Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 539-542
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Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom:
A Russian Folktale
Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale. By Laura Engelstein. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xvii + 281. $32.50 (cloth).
During the Russian imperial period, many religious groups sought to carve out their own niches in a society legally and structurally linked to the [End Page 539] dominant Russian Orthodox Church. In response, they persecuted the non-Orthodox based on their own categories, from "schismatic" (Old Believers, who maintained an older form of Russian Orthodoxy) to heretical and even "most pernicious." The worst among "most pernicious" were the Skoptsy, a group that mixed traditional Orthodox piety with ecstatic group worship and--most incredibly--ritual castration, mutilation, and dismemberment. This group, at the outermost fringes of Russian society, is the subject of Laura Engelstein's new book.
The book's main source of information is the archive of Skoptsy material maintained in the State Museum of the History of Religion (formerly known as the Museum of Religion and Atheism). There, in the files of a Communist scholar (Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich) lies a trove of material in the Skoptsy's own voice--letters, reports, photographs, religious texts, and illustrations from the life of these castrators. In addition, Engelstein uses the growing number of secondary works on Russian religious nonconformity to flesh out her analysis of Skoptsy life in Russia and the U.S.S.R.
It would have been relatively easy for Engelstein to develop a traditional narrative about her subject, leading her readers through a chronological account. Instead, she chooses to forgo that more obvious format to analyze the Skoptsy from a postmodern perspective, letting one story interrupt another, inserting her own archival experiences into the text, and thereby reminding the reader that no single experience, no single narrative, defines the Skoptsy's history. Moreover, I suspect that Engelstein has developed this approach to allow "the historian to balance the external and the internal and to weigh the social and subjective meanings of this particular extremity, so transcendently transgressive yet so tightly bound to the situation [the Skoptsy] found themselves in" (pp. 7-8).
Also true to themes of postmodern scholarship, Engelstein finds importance in the Skoptsy because they lived at the edges of Russian society, both by choice (through the acceptance of castration) and by the revulsion of their neighbors and the state. The act of castration forever severed these believers from the body politic and forced them into exile. The Skoptsy accepted--even embraced--this hardship as a part of their struggle for salvation. Yet at the same time, believers often sought to reclaim their lives from Siberia (they returned as soon as was legally possible to central Russia) and often became financially well off through use of mutual aid and business savvy. Indeed, some even held that castration played only a small part of the Skoptsy experience--the rest had to do with fighting temptation in forms other than sexuality. "A form of corrective surgery," Engelstein writes, castration "returned males and females to the prelapsarian asexuality before Adam and Eve entered into the cruel flux of time. . . . But the Skoptsy were a living community, in time as well as beyond" (p. 93). [End Page 540]
The Skoptsy took their initial impetus for castration from the Gospel of Matthew 19:12, which, literally interpreted, praised men who became eunuchs for Christ's sake. As Engelstein notes, castration was not completely unknown in the Christian tradition, but she rightly points out that there is no evidence to show that eighteenth-century rural Russians knew of precedents to their cause. This action (and the ecstatic forms of worship that accompanied life among the Skoptsy) derived not from a hyperliteralist Protestantism with its emphasis on the written word. Instead, Engelstein says that the Skoptsy took part in Russian Orthodox parish life but "pursued the logic of Orthodoxy to the point of incoherence" (p. 4). Thus, the Skoptsy revered icons much like their Orthodox...