred are reported to have voluntarily chosen death by fire near Tumen, in the Eastern Ural Mountains. Another sect with similar tendencies, the Morelstschiki, or Self-sacrificers, prefer iron to fire, and consider it a religious duty to kill one another. In 1868 such a mystical sacrifice took place on the estate of a Mr. Gurieff, on the Volga, when forty-seven men and women massacred one another with daggers. Another mad sect are the Flagellants, whose fanaticism sometimes becomes dangerous to other members of the community. In the summer of 1869 the Flagellants of Balashoff (government of Saratoff), to the number of several hundred, on returning from a field where they had practised their fanatical rites, suddenly attacked the lookers-on, and so belaboured them with their scourges and knotted ropes as to kill several of them. Others were trodden to death, and others driven between carts loaded with wood, to which the wretches set fire, so that their victims were suffocated and burnt to ashes.

342. The Skopzi.—But the sect which has during the last generation attracted most attention are the Skopzi or Castrated; and whilst the sects mentioned above consist almost wholly of ignorant, wild fanatics, the Skopzi reckon among their members men of comparative culture and position, as we shall show further on.

Fact is stranger than fiction; never was this more strikingly shown than in the facts which were brought to light during the various trials which took place in different parts of Russia in the prosecutions of these sectaries, on the official reports of which our statements are based, and the leading features of which reports were published by Dr. E. Pelikan, Imperial Russian Privy Councillor and President of the Medical Council, who had personally known and examined many of the Skopzi. His work, both text and the coloured lithographic prints which illustrate it, forms a collection of horrors such as would pass all belief were they not authenticated by the legal proceedings which unveiled them. In this work it is, of course, impossible to enter into the terrible and hideous details chronicled by Dr. Pelikan; we must content ourselves with faintly indicating them.

Russian Skopziism arose about 1757 among the followers of the sect of the Flagellants, who are known to have existed in Russia as early as the year 1733. The first intimation the Russian Government had of the Skopzi was in 1771. They were first discovered in the present government of Orloff. A peasant named Andrei Iwanoff was convicted of having persuaded thirteen other peasants to mutilate themselves. He was assisted by one Kondratji Selivanoff, a peasant, born in the village of Stolbovo, in the province of Orel. A legal investigation took place at St. Petersburg, and Iwanoff was knouted and sent to Siberia, where probably he died. His assistant, Selivanoff, fled into the district of Tamboff, where, with another companion, Alexander Iwanoff Schiloff, he propagated his doctrine; but in 1775 he was seized at Moscow, knouted, and transported to Siberia. Several followers of his were arrested, flogged, and sent to penal servitude in the fortress of Dortmund. Others, not so deeply implicated, were allowed to remain in their home, but strictly forbidden to join, or to induce others to join, the sect.

But these measures did not put a stop to the propaganda. On the contrary, Skopziism increased. Selivanoff made his escape from Siberia, but was, in 1797, apprehended at Moscow, and by order of Paul I. taken to St. Petersburg, where the Emperor, after having conversed with him, had him confined in a madhouse. But on the accession of Alexander I., who was a weak-minded mystic, and greatly under the influence of that adventuress the Baroness Kjlidner, who considered Selivanoff a saint, this man was allowed to leave the madhouse, and lived for several years in considerable splendour in the houses of his admirers. He was particularly protected by the sometime chamberlain of the Polish court, the state councillor Alexei Michailoff Jelanski, who was himself a Skopez, and an operator.

343. The Legend of Selivanoff.—The house which Selivanoff occupied was by his followers called the "House of God," the "Heavenly Zion," the "New Jerusalem," for they believed that Christ had reappeared in the person of Selivanoff, who, they asserted, was really Peter III., born of the immaculate virgin, who, as Empress, was known as Elizabeth Petrowna. This Empress ruled for two years only, then she transferred the government to a lady of the court resembling her, and taking the name of Akulina Ivanovna, she retired, first to the province of Orel, where she lived at the house of the Skopzi prophet Filimon, and then to Bjelogrod, in the province of Kursk, where, invisible behind a garden wall, as late as 1865 she enjoyed the adoration of the faithful. The "Redeemer," as Selivanoff is also called by his adherents, is supposed to have been born in Holstein; that, on reaching manhood, he castrated himself, performed the operation on many others, and wrought many miracles. Called to the throne, he was obliged to marry, but his spouse, Catherine II., in consequence of the "baptism of fire" he had undergone, despising him, she tried to have him assassinated; the Emperor being warned of the conspiracy, made his escape in the clothes of a sentinel, who was murdered in his place. Though Catherine II. was aware of the mistake, she ordered the body of the sentinel to be buried with imperial honours. Peter III. disappeared, to reappear after a while in the person of the peasant Selivanoff, as which he continued his former practices, making many converts. He was then accompanied by Schiloff, whom the Skopzi call the forerunner of the Redeemer. But the government at last interfered; Selivanoff was seized, knouted, and sent to Siberia; Schiloff was imprisoned at Riga.

The book of his "Passion" further tells us that the Emperor Paul I., on his accession, having heard of him, had Selivanoff brought back to Russia, as he considered him his father, to surrender the crown to him; but when Selivanoff made self-mutilation the condition of his acknowledging Paul as his son, the latter grew wroth, and ordered Selivanoff, as well as Schiloff, who had also been sent for from Riga, to be imprisoned in the fortress of Schlusselburg. Under Alexander I. SeUvanoff was set free, and the Emperor and his Empress joined the elect. Selivanoff lived at St. Petersburg, where the Skopez Sladownikoff found him an elegant residence, where he convinced many that he was Christ, the true God. But eventually the government thought it necessary to put a stop to the ravages of the baptism of fire, and Selivanoff was confined in the monastery of Suzdal. The Skopzi firmly believe him to be still alive, and that in his own time he will take possession of the throne of Russia, whereupon castration will become universal. But as before the second appearance of the Redeemer, according to Christian belief, Antichrist is to appear, the Skopzi maintain that be has already appeared in the person of Napoleon, who is a bastard of Catherine II. and the devil, and at present living in Turkey, whence, converted to the true faith, he also will come to Russia as a Skopez.

344. Historical Foundation of the Legend.—The reason why the Skopzi identify the Redeemer with Peter III. is this: Peter III. was the grandson of Peter I. the Great, and a son of the Duke Charles Frederick of Holstein and Anna Petrowna, Peter's daughter; he ascended the throne in 1762. Before him the "people of God," especially the Flagellants, were cruelly persecuted and tortured—their tongues were torn out, and they were burnt alive—but Peter III., immediately on his accession, granted them a complete amnesty and the fullest religious liberty. Hence they looked upon him as their saviour, and he, being a divine person, could not die.

The real reason why he was murdered—Count Orloff is said to have strangled him with his own hand—was the Empress' dissatisfaction with the innovations he introduced. He ascended the throne on the 5th January, and was killed on the 14th July 1762. The Akulina Ivanovna, mentioned in the previous section, who was worshipped as the mother of God, and who pretended to have been the Empress Elizabeth, was born of humble parents in the town of Lebedjan, in the province of Tamboff; her real name was Katassanova. In the year 1820 Selivanoff was, from Suzdal, transferred to the monastery of Spasso Euphemius, where, in 1832, he died at a great age. At the same time, many of the most fanatical adherents of the sect were shut up in the monastery of Ssolovetski, and among them the Skopez captain Ssosonovitch, who, repenting of his former delusions, revealed to the archimandrite of the last-named monastery the deepest secrets of the Skopzi doctrine.

345. Diffusion of the Sect.—According to maps prepared by Dr. Pelikan, during the period from 1805 to 1839 Skopziism prevailed in most parts of Russia, its greatest intensity being at St. Petersburg, Kursk, and on the Black Sea. It also existed to some extent on the White Sea and in the Ural. A considerable increase of the practice took place in Kherson and the Crimea about the year 1822. About the same time many gold and silver smiths of St. Petersburg belonged to the sect.

From 1840 to 1859 Skopziism seemed to be dying out around the White Sea and St. Petersburg, though in that town it remained as prevalent as ever. The Emperor Nicholas took very severe measures against the sectaries, and many of them were banished to Siberia. Others fled to the Danubian principalities, settling at Galatz and Bucharest, but mostly at Jassy, where nearly all hackney-coach drivers are said to belong to the sect.

From 1860 to 1870 the Skopzi increased greatly in numbers, and spread to parts of the Russian empire where formerly they were scarcely known; for they are zealous proselytisers, though they will only admit Russians to the sect—or is it, that they can in no other nationality find people mad enough to submit to their rites?

In 1865 the Russian inhabitants on the shores of the Sea of Azoff made great complaints of the spread of Skopziism. Investigation proved the fact: many mutilated men and women were discovered. The chief offenders, including the peasant woman Babanin, who had presided at the meetings of Skopzi at Militopol, and was revered as a prophetess, were banished to Siberia. But it was soon found that the Azoff society formed but a branch of the sect. Its centre was the town of Morschansk, in the province of Tamboff.

On the last night of the year 1869, says an account which, besides much exaggeration, contains a solid foundation of truth, the head of the Police of that town was at a party. About midnight he was called out of the room, and a servant of the merchant Ploticyn handed him a letter, asking that three women then in custody might be allowed to go free till the morning, when they would return to their prison. Ten thousand roubles in bank-notes were enclosed in the letter. The head of the Police handed the letter and notes to the Criminal Department. Ploticyn was arrested, and on searching his residence it was found to consist of a cluster of houses, having four cellars underground, where a large amount of treasure in cash and bank-notes—perhaps two millions of roubles in value—was discovered, together with an extensive correspondence, implicating many rich merchants in various Russian towns, including the millionaire Tretjakoff of St. Petersburg. Ploticyn was deprived of his civil rights and honours, and banished to Siberia, and with him twelve other men and nineteen women. The peasant Kusnezoff, for having mutilated himself and eleven other persons, was condemned to four years' penal labour in a Siberian mine. The money found in Ploticyn's house, or at least so much of it as had not disappeared, was given to his heirs; the ten thousand roubles sent to the head of the Police were transferred to the Imperial treasury.

The discoveries in Ploticyn's house led to the prosecution of Skopzi in various parts of the empire; the trials extended far into the year 1872, and promised to be interminable, but the further publication of them was prohibited. The trials took place simultaneously at St. Petersburg, Moscow, Tula, Tamboff, and Riga. Witnesses were summoned from the most distant parts of Russia. Some of the less guilty sectaries were confided to the religious care of monasteries, and through them some of the secrets of the sect became public, as already mentioned above. The official reports of the monastery of Solovez are particularly instructive; they were published about 1875, in the book entitled "Lectures before the Imperial Society of History and Antiquity."

346. Creed and Mode of Worship.—The baptism of fire is the gate to perfect salvation, the seal of God. It belongs either to the higher and more meritorious class, the "great seal," which involves the removal of the whole organ, or to the "lesser seal," which means simple castration. With the strictest of the sect all sexual intercourse, even with a wife, is sinful; our parents, in giving us life, committed a heinous sin, wherefore, in some communities, the neophyte, before being initiated into the last mysteries of the sect, had to write the name of his parents on a piece of paper and tread it under foot. In some communities, however, married aspirants were not admitted till after the birth of the first child, and the Skopzi of Bucharest were allowed to have two children before the operation was performed.

The religious ceremonies of the Skopzi, after the singing of hymns, spontaneous addresses and prophecies, consist chiefly in violent exercise and dancing after the fashion of the Dervishes. At the introduction of a neophyte, however, nothing of this kind takes place; he at first simply receives instructions as to his moral and religious duties, the teaching being strictly orthodox, so as not to scare him away, but of so exciting a character as gradually to awaken in him a religious enthusiasm, which shall finally prepare him for the terrible sacrifice, and make him ready to pronounce the vow exacted from him, by which he declares "voluntarily to have come to the Redeemer, and to be determined to keep secret from the Czar, the princes, father, mother, relations and friends, all that relates to these sacred matters, and to submit to persecution, torture, fire and death, rather than reveal their mysteries to enemies."

Their meetings are usually held late at night, and last till daybreak. The localities usually are the secret prayer-rooms found in the dwellings of all Skopzi, which generally are built at as great a distance from other houses as possible. In the centre there is a courtyard, surrounded by barns, cart-sheds and living-rooms, from which, beside the main entrance, some secretly-contrived doors open onto the cattleyard, which is connected with a third enclosure, where stands a bee-house, which latter is surrounded with high palings, whence there are secret openings to the garden, from which there is an exit into the fields. During the meeting watchers are stationed at various distances, who, at the approach of any suspicious-looking stranger, warn their friends by signs, upon which the meeting breaks up, and those who are specially afraid of being discovered make their escape through the cattle-yard into the bee-house, and thence through the garden into the fields.

When engaged in their devotions the men wear long, wide, white shirts of a peculiar cut, tied round the waist with girdles, and large white trousers; the women are also dressed in white shirts; in the villages they wear blue gowns of nankeen, in the towns, of chintz; they, moreover, cover their heads with white cloths. Both sexes put on white stockings, though sometimes they are all barefooted, and carry in their hands handkerchiefs, which they call "flags." The as yet uncastrated members of the sect are called "donkeys" or "goats," whilst those operated on are styled "white lambs," "white doves."

They have a kind of eucharist, at which small pieces of bread, which are consecrated by being put for a while in openings in the monument erected at Schllisselberg to the Skopez Schiloff, are distributed. A priest, Ivan Sfergejeff, who, by order of his superiors, insinuated himself into the confidence of a leading Skopez, and thus became cognisant of all the secrets of the sect, gives details of a "communion of flesh and blood," which is nothing less than a charge of cannibalism, and of the most horrible, revolting kind, against the sect; it has not, I think, been juridically proved; but people who are mad enough to become Skopzi, are mad enough for anything. Legal documents in the archives of the Holy Synod show that among the Flagellants such a "communion of flesh and blood" existed; the Skopzi arose among the Flagellants, so it is possible that the practice of the latter was adopted by the former. Its details are too revolting to be given here.

347. The Baptism of Fire.—As already stated, it is of two kinds, respectively called the "lesser" and the "great seal." The chief point of Christ's teaching, the Skopzi say, was that man to be saved must undergo the "baptism of fire," that is, castrate himself by means of a red-hot iron. Christ, they say, set the example in his own person, which was followed by the apostles and the early Christian Church, including Origen and all the saints, who in the traditional painting of the Oriental Christians, are always represented without beards. Out of regard for human weakness, it was afterwards allowed to substitute a sharp knife for the hot iron. But zealous Skopzi are not particular as to the instruments they use. In 356 instances of mutilation of men, we find a knife employed 164 times, a razor 108 times, a hatchet 30 times, a scythe 23 times; pieces of iron, glass, tin, etc., 17 times. As varied are the localities where the operation has been performed. Of 620 cases, we find that 96 took place in peasants' houses, 19 in prisons, 12 in privies, 6 in cellars, 41 in baths, 32 in barns, 14 in coach-houses, 4 in kitchen gardens, 8 in yards, 136 in woods, no less than 223 on high-roads and in fields, 1 under a bridge, 8 in boats, 1 in a churchyard, etc.

Though we have hitherto spoken of men only as the victims—voluntary and the contrary—of their cruel fanaticism, the other sex are sufferers from it in the proportion of about four women to ten men. With them, too, the operation is as fearful as it is revolting; the earliest records of such operations on women dates from 1815. And yet we find women among the operators. Among 43 peasant women who acted in that capacity, 5 had actually operated on men. The Skopzi, as already intimated, include men of rank and position; thus there were found among them 4 ladies and 4 gentlemen belonging to the nobility, 10 military officers, 5 naval officers, 14 officials in the civil service, 19 priests, 148 merchants, 2 20 citizens, 2736 peasants (including 827 women), 119 landowners, 443 soldiers and soldiers' wives and daughters: 515 men and 240 women were between the years 1847-66 transported to Siberia as convicted Skopzi. Their real number in the empire cannot be ascertained on account of the secrecy of their proceedings. In 1874 it was known to be at least 5444, inclusive of 1465 women; of these, 703 men and 160 women had performed the operation on themselves; 79 men and 11 women underwent the operation twice, first the "lesser" and then the "great seal." The male members of the sect maybe recognised by their puffy, corpulent exterior, and their wrinkled and beardless faces.

348. Failure of the Prosecution of the Sect.—The state is bound to prosecute and, if possible, suppress the active participators in what is an abominable crime against public policy and humanity; but experience has shown that all the measures hitherto taken have failed to put a stop to Skopziism. The very means adopted for its suppression frequently led to its extension; thus Skopzi shut up in monasteries actually converted monks to their schism. State prosecutions induced men and women to mutilate themselves to join the noble army of martyrs. Even the so-called "moral" measure, which was introduced in 1850, of dressing Skopzi in women's clothes, and putting fools' caps on their head, and thus leading them, accompanied by a policeman, about the villages, to the derision of the inhabitants, often had an effect opposite to that aimed at. The Russian clergy are too universally despised to have any influence in stemming the evil; and some of the highest placed of the hierarchy wink at it, in consideration of the large sums given by wealthy Skopzi for the erection or decoration of orthodox churches. The only direct way to arrest the progress of Skopziism is to transport all detected members to distant and thinly populated localities, where they must be kept under strict supervision till they die out. And indirectly their fanaticism must be extinguished by a better education of the Russian people.

One of the most recent trials, accounts of which have reached civilised Europe, is that of a banker and his niece, held with closed doors at St. Petersburg, in December 1893. The banker, a man of sixty, was condemned, as belonging to the sect of the Skopzi, to fifteen years' hard labour for self-mutilation, and his niece to ten years' hard labour for having allowed herself to be operated on, and thus conniving at a criminal offence.