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Religious sects in Imperial Russia: Khlysts and Skoptsy

12 February 2014

Author : ivgheny-kosthin


Khlysts’ religious ritual

After the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ in early 867, echoes of paganism still remained in areas of the country. It was most common in rural areas and these rituals were relatively harmless – people were carolling before Christmas and performing circle dances in spring. But some ancient practices still survived, it was occasionally manifested in a variety of “spiritual Christianity” and sects appeared.


Khlysts (Хлысты in Russian) can be considered not so much as a secret society but as a sect that arose in Russia at the turn of 17-18 centuries among obrok peasants. Mystical ideas about the possibility of the “holy spirit” to take control and elect people (who were revered as “Khristy”) was the sect’s core doctrine. Proceeding from this, the representatives of the cult were also called “Khristovovery” (Христововеры in Russian that means “Christ-believers”). And the name “Khlysts” in one of the versions came from the religious ceremony, during which the sectarians were beating themselves, whipping their bodies with harnesses, sticks, and other similar items.


In the ideology of Khlysts there was a hypothesis that the body is the beginning of evil, but the soul is inherently good. So the idea of the flesh mortification, i.e. mortification of evil thoughts and desires, was treated literally.


All the stories about Khlystyism begin with legends about runaway soldier Danil Filippovich. Any details of his life still remain unknown. It is believed that he was a peasant of Yuriev Uyezd, fled from military service and settled in the district of Murom Uyezd of Vladimir Gubernya. According to the legend, on the Mount Gorodin, the Lord of Hosts himself descended from heaven and took his body. After that he settled in Kostroma, and began to preach the new doctrine. Danil Filippovich denied the necessity of holy books and taught that the only one “Book” was needed – “The Golden Book, The Animal Book, The Dove Book – The Holy Spirit.”


Khlysts’ “Cathedral of Living Gods”


During the 19th century, researchers have paid attention to ” the dove book poem”, which tells about the creation of the world. The white light apparently came from God, the sun – from his face, the moon – from his breast, the dawns – from the eyes, the winds – from the Holy Spirit, and the world was created from Adam, the stones – from his bones, the earth – from the flesh. Also people were created from Adam, the kings – from his head, and the peasants – from his knee. The plot of the myth corresponds exactly to the hymn “Purushasukta” from the “Rigveda”, which describes the creation of the world and people from different parts of the body of the first man Purusha (the pagan believes of Slavs were very close to the ancient Hindu Vedic religion).


Khlysts’ religious ritual

Danil Filippov claimed to his followers that only need was to believe in the Holy Spirit descended upon the faithful in prayer rites. These rites and collective self-tortures always ended with sinnings and ritual orgies. He also left to his disciples 12 new commandments which Khlysts considered as their own Gospel:


1. I am the God, predicted by the prophets, came down to earth to save your souls. There is none other God but Me.


2. No other doctrine. Do not look for it.


3. What you’ve got is what that you stay for.


4. Keep the commandments of the God and the universe will praise you.


5. Alcohol not to be drunk, sinning not to be made.


6. Do not get married, but who are married, live with your wife, as you live with a sister. Free people not marry, the married ones – get divorced.


7. Nasty words shouldn’t be told.


8. Weddings and christenings do not to be participated in. The same for drunk talks.


9. Do not steal. Who steals a single penny, will see the single penny on his forehead , and when the hellfire will melt this, the person will be pardoned.


10. These commandments to keep in a secret, nor father nor mother, do not claim, if whip and beat will fire you – suffer. The one who will suffer, who will be loyal, he wilk receive the kingdom of heaven, but on earth – the spiritual joy.


11. Meet yourselves , bread and salt to be shared , love create, keep my commandments, pray to God.


12. Believe the Holy Spirit.


devices for emasculating

According to the legend, Danila Philippov died (ascended to heaven) in January the 1st 1700 on one hundredth year of life.


It is also believed that Rasputin and his killer, the last representative of Yusupov family – Felix belonged to the Khlysts.


Skoptsy – came from the Khlysts. The execution of the commandments of Christ lead the followers of the teachings to castration, which was called “baptism of fire” and “bleaching”. The founders of this movement were Andrey Ivanov Blokhin and (or Trofimov (Selivanov).


First mass castrations were committed in 1770-1771. As a result of “Skoptsy Process” (1772) Blokhin was sent to eternal servitude. Kondraty Trifonov escaped and was caught in 1774 then exiled to Siberia.


Khlysts family in Selivaniha village (from Irkutsk Museum archives)

In the beginning of 19th century Skoptsy stood out from Khlysty and were acting as an independent religion. One after another the Skoptsy communities raised, headed by the “masters”. The “Living God” Kondraty Selivanov, who was recognized as a Christ, lived to old age and remained faithful to his ministry.


Sectarians were ruled by the gospel interpreting individual sayings of Christ as preaching of castration. According to the representatives of the cult, all the Apostles and early Christians were “Skoptsy”, but the world sank in sin and retreated from the main commandment (the castration). In their understandings, Kondratiy Selivanov as a Christ descended twice for the approval of his commandments.


The only icon for Skoptsy was the icon of Kondrati Selivanov. Also the “Mother of God” – Akulina Ivanovna, the farmer bayou of Ivanov monastery was respectful.


The Skoptsy movement grew bigger and got support of the ruling societies. In 1818-1819 mass castrations of military garrisons started. In 1820 Selivanov was arrested and exiled to Suzdal Monastery, where he died in 1832.


Under Nicholas I, Skopchestvo was announced as a harmful sect in the Criminal Code according to which the sectarians could be sent to prison. Since the 60s of the 19th century Skopchestvo ceased to be massive, but some cases were still reminding of this outstanding phenomenon.


Grigori Rasputin

Kondraty Selivanov




Felix Yusupov



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