Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale (Paperback)
  • Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale (Paperback)

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

Paperback 304 Pages / Published: 13/11/2003
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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 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.

Publisher: Cornell University Press
ISBN: 9780801488795
Number of pages: 304
Weight: 454 g
Dimensions: 222 x 143 x 18 mm


"Engelstein is a shrewd and perceptive interpreter of the Skoptsy story.... A substantial contribution to the study of Russian history and culture,... the book is also a meditation on the human condition and the human search for meaning."

-- Barbara Alpern Engel * The Russian Review *

"Engelstein's interpretation of the Skoptsy phenomenon is intellectually evocative but hardly exhaustive.... The book can be recommended for graduate courses on cultural and social history of Russia.... It is free from the esoteric jargon of many cultural histories."

-- Irina Korovushkina Paert * H-Russia, H-Net Reviews *

"This is a remarkable book about a remarkably extreme group of people.... Engelstein's account of the Skoptsy encounter with modernity is robust and sure-footed."

-- Dan Healey * Journal of Early Modern History *

"Laura Engelstein has produced a rather spectacular second book on sex in Russia.... Engelstein's new book on the topic of sex in Russia is much more complex and much more likely to be entered into the ranks of required books for all student of history.... It is an extraordinary account of the 'archive' that she mines in order to tell their history.... Cornell University Press is to be commended for designing this book so that the images and the text work elegantly together."

-- Sander L. Gilman * American Historical Review *

"Laura Engelstein has written a masterful and engaging history of the Skoptsy, the strangest Russian sectarian group in the modern era.... Engelstein lifts the mystery surrounding this group by taking her readers inside the minds of believers who mutilated their bodies for the sake of eternal salvation.... The book is well written, at times reading like a Russian folktale.... Overall, this study makes an important contribution to our knowledge of Russian religious history. It also is a fine example of the application of cutting-edge historical methods on society, literature, and culture to religious history."

* Church History *

"Laura Engelstein's Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom adds significantly to the literature on Russian sects and to the field of sociosexual behavior. Exploiting unique Russian judicial sources, she gives us these sectarians in their own words as they move from secrecy in the early nineteenth century to self-advertisement in the early twentieth century. Engelstein's tales form a lush tapestry of a traditional sect awkwardly coming to terms with modernity."

-- Richard C. Trexler, Binghamton University

"Scholarly and unsensational.... Ms. Engelstein presents us with some remarkable pictures."

-- Jasper Griffin * The New York Review of Books *

"This book tells a fascinating story of the most stigmatized religious dissidents in Russia and, in doing so, illuminates important current debates on identity, group solidarity, the maintenance of cultural boundaries and norms, and the consequences of social and cultural transgression. Laura Engelstein's authorial voice, thorough contextualization of her sources, and framing of her arguments leave no doubt about her mastery of the issues driving the most fruitful social and literary theory."

-- David Ransel, Indiana University

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