What can a Secret Russian Castration Cult tell us about Freedom and Anti-Vaxxers?

How the Skoptsy and their Messiah can shed new light on dangerous ideas.

The Past in the Present
10 min readSep 7, 2021
An ecstatic dance, depicted in an 18th Century Woodcut.

TThe boy looked back to the cellar door. He could see his aunt’s face, painted in candle-light and tears. For a second, her eyes spoke silent words of sympathy. Just for a second — then they hardened again. “If you do not want this, then you are not one of us and we will have no pity on you. Wherever you may go you will be called polukozel (half-man, half-goat) and the door of the larder will be shut to you.” The cellar door closes, and the boy is left alone with the men who were offering him salvation — salvation, as defined in Matthew 19:12.

“For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”

Gerasim Egorovich Prudovskii was ten years old when he was doubly castrated, and formally entered one of history’s most disturbing religious sects — The Skoptsy. Founded by a leader who claimed to be both the Messiah and the reincarnation of Tsar Peter III, the Skoptsy were a Christian spiritualist sect that preached voluntary castration as the only way to achieve spiritual health and enter heaven. Despite requiring the unanaesthetised removal of the testicles, penis, breasts and sometimes even labia and clitoris, the Skoptsy grew to wield a (somewhat disputed) influence over Russian Society in the 18th-19th Centuries. Indeed, they persisted long enough to require systematic persecution and a mass trial in 1929.

How can you convince an Aunt to volunteer her nephew for this? How could an illiterate, homeless peasant command an audience with a Tsar by convincing thousands to mutilate themselves? Finally, what does their persecution tell us about bodily autonomy, freedoms and state power? Can the state use its coercive power, to prevent its citizenry from harming themselves? What about when these citizens then spread these ideas, and encourage others to join them in their self-imposed deprivations?

The Messiah who would be King

In September 2020, you may have read that Jesus had been arrested in Russia. If you had read on, you would have learnt about Sergei Torop, a former traffic officer, who had garnered thousands of followers having declared himself ‘the living word of God.’ Between the wildfires, pandemics and hospitalised presidents, this news story probably struck you as impossibly mundane.

Indeed, in the long-span of Russian history, it is. It was a headline that could equally have been used over 200 years before in 1775, during the reign of Catherine the Great, when Kondratii Selivanov, the founder of the Skoptsy Sect was exiled to Siberia. Apparently a vagrant peasant, he maintained a fog of obscurity around his origins. The less situated in place and time he was, the more divine he could appear. Selivanov had emerged from the ‘The People of God’, an austere sect of the 17th Century Russian Church whose congregations were led by elders symbolically called Christ and Mother of God. Its practices revolved around a seemingly paradoxical mix: on the one hand ecstatic dancing and singing; on the other, rigourous abstinence. They renounced sex, meat, drink and profanity — the only things, to my mind, which would have made life as a 17th Century indentured farmer tolerable.

The only contemporary image of Selivanov

Selivanov pushed this logic of belief to its extremes. Citing the above passage in the Bible, amongst others, the Skoptsy created a hierarchy of self-mutilation. Men who had removed just their testicles, as had happened to the young Prudovskii months before the incident in the first paragraph took place, obtained a first level of purity, known as the ‘whitening seal.’ The second level, known as the ‘imperial seal’ was the removal of the penis. Women’s ceremonies included the removal of nipples, whole breasts, labia and the clitoris. It was only by removing these body parts that the adherents could make themselves truly pure. These operations were performed with knives but without anaesthetic, or even alcohol to blunt the pain.

It is impossible to know what is more incredible — that people volunteered themselves for this procedure, or that they survived it.

Selivanov claimed a remarkable life for himself. He claimed that his virgin mother had been a prophet of the People of God called Akulina Ivanovna; that he could survive on air and water alone; that he could talk to wolves. Having escaped from Siberia, he declared that he was asked by Tsar Paul I to crown him at his coronation, but that he had been sent to an asylum for demanding that the Tsar be castrated first. Perhaps declaring himself to be the reincarnation of the Tsar’s father did not help his cause either. From 1802 he lived in St Petersburg, publishing his autobiography and gaining more and more followers. At least, until he converted the nephews of the city’s Governor General, who also happened to be the most decorated officer in the Russian Army, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars, Mikhail Miloradovich. Imagine a Russian general. Now imagine being responsible for the castration of his nephews. Considering the circumstances, Selivanov was probably lucky to be confined to a monastery outside of Moscow. Or perhaps, his aura as a religious leader, made any stronger punishment seem impossible.

To his followers, his arrests, beatings and castration mirrored the Passions of Christ. Like Jesus, he had been a preternaturally pure man, who was persecuted and punished by a corrupt, ‘secular’ state. He portrayed himself both as a man who existed outside of time and place, but who tied himself to the peasantry of Russia through common, folkish idioms and sayings. He was both the austere, pure figure who could exist seemingly on water alone, and the seductive, charming figure who could gather followers and challenge both orthodoxy and the law. He offered his followers freedom from their hard, repressive lives at the bottom of the Russian feudal hierarchy — freedom through self-denial, self-imposed exile and mutilation.

Surely, there is nothing to be learnt about such extreme, masochistic beliefs that can be applied to today’s moral landscape…

You’re Only Harming Yourself…

Throughout their existence, the Skoptsy were persecuted by the state. Selivanov was exiled, Tsar Nicholas I commissioned a top-secret commission into their beliefs and practices, whilst further trials occurred in 1910 and under the Soviets in 1927, when it seems, they were crushed. But why?

It is one of those questions where the answer initially seems incredibly clear, but the more you think about the matter the murkier the matter becomes. Almost all of its adherents claimed to undergo the operation of their own free will. The Skoptsy were known in their local communities for their sobriety, hard-work and economic success. Why should a Tsar be threatened by a sober, hard-working eunuch-peasant?

Some trials cited religious reasons, declaring the sect heretical. Sin existed in the soul, not the body, so the argument went, so this was the wrong way to go about mastering forbidden desires. A secular version of this argument was made later, this time saying that virtue could come only through self-mastery. The state needed to intervene as there was a direct link between private and civic virtue.

By 1870, heresy was no longer a criminal act, but castration motivated by religious fanaticism was. The contradiction between the two legal positions here is clear — the first gave legal status to private belief, but the second used the beliefs to criminalise the rituals.

Later than these arguments, came objections that we might find more familiar. Some claimed that a virulent hardcore were praying on the vulnerable and dispossessed — to the poor peasant they offered relief from the military draft, escape from serfdom, economic support, and the hope of equality and fellowship. Whilst perhaps you may also prefer castration to dying in the Russian military, explaining the sect’s appeal in these terms made the community seem sinister, while converts were relieved of responsibility for their choice. As we saw with Gerasim Egorovich Prudovskii’s castration, the cult also indoctrinated their children and forced both belief and ritual onto them.

All of which brings us seamlessly onto the Anti-Vaxx movement. But first, let’s take a tour of 19th Century French political philosophy.

Benjamin Constant: Freedom and Free Healthcare

Benjamin Constant was a political theorist who lived through the French Revolution, the Terror, Napoleon’s reign and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Despite clearly being a canny political operative, he is most well-known, and most useful to our essay, as a key figure in the development of classical liberalism. His most famous essay on this subject is ‘The Liberty of the Ancients compared to that of the Moderns,’ a brilliant piece of writing published in 1819.

In it he states that liberty for Ancient (For Constant, this meant Classical Greek) societies was the freedom of the state. Through ‘the active and constant participation in the collective power’ the citizens could influence ‘collectively, but directly, several parts of the whole’ society. They had, however, no private rights. To be a free Greek, was to be a member of a city which was not under the control of another.

“As a citizen, he decides on peace and war; as private individual, he is circumscribed, observed, repressed in all his movements.”

Constant contrasted this with Modern liberty — that is, freedom from state interference. Modern liberty required that individuals be allowed to conduct themselves how they wish in the private sphere, and that individuals have rights which must be respected. They still, however, exist within a free society, and it is only this society which guarantees their freedoms.

In his essay, Constant wrestles with the contradictions these contrasting ideas create, and concludes that the modern citizen must be both ancient and modern. Individual liberties can only be protected through civic minded participation in society, as the only way to stop an over powerful society from crushing your individualism, is to participate in it. Political freedom is how private freedom can be maintained. However, if an individual is too free, and too devoted to their pursuit of individual interests, they endanger their individual liberty, as it is the power of the society which guarantees your freedom as a private citizen. Individual freedoms that threaten political freedoms are therefore also a threat to the individual. You cannot be free to betray your people, to murder fellow citizens or endanger their liberties. Constant suggests ostracism as a way to counter this. When individuals value their own liberty too highly over the liberty of the collective they can be rejected from this society.

Anti-Vaccine Protestors attacking the ITN Broadcast Headquarters.

Which is where the modern problem of vaccine hesitancy begins. To the COVID vaccine hesitant, the arguments against vaccination often run as follows: 1) The vaccine is more harmful than COVID. 2) The vaccines do not stop people from spreading the virus. 3) If point 2 is true, I am not harming anyone else, and my bodily autonomy is a paramount component of my freedom.

Point 1 is completely untrue, whilst Point 2, according to the CDC’s latest guidance (which has changed frequently according to the latest science) may be true. Even then, it is only the case for the Delta Variant and the data on this is not fully understood.

The anti-vaccine movement, like the Skoptsy, would argue that they are causing no harm, either to themselves or others. The Skoptsy believed that though castration, freely chosen, they were securing their spiritual purity. Similarly, the vaccine hesitant believe that if they refuse a jab, they are no more likely to spread the virus, and are maintaining their own, bodily purity. Therefore their private, Modern liberty must be respected.

It is clear, however, that the threat of the Skoptsy was never that they wished to castrate themselves. It is that they wished to castrate others. They were an explicitly proselytising movement, offering higher status to those who brought twelve new converts to the movement. They castrated their children as soon as they could, to secure their souls and it is estimated that at their height their membership numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

It is because of this, that the Modern Liberty of the Skoptsy was subordinated to the Ancient Liberty of the state. Their individual freedom was threatening the health of the state, and it was therefore revoked.

Likewise, whilst the anti-vaccine movement emphasise their individual choice, they clearly also wish to influence the choices of others. Why else would believer spread misinformation through every available social media platform? This too is a proselytising movement, urging violent revolution, storming broadcast news stations in an attempt to spread their message to the masses. If we were to conclude that these individuals are only harming themselves, we assume that there is no way that they could contribute to the conversion of anyone else. Their freedom of speech, a Modern Liberty in Constant’s parlance, is leading to the hospitalisation, long-term impairment and death of thousands of others.

Constant would propose ostracism. Catherine the Great, exile. The USSR, the gulag. Whilst this may be taking a sledgehammer to a nut, these episodes raise important questions, the sorts of questions which not only recur through history, but often define it. When does the freedom of the individual take precedence over the freedom of others? Are you really operating freely, if your actions are inspired by misinformation? Where would you draw your dividing lines?

Further Reading



The Past in the Present

Using the past to illuminate the present. Written by a UK based educator with a Masters in Ancient History and History and too little spare time.