The Skopites, also known as the Skoptsy, Scapets or Scopiti, depending on translations, were a religious sect that emerged in 18th-century Russia. They believed in a radical form of Christianity that involved self-castration for men and mutilation of breasts for women.
The origins of the Skoptsy are somewhat unclear, but it is believed that their beliefs were influenced by a variety of factors, including the Orthodox Church, the Old Believers, and the mysticism of Kabbalah.
Skoptsy believed that the body was inherently sinful and corrupt and that the only way to achieve spiritual purity was to remove the source of sin, which they believed to be the male genitalia.
The origins of the Skoptsy are somewhat obscure, but it is believed that the sect emerged in the late 18th century, in the area around the Volga River in central Russia. Some scholars trace the origins of the Skoptsy back to a sect of Old Believers known as the Khlysts, who practised ecstatic dancing and other forms of religious fervour.
Others point to the influence of the Kabbalistic teachings of Jacob Frank, a Polish-Jewish mystic who claimed to be the reincarnation of the biblical patriarch Joseph. It is also possible that the Skoptsy were influenced by the teachings of the Orthodox Church, which emphasized the importance of asceticism and self-discipline.
The Skoptsy sect, according to most recent analyses, was founded in 1760 by a peasant from the Russian village of Sosnovska, in the Oryel district, named Kondratîi Ivanovich Selivanov, who appeared to have had serious mental problems as well as dementia.
The prophet Selivanov founded this ultra-religious movement that promoted purification through castration or other even more radical measures. Married men, after having their first male child, became eunuchs.
Selivanov considered himself to be both the “Son of God” or Messiah, and the grandson of Peter the Great. Around 1772, the Skoptsy sect had around 246 followers.
The period was conducive to disturbing the spirits in feudal Russia and Selinov did nothing but resume some mystical arguments from the time of Tsar Peter the Great, which circulated among the people. He was deported to Siberia by Empress Catherine II.
During the deportation he preached his doctrine in a true mystical delirium, affirming at the sect’s meetings that he was the Tsar of Russia, for which reason he was recalled to Petersburg by Tsar Paul I, curious to meet him.
Housed as a king and courted by the Russian nobility, Selivanov ended up calling the tsar by his first name, for which he ended up being sent to prison.
He was removed there for a short period of time by Alexander II until he became once again extremely familiar with the Tsar and was sent off again to spend more time incarcerated and once again, deported.
During his travel to Siberia, he spent a considerable amount of time in monasteries where he kept preaching his beliefs. He died in 1832 at the ripe old age of 112 years old.
Although the Skoptsy movement was the work of a wandering peasant, it quickly spread to the cities around the capital of the Russian Empire. It brought together believers from all social classes, even though the authorities at the time described them as “enemies of humanity, destroyers of morality, and criminals subject to divine and civil laws.”
Russian Skopites were gentle, polite people who did not drink alcohol and abhorred violence, which made them popular in Russia at the time, but their sect was considered by the authorities as a dangerous heresy.
They call each other “white doves” to appear innocent, which is also why they live in a kind of community with men and women who call each other “brothers” and “sisters”. The characteristic that defined their lives was sexual abstinence through the castration of both men and women.
They confessed to believing that Christ assumed the guise of a “Muscal” named Selivanov, founder of the Skoptsy religion and that he will return to Earth to save the world.
At the same time, the Holy Synod of the Russian Church proclaimed the sect of castrates a dangerous heresy and accused its members of being blasphemers. Despite being widely regarded as heretical and extreme, the Skoptsy were able to survive and even thrive in some areas of Russia and had a significant impact on Russian society and culture.
By the mid-19th century, the Skoptsy had reached 10,000 members. However, reports on the exact number are varied, with some sources claiming that number to be around 20,000, while others go as high as 100,000 followers.
Facing prosecution and exile to Siberia, many Skopites members began to look for shelter outside the borders of Russia – and found it in Romanian territory.
Most of them integrated into the local populations, but many of them remained faithful to their religious beliefs and lived in isolation, on the margins of their communities. They also founded their own caste called the Muscali.
Beliefs and Practices
The Skoptsy practised a form of dualism, in which the material world was seen as inherently corrupt and sinful, while the spiritual world was seen as pure and perfect.
The central belief of the Skoptsy was that the body was inherently sinful and corrupt and strived to achieve the spiritual perfection that they believed the first humans on the planet enjoyed, before original sin.
The only way to achieve this spiritual purity was to remove the source of sin, which they believed to be the male genitalia. They practised mastectomies on women and castrated men as a form of baptism that was necessary for salvation. They also believed that it would give them access to a higher spiritual realm, where they would be able to communicate directly with God.
For the members of the Skoptsy sect, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, they each carried half an apple inside, which caused the formation of the male and female sexual organs. According to Skoptsy doctrine, this separation had created a fundamental imbalance in the universe, which could only be rectified through its amputation.
This idea came from the Biblical passage read in Matthew 5:28-29-30:
You have heard that it was said: do not commit adultery! But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to desire her has committed adultery in his heart. And if your right eye leads you to sin, pluck it out and throw it from you; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, but that thy whole body should not be cast into hell. And if your right hand leads you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is good for you that one of your members should perish, but that your whole body should not be thrown into Gehenna.
Starting from this text of the Bible, the Skoptsy believed that men and women should have their genital organs removed. The rule was for men to be castrated after the family had two children, but there were groups of extremists who did this from adolescence and then adopted children.
Castration was usually done after the birth of the first male child, and families having to produce at least two offspring. However, there were also Skopites who renounced manhood only after the ninth or tenth child, which shows that, nevertheless, the rules were quite lax regarding the choice of the moment. The point was that they had to procreate in order to observe divine laws. According to the Bible, the second coming of Jesus will take place after the cult has reached the apocalyptic number of 144,000 members.
The practice of self-castration was central to Skoptsy’s theology, and both men and women were expected to undergo the procedure. The procedure was usually performed without anaesthetic and involved the removal of the entire penis and testicles. In some cases, the Skoptsy would also remove the nipples, in order to achieve a more androgynous appearance.
The Skoptsy practised two variants of the castration ritual. Partial or minor castration called the “lesser seal”, in which only the testicles were removed, and complete castration or “major seal”, which involved the total surgical removal of the male reproductive organ. In this case, the men had to use a cow’s horn or lead pipe to urinate.
Female mutilation was just as gruesome. And even if their genitals had not been removed, they had to undergo the amputation of both breasts. The surgery was carried out without anaesthesia and a common knife.
The “minor seals” and “major seals” thing is something Selivanov came up with after using quotes from the Book of Revelation about the Seven Seals heralding the end of the world.
The operation was done by the old women of the group, but there were also moments of “mystical madness” in which the men mutilated themselves. Some men also self-flagellated after long mystical dance sessions, which helped them reach the peak of spiritual trance. Then the wound was cauterized with a hot iron, as they did with cattle, and a small zinc or lead tube was fitted to the patient so that the urine would not irritate the wound. This ritual was called “the baptism of fire.”
For Selivanov’s supporters, the sexual organs represented the gates to hell, which the devil himself took advantage of. During the mutilation ritual, the person who became a eunuch had to sing and implore forgiveness saying: “Christ is risen!”
Essentially, the Skoptsy believed that sex should only be for the perpetuation of the species, and pleasure was considered a mortal sin. The Skoptsy promoted the extirpation of the testicles of men and the breasts of women, in order to abstain from “the sin of the flesh”.
The Skoptsy also practised a variety of other ascetic practices, including fasting, prayer, and meditation. They believed that these practices were necessary in order to achieve spiritual purity and that they would help to overcome the temptations of the flesh. The Skoptsy also believed in the importance of communal living, and many sect members lived together in communes, where they could support each other in their spiritual quest.
It was believed about them that they practised infanticide and cannibalism and that they would have performed a Black liturgy on the naked body of a woman whose child was sacrificed, a woman called the Virgin. However, all these are part of a stereotype in order to discredit the sect, so it is very likely that they are not true.
Criticism and Controversy
The practice of self-castration was widely regarded as abhorrent by both the Orthodox Church and the wider society, and the Skoptsy were often the subject of ridicule and persecution. The Russian government outlawed the practice of self-castration in the early 19th century, and the Skoptsy were subjected to a variety of other restrictions and prohibitions over the years.
The Skoptsy were also criticized for their perceived heretical beliefs and practices. Many Orthodox Christians regarded the sect as a dangerous cult and accused them of promoting anti-Christian doctrines. They were also criticized for their communal living arrangements, which were seen as a challenge to the traditional family structure.
The first great spread of the Skopites occurred within the territory of Russia.
Because of the scale and size of the sect, reaching an estimate of 20,000 followers, and adding to their strange practices other mysterious aspects of the lives of these people (secret nocturnal meetings, the fact that they had no cemeteries and it was not known what they do with their dead, or the mutilations during mystical delusions, often done with axes, sickles, scythes, knives, etc.), the Russian authorities launched a persecution against them, deporting them en masse to Siberia.
Out of choice, out of necessity, many Skopites chose to flee frosty Siberia and emigrated to Moldova and Romania, especially to the south of Moldavia and Dobrogea, often mixing with the Lipovians, with whom they were sometimes confused.
But, although they had a common origin, the Lipovians did not completely accept the Scapeti, because of their strange religious practices, and they were forced to live on the edge of the communities of their brothers.
Other groups of scapegoats settled in several large cities (Bucharest, Galati, Iaşi), where they practised the profession of Muscali Birjar.
In Bucharest, they lived on a street near Obor, which was named Birjarilor Street (today Bishop Radu Street), and they had houses different from those of the Romanians. According to the chroniclers of the time, the houses had wooden gates, three meters high, which did not allow prying eyes to see inside the yards.
The 1861 census showed that there were 8,375 Scopiti in Romania, men and women, and in 1871 their number rose to 16,098.
The Muscali Birjars of Romania
The Muscali (or Muscals) came first with the Russian armies entering Romania in 1828. The Russian officers had difficulty walking the muddy street of the city, so they brought with them their subordinate officers to act as carriage drivers.
The term “Muscali” comes from the Russian “moskal”, simply meaning from Moscow, or around it. They also brought with them “birja”, which in Russian means “stock market” (carriage). Birja refers to the profession of the Skoptsy as carriage drivers, an expression that referred to Strada Bursei in St. Petersburg, the place where the carriages were stationed.
Hence, the expression Birjars, or Muscali Birjars became synonymous with carriage drivers.
The members of this minority soon had the monopoly of city transportation between the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century in several large Romanian cities.
For almost 100 years, the main boulevards of Bucharest, and especially the National Theater Square, were occupied by the beautiful carriages drawn by the well-groomed horses of the muscali.
They were part of the mundane life of the city from another time. They knew the city and its people very well. They knew their customers and their destinations. But they were just as polite and discreet.
Russian carriage drivers are some of the most striking personalities in Galaţi. They wear ankle-length blue velvet coats and pink satin shirts… On their heads they wear caps with peaks… All those carriage drivers they are members of a small religious cult: the Skoptsy, who were expelled from Russia because of their strange beliefs and practices and who later settled in Bucharest. They are exclusively dedicated to the business of breeding and selling horses, as well as driving of carriagesEthel Greening Pantazzi’s “Roumania in Light & Shadow”
They were highly regarded and respected, made a name for themselves through fairness and humility, and never caused a scandal. They knew the city well and could take you to any corner of it. Legend has it that only wealthy people could use their services and that when the client got into the carriage, all they had to do was say the word “house”: the Muscali would infallibly know where to take them.
The most famous “muscal” from Bucharest, left in history, was Mihail Ivanov, whom everyone knew by “Mișca“. He owned the stock exchange with the number “1“ and in his “garage” rested seven coupes, the same number of carriages, and two cabriolets and he had 20 servants who took care of 50 magnificent horses.
History has also recorded the names of some popular carriage drivers at the time—among them Alexa, Ivanov, Sasha, and Mishka—further evidence of their Slavic roots. Mishka, for example, is said to have been very popular with the wealthy ladies of Bucharest because its carriages were drawn only by white horses. They were a kind of luxury sports car of the time.
Accounts from that time explain that young ladies loved to be driven around town by huge Skoptsy carriage drivers, and indeed their wealthy husbands were content to leave them in the care of eunuchs, who would not endanger their lives, marriage or reputation. At the end of the 19th century, the business of carriages and drivers was controlled by the Skoptsy sect. They were famous for being the best drivers and for having the most beautiful and luxurious carriages.
The number of Muscali carriages grew considerably in the second half of the 19th century, and traffic suffered. That is the reason why, at the beginning of the year 1879, the prefect of Bucharest promulgated several ordinances to regulate the business that seriously affected the Muscali commercial activity. All drivers were required to use established stops and routes and adhere to a schedule. Carriages not carrying customers were forbidden to pass through the busiest streets in the city.
All of these regulations led to a decline in the number of carriage drivers in the early 20th century.
Progress leaves no room for tradition. Around 1900, the first automobile was seen in Bucharest. The first traffic rules appeared around 1912 and the Muscali felt it necessary to adapt to modern times. As horse-drawn carriages disappear, the few Muscalis left became taxi drivers.
The Last of the Muscali
Over time, in the face of persecution, but also of the modernization of society, the traditions of the Skopites began to disappear.
The last testimony about the castration ritual comes from a criminal case from 1957, when three people from the town of Măcin in Tulcea were sentenced to hard years in prison after they mutilated a member of the sect by cutting off his genitals.
The subsequent hearings by the prosecutors led to the conclusion that the sect disappeared, all residents of Russian origin in the Măcin area declaring themselves Lipovans of the old rite and denying that they had ever been followers of “Skoptsy”.
The Skoptsy were a relatively small and isolated sect, and their beliefs and practices were widely regarded as extreme and heretical by both the Orthodox Church and the wider society. Despite this, the Skoptsy were able to survive and even thrive in some areas of Russia, particularly in the Volga region. The sect continued to exist in various forms well into the 20th century, although by that time their numbers had dwindled considerably.
The Scopiți also had a significant impact on Russian society, particularly in the areas where they were most active. The sect was known for its charitable works, and many Skoptsy communes provided aid to the poor and disadvantaged. The Skoptsy were also involved in the peasant uprising of 1773-1775, which was led by the Cossack leader Yemelyan Pugachev. Although the Skoptsy were not the primary instigators of the uprising, they were among its supporters, and some sect members played important roles in the rebellion.
The Skopites also had a significant impact on Russian literature and culture. The sect was the subject of numerous literary works, including the novel “The Possessed” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which features a character modelled on the Skoptsy leader Kondraty Selivanov. The Skoptsy also inspired a number of artists, including the painter Pavel Fedotov, who depicted the sect in a number of his works.
Despite their small numbers and the extreme nature of their beliefs, the Skoptsy were able to maintain a significant presence in Russia for several centuries. Today, the Skoptsy are largely forgotten, but their legacy lives on in the stories and artwork that they inspired and in the memories of those who knew them. While their practices may seem extreme and abhorrent to many, the Skoptsy serve as a reminder of the diversity and complexity of religious beliefs and practices, and the enduring human quest for spiritual purity and transcendence.
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