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Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale (Revised)

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Of the many sects that broke from the official Russian Orthodox church in the eighteenth century, one was universally despised. Its members were peasants from the Russian heartland skilled in the arts of animal husbandry who turned their knives on themselves to become "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." Convinced that salvation came only with the literal excision o Of the many sects that broke from the official Russian Orthodox church in the eighteenth century, one was universally despised. Its members were peasants from the Russian heartland skilled in the arts of animal husbandry who turned their knives on themselves to become "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." Convinced that salvation came only with the literal excision of the instruments of sin, they were known as Skoptsy (the self-castrated). Their community thrived well into the twentieth century, when it was destroyed in the Stalinist Terror.In a major feat of historical reconstruction, Laura Engelstein tells the sect's astonishing tale. She describes the horrified reactions to the sect by outsiders, including outraged bureaucrats, physicians, and theologians. More important, she allows the Skoptsy a say in defining the contours of their history and the meaning behind their sacrifice. Her deft handling of their letters and notebooks lends her book unusual depth and pathos, and she provides a heartbreaking account of willing exile and of religious belief so strong that its adherents accepted terrible pain and the denial of a basic human experience. Although the Skoptsy express joy at their salvation, the words of even the most fervent believers reveal the psychological suffering of life on society's margins.No foreign tribe or exotic import, the sect drew its members from the larger peasant society where marriage was expected and adulthood began with the wedding night. Set apart by the very act that guaranteed their redemption, these "lambs of God" became adept at concealing their sectarian identity as they interacted with their Orthodox neighbors. Interaction was necessary, Engelstein explains, since the survival of the Skoptsy depended upon recruitment of new members and on success in agriculture and trade.Realizing that some prejudices have changed little over the centuries, Engelstein cautions that "we must not cast the shadow of our own distress on the story of the Skoptsy. Their physical suffering was something they willingly embraced." In Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom, she has produced a remarkable history that also illuminates the mysteries of the human heart.


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Of the many sects that broke from the official Russian Orthodox church in the eighteenth century, one was universally despised. Its members were peasants from the Russian heartland skilled in the arts of animal husbandry who turned their knives on themselves to become "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." Convinced that salvation came only with the literal excision o Of the many sects that broke from the official Russian Orthodox church in the eighteenth century, one was universally despised. Its members were peasants from the Russian heartland skilled in the arts of animal husbandry who turned their knives on themselves to become "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." Convinced that salvation came only with the literal excision of the instruments of sin, they were known as Skoptsy (the self-castrated). Their community thrived well into the twentieth century, when it was destroyed in the Stalinist Terror.In a major feat of historical reconstruction, Laura Engelstein tells the sect's astonishing tale. She describes the horrified reactions to the sect by outsiders, including outraged bureaucrats, physicians, and theologians. More important, she allows the Skoptsy a say in defining the contours of their history and the meaning behind their sacrifice. Her deft handling of their letters and notebooks lends her book unusual depth and pathos, and she provides a heartbreaking account of willing exile and of religious belief so strong that its adherents accepted terrible pain and the denial of a basic human experience. Although the Skoptsy express joy at their salvation, the words of even the most fervent believers reveal the psychological suffering of life on society's margins.No foreign tribe or exotic import, the sect drew its members from the larger peasant society where marriage was expected and adulthood began with the wedding night. Set apart by the very act that guaranteed their redemption, these "lambs of God" became adept at concealing their sectarian identity as they interacted with their Orthodox neighbors. Interaction was necessary, Engelstein explains, since the survival of the Skoptsy depended upon recruitment of new members and on success in agriculture and trade.Realizing that some prejudices have changed little over the centuries, Engelstein cautions that "we must not cast the shadow of our own distress on the story of the Skoptsy. Their physical suffering was something they willingly embraced." In Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom, she has produced a remarkable history that also illuminates the mysteries of the human heart.

45 review for Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale (Revised)

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mathew Carrick

    Engelstein's book is, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive look at the Skoptsy that exists in the English language. She does an excellent job of providing a balanced, nuanced look at the sect that doesn't just focus on the lurid details of castration (though there's plenty of that). Much of the book is translated primary source documents that are fascinating to read. Most importantly, Engelstein treats the Skoptsy as sincere believers, and even though much of their beliefs were inconsistent a Engelstein's book is, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive look at the Skoptsy that exists in the English language. She does an excellent job of providing a balanced, nuanced look at the sect that doesn't just focus on the lurid details of castration (though there's plenty of that). Much of the book is translated primary source documents that are fascinating to read. Most importantly, Engelstein treats the Skoptsy as sincere believers, and even though much of their beliefs were inconsistent and strange she portrays them as sincere and thoughtful. Such a solid treatment of religious believers can be hard to find, especially for a group as strange as the Skoptsy. My only complaint is that the book repeats itself, and a few times I felt like I was re-reading something that had already been covered.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lucy

    This is easily the best English-language coverage of the Skoptsy, as most English-language sources are sensationalistic and mainly focus on the castration aspects and Rasputin's possible ties to the sect (as if!). Evangelicals with their abstinence-only sex ed and "purity balls" are absolute amateurs compared to the Skoptsy, and even the Shakers never went as far as self-castration. That being said, don't read this book in public unless you want everyone to leave you alone on public transit or y This is easily the best English-language coverage of the Skoptsy, as most English-language sources are sensationalistic and mainly focus on the castration aspects and Rasputin's possible ties to the sect (as if!). Evangelicals with their abstinence-only sex ed and "purity balls" are absolute amateurs compared to the Skoptsy, and even the Shakers never went as far as self-castration. That being said, don't read this book in public unless you want everyone to leave you alone on public transit or you're prepared to strike up some very awkward conversations.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Fox

    The author is certainly conversant with her subject but I found the book rather repetitious. There's only so much one can say about the cult, their practices,and the persecutions they suffered under various regimes over 200 years. The documentation and extracts from personal stories are impressive but the book did not completely satisfy my curiosity about these God-fearing if misguided peoples, a curiosity that stemmed from a mention in a biography of Peter the Great. The single biggest question The author is certainly conversant with her subject but I found the book rather repetitious. There's only so much one can say about the cult, their practices,and the persecutions they suffered under various regimes over 200 years. The documentation and extracts from personal stories are impressive but the book did not completely satisfy my curiosity about these God-fearing if misguided peoples, a curiosity that stemmed from a mention in a biography of Peter the Great. The single biggest question that I did not find an answer to was "Why?" I read intensively for about a hundred pages and skimmed the rest.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Naomi

    I initially picked up this book and looked at the photos of the Skoptsy's self mutilation. I then sat down to browse the book at greater depth. I didn't read it cover to cover (read: I read perhaps one or two chapters) but I really enjoyed Laura's tone in talking about a group of people that were perhaps greatly misunderstood. Engelstein made a beautiful comment that I have never forgotten, “we must not cast the shadow of our own distress on the story of the Skoptsy. Their physical suffering was I initially picked up this book and looked at the photos of the Skoptsy's self mutilation. I then sat down to browse the book at greater depth. I didn't read it cover to cover (read: I read perhaps one or two chapters) but I really enjoyed Laura's tone in talking about a group of people that were perhaps greatly misunderstood. Engelstein made a beautiful comment that I have never forgotten, “we must not cast the shadow of our own distress on the story of the Skoptsy. Their physical suffering was something they willingly embraced.”

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  6. 5 out of 5

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  7. 4 out of 5

    Anna

  8. 4 out of 5

    Yifa Rachael

  9. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

  10. 5 out of 5

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  11. 5 out of 5

    John Goodrich

  12. 4 out of 5

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  13. 4 out of 5

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  14. 4 out of 5

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  15. 5 out of 5

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  16. 5 out of 5

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  18. 4 out of 5

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  19. 4 out of 5

    Anita Ramirez

  20. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Bagot

  21. 4 out of 5

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  22. 5 out of 5

    Kurt Weber

  23. 5 out of 5

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  24. 5 out of 5

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  25. 5 out of 5

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  26. 5 out of 5

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  27. 5 out of 5

    Beth

  28. 5 out of 5

    Dana

  29. 4 out of 5

    Miami University Libraries

  30. 5 out of 5

    Linda Boyd

  31. 5 out of 5

    Center for Sex & Culture Library + Archives

  32. 5 out of 5

    Ned

  33. 4 out of 5

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