Is the end of the world to be feared or welcomed? In these godless times, it is usually the former. Doomsday scenarios of nuclear war, climate change or civilisational collapse offer no possibility of redemption — just endless death. Gaze into the abyss of apocalypse, and it gazes also into you; thus was Greta Thunberg transformed into our era’s most prominent apocalyptic prophet. After reflecting upon the implications of the melting ice caps, she embarked on her 21st century children’s crusade to demand that the adults do something.
Throughout history many people have felt terror when the end seemed nigh; but there have also been those for whom the apocalypse could not come soon enough. Zoroaster, Christ, Mohammed and Marx all posited the coming of a happy day when this corrupted world would end, giving way to a better one.
Some enthusiastic souls proposed precise dates: in AD156 the followers of Montanus gathered on the plains of Asia Minor waiting for the New Jerusalem to descend, while 1,500 years later Isaac Newton pored over the books of Daniel and Revelation, before coming to the conclusion that the world would end within a hundred years of his own lifetime. Montanus and Newton were wrong, like all the others who have sought to fix a date for the end.
But what if it were possible to wrest the apocalyptic timetable from the hands of God or History and accelerate the advent of the new world? Well, some claim to have done that, too — such as Kondraty Selivanov, a Russian peasant who in the 18th century revealed to his followers, the Skopts, that if they castrated 144,000 people (the number of “the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb” in chapter 14 of Revelation) then they would bring about the end of the world, last judgement and resurrection. That the Skopts may have numbered 100,000 before being annihilated by Stalin nearly a century and half later says a lot about the motivating power of apocalyptic longing.
The Skopts first appear in the historical record in 1771, in a strange encounter between two peasants bathing in a river in the Oryol region, close to the modern-day border with the Ukraine. One of them lacked genitals and explained to the other that he had castrated himself to avoid performing his conjugal duties. The authorities were called in to investigate and eventually discovered that 32 men in the surrounding villages had submitted to what Selivanov referred to as the “fiery baptism” in the hope of securing salvation.
Russia provided fertile soil for apocalyptic movements. In the mid-17th century liturgical reforms had caused a schism in the Church, giving rise to a multitude of radical sects convinced that they were living in the end times. For a hundred years assorted ascetics, orgiasts and self-immolators had suffered persecution at the hands of the state; Selivanov was originally a “Khlyst”, who followed their own Christs and whirled themselves into states of ecstatic delirium.
By a phonetic sleight-of-hand he transformed Christ the Saviour (iskupitel’) into Christ the Castrator (oskopitel’), while also teaching that John the Baptist had castrated Christ, and sexual characteristics only sprouted on Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit. Skopt baptism came in two styles: “the Little Seal” entailed either the removal of the testicles or a woman’s nipples. “The Great Seal” required the amputation of the penis or breasts. A cauterising blade was applied afterwards, the Skopts applying the same techniques they used on their livestock to themselves.
In the old days, Selivanov would have been burned at the stake, but he lived during the reign of Catherine the Great, who fancied herself enlightened. Catherine’s response to the Skopts was that they were “simpletons” who believed in “irrational nonsense”. Selivanov was sent out of harm’s way to Siberia; but a man capable of castrating himself does not bend easily, and Selivanov did not change his opinions during the two decades he spent in exile. Rather, he started claiming that he was both the Messiah and Catherine’s deceased husband, Peter III. After her death he travelled to Saint Petersburg where he won an audience with the new Tsar, Pavel I, who was curious to meet this strange character claiming to be his father. When Selivanov urged his “son” to get castrated, he was dispatched to a mad house.
This was a temporary setback, however. In 1801, Pavel’s son Alexander ascended to the throne, a fad for mysticism swept through Saint Petersburg and the castrated messiah soon found himself a welcome guest at mansions in the capital. Alexei Elyansky, the Royal Chamberlain, was so much a true believer that he prepared a detailed proposal for the conversion of all Russia to the Skopt faith, which he submitted to Alexander in 1804.
In Elyansky’s vision, the army and every state institution would be guided by a holy eunuch, while Selivanov himself would advise Alexander. Inexplicably, the Tsar rejected this plan, and Elyansky was dispatched to a monastery. Selivanov was permitted to remain in Saint Petersburg, however, and the Skopts were allowed a temple which held 300 worshippers. In 1805 Alexander is said to have consulted with Selivanov before embarking on his campaign against Napoleon, who the Skopts regarded as Antichrist. It was only in 1820, when the Tsar found out that members of the military had submitted to the fiery baptism, that the extraordinarily persuasive Selivanov was expelled from the capital. Confined to a monastery outside Moscow, he died in 1832 at the age of 112.
The Skopts regarded their 20-year period in the capital as their “golden age”. After the fall of their charismatic leader, they had to come up with explanations for their missing genitalia, as self-castration had been made illegal in 1816. Excuses ranged from injuries sustained in the Napoleonic war to random passers-by carrying sharp blades; in 1826 the law was revised so that blaming your missing body parts on the deeds of wicked strangers was treated as an admission of guilt. Those found guilty were dispatched to Siberia, where they could prove useful to the Tsar by helping settle the frontier.
Scattered across the empire, the Skopts awaited the return of Selivanov, who they believed was still roaming Russia in secret. As each generation of the sect faced its own built-in apocalypse, members were allowed to have a child before submitting to the fiery baptism. They tried not to draw attention to themselves and were known as a prosperous community. But stories circulated that they ate the testicles and breasts they amputated, while Andrei Sinyavsky states in Ivan the Fool, his account of Russian folk history, that they paid poor people to let them castrate them. Echoing anti-Semitic tropes, the Skopts were also accused of draining blood from infants and using their ground up corpses as an ingredient in communion bread.
Meanwhile, as the Skopts were alternately evading or enduring the attention of the authorities, the works of a new prophet were published in Saint Petersburg. Like Selivanov, Karl Marx predicted that an end to the existing order was coming, although it was not the castrated but the proletariat who would inherit the earth. Vladimir Lenin was the most successful of Marx’s interpreters: like Selivanov, he was not content to wait for the apocalyptic moment but set out to accelerate it. According to Marxist theory, the Revolution was not supposed to begin in backwards Russia but rather in an advanced capitalist nation such as Germany. But Lenin, like Selivanov before him, revised doctrine to suit his psychological needs, and after seizing power in 1917 dispatched agents to accelerate the world revolution.
As for the Skopts, they welcomed the new regime, hoping that the Bolsheviks meant what they said about religious tolerance. They did not realise that revolutionary ethics justified lying for the sake of the cause, just as their own ethics justified lying to protect their pursuit of 144,000 castrations. But the Skopts were marked for extinction: derided in anti-religious propaganda, they were then targeted for violent repression as “Kulaks” — rich peasants — during the Stalinist regime. After a century and a half of cutting and cauterising their way towards a happy ending, they were swiftly wiped out by a rival sect that aimed its violence at its enemies rather than its members’ groins.
Today the Skopts occupy a marginal place in the study of Russian history. There is one book about them in English, by Laura Engelstein, a chapter in Sinyavsky’s out-of-print study, and a few mentions in encyclopedias of religion here and there. But sometimes I imagine an Adam Curtis-style retelling of the last two and a half centuries that places the Skopts at the centre of things, as if they represent the most perfect articulation of an idea that played out over time.
After all, lots of religions involve some kind of mortification of the flesh to help the faithful overcome their earthly desires, but since Origen castrated himself in the early 3rd century AD, very few adherents of any creed have shown much willingness to go all in and cut off temptation at its root, and none besides Selivanov have built a theology around it. That it took a millennium and half to happen gives us a sense of what it takes to override the command to multiply received from God in Genesis 1:28 and which Richard Dawkins tells us is encoded in our very genes.
Understand the power of the desire that drove the Skopts and you might also better understand just how it was that the Bolsheviks, an obscure sect with a still more accelerationist apocalyptic creed managed to take over the world’s largest country; and you can also see how impoverished our modern pseudo-religions are in comparison, amounting to little more than intra-elite games played for power in earthly institutions.
Even the passionate protestors of Extinction Rebellion seem to lack all motivation next to the Skopts. The truth is that anxiety about apocalypse is not enough; you have to believe in something wonderful awaiting us once we have passed through the ordeals of the end. If you have that then truly incredible things are possible — including incredibly grotesque, stupid and destructive things.