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While various religious groups have advocated total chastity and the renouncing of all sexual contact for its members, the Skoptzy sect that originated in 18th-century Czarist Russia definitely stood out from the rest.
Referring to themselves as "the White Doves" or "The Pure", they were most commonly known as "Skoptzy" after an archaic Russian word meaning "castrated ones". It was a decidedly accurate name for them since castration for both male and female members was the central tenet of their faith. The sect was on offshoot of an earlier radical Christian movement and they held that Adam and Eve had fallen into sin through carnal union. As a result, male and female genitalia (including testicles and breasts) had been grafted on to them after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and represented complementary halves of the original "forbidden fruit".
To the Skoptzy (skopets was the singular form of the term), all of the world's evils were due to a preoccupation with sexuality and removal of their sexual organs represented a return to the exalted state that humanity enjoyed before Original Sin. They regarded their faith as being true to Christ's original teachings which had later been distorted by revisionists. While not all of the Skoptzy underwent "voluntary martyrdom" (also know as "riding the white horse"), there were generally two routes that could be followed: the "lesser seal" in which only the testicles were removed and the "greater seal" which involved the removal of the penis as well as the testicles. For women, castration involved the removal of breasts, labia and clitoris.
There are few existing accounts of the number of Skoptzy who died as a result of the decidedly non-surgical castrations although the mortality rate must have been considerable. There was also a question of how voluntary the castration was for many members since children younger than 10 were often castrated as well. The Skoptzy were not completely anti-sex as a rule and most members of their sect were allowed to have one or two children before "riding the white horse".
The Skoptzy first came to the attention of Russian authorities in the middle of the 18th century but it took their charismatic leader, Kondratii Selivanov, to bring them to national recognition. Revered by his followers as a true prophet, Selivanov was imprisoned in a lunatic asylum by the then-Czar Paul I but later released due to the influence of members of the nobility. The Skoptzy grew in strength and numbers despite frequent repressions and mass transportation to Siberia. They often met in secret and swore all new members to secrecy as well. The movement seemed surprisingly popular and attracted followers from all social classes from nobles to peasants.
Most of the converts came from the Greek Orthodox Church but members of other faiths also converted. Many of the Skoptzy became moneylenders and accumulated considerable wealth which they put at the service of their fellow adherents. Despite regular threats of exile to Siberia, reports indicated that there were over five thousand Skoptzy in Russia by the middle of the 19th century (although only a minority had actually been castrated). Stern repressive measures caused many of the Skoptzy to flee to Romania and, by the end of the 19th century, it was common to see horse-drawn cabs in Bucharest being driven by Skoptzy.
One of the main factors driving the expansion of the Skoptzy was their belief that growing their numbers to the 144,000 chosen mentioned in the Book of Revelation would bring them a Messiah who would establish an empire of purity. While the Skoptzy survived the Czarist era, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was another story. Sexual mutilation was outlawed under the new legal code and mass Skoptzy trials were held. After decades of repression, it is believed that the Skoptzy sect is extinct although a group of 100 were reported to be in existence as recently as 1970.
Although the Skoptzy are an extreme case, genital self-mutilation is often seen in psychiatric populations (I dealt with several cases while I worked in the prison system) and use of castration to reinforce ascetic lifestyles has also been observed in recent years. Despite the long-term medical consequences of castration, there also continues to be a sizable community of individuals considering voluntary castration for a variety of reasons.
Perhaps we have not heard the last of the Skoptzy.
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