81. Faith in the Kamchatka Peninsula during 1450-1750 CE
NOV. 16, 2023
Journey through time and faith in this week's episode of HHE Podcast, where we delve into the spiritual landscape of the Kamchatka Peninsula from 1450-1750. Join Pete and Ryan as they explore the rich tapestry of beliefs and practices in this remote and rugged land. Uncover the mysteries of the native peoples' spiritual connection to nature. Then meet Ivan Berezhnoy, a Russian missionary whose journey to Kamchatka marked a pivotal moment in the region's religious history. And finally, take a tour into the enigmatic world of the Skoptsy sect, a group whose radical beliefs will make you shrivel with fear!
This week we take a trip to Russia, to the Kamchatka Peninsula - one part of a larger area known as Kamchatka Krai, which is part of the Russian Federation.
To find it, if you’re looking at a map, find Russia, and head to its most eastern edge - the side that faces Alaska - and it’s pretty much right there. You’ll recognise it because the Kamchatka Peninsula is the only bit of land that droops down from the mainland and is almost entirely surrounded by ocean; well, three seas actually: the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, and the northwest Pacific Ocean.
But what is it like there? Well, imagine the remotest corner of Earth, tucked away on the forgotten edge of Russia – nine time-zones east of Moscow – a place rich with smoky volcanoes, ancient glaciers in craters, fast mountain rivers and impressive waterfalls, you’ve got mountain pines and stone-birch forests, alpine meadows full of bright colourful flowers, fields of ash, and hot healing springs that burst from the ground in broiling geysers.
That’s the Kamchatka Peninsula… ‘The land that time forgot’.
In terms of size, Kamchatka Krai, the larger region, has a total area of 472,000 square km (182,000 square miles), which is about twice the size of France, but we’re just looking at the peninsula which covers an area of approximately 270,000 sq km (or 104,000 sq miles), which is just over one Kamchatka Peninsula to a France.
Long and mountainous, the peninsula has an extreme subarctic climate, meaning that it is generally cool and wet, with summers that average around 59°F (15°C), and winters that hit as low as -58°F (-50°C).
About 322,000 people live on the Kamchatka Peninsula, which is roughly 1 person for every 22 football fields of land. But they don’t spread out like that, and roughly half of all the population (around 180,000 people) live in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the largest city and regional capital.
The official language is Russian, the religion is Orthodox Christian and the national symbol is three snow-capped volcanoes, an emblem which features on the regional flag, which has a white background with a horizontal band of blue across the bottom.
There is no official anthem specific to the peninsula itself, but the anthem for the larger territory of Kamchatka Krai, which includes the Peninsula, is “Anthem of Kamchatka Krai”. This became the anthem on 1 July 2010 after a competition by the Heraldic Commission to find a song that reflects the area’s spiritual, political, economic, cultural and national heritage. It was composed by Evgeniy Morozov and he won a prize of 70,000 rubles (which was about a thousand dollars or £560)
Kamchatka is full of wildlife and is home to a quarter of all the world's salmon, 40 million salmon return every summer to spawn.
Which might explain why it also has one of the highest densities of brown bears anywhere on the planet, with an estimated 20,000 of them - roughly one bear for every 10 people. And they’re a familiar sight - often seen ambling across roads, along coastlines and up rivers.
Recently however, illegal poaching of salmon has led to the bears going hungry, and sadly this has lead to an increase in interactions between bears and humans, including in 2008, a group of thirty bears attacked and ate two security guards working at a mining company, then surrounded the building trapping 400 geologists and miners inside until hunters arrived to shoot them all.
Other animals include arctic foxes, wolves, reindeer, sea eagles and puffins.
And offshore, you can find orcas, seals, sea otters, giant octopus, and the Kamchatka crab - a huge crustacean which weighs up to 25 pounds and has a leg span which can reach up to 12 feet, with claws that can crush with a pressure up to 3,000 Newtons, which if humans had the same strength in our hands we could crush a brick to dust.
The good news is, they mostly feed on smaller crabs and fish, but apparently, they have even been known to grab and eat the occasional seal!
Kamchatka is one of the most seismically active places in the world. It experiences hundreds of minor earthquakes each year and it has over 300 volcanoes, 29 of which are still active - more than any other place on Earth. The largest is nearly 5,000 m tall, and it’s been erupting for over 7,000 years - the latest being in 2020.
In fact, so many eruptions occurred in Kamchatka during the 1970s and 80s, that soviet cosmonauts used the landscape as a training ground for future moon landings.
And it’s not just got big volcanos either, the Kamchatka Peninsula is also famous for its teeny-tiny volcanoes - small, cone-shaped hills, less than 300 meters tall that form around volcanic vents.
And finally, Kamchatka is home to the world's only moss-knitting club. Local babushkas gather weekly to knit sweaters, scarves and hats made out of Kamchatka green moss, which is harvested on fields of volcanic ash. The fibre of the moss is about 5 – 10 cm long, it’s soft and has a hollow structure that makes it twice as warm as wool.
It’s absorbent, light and considered to have antiseptic qualities. But most importantly of all, it’s waterproof and has insulating properties.
Around 26,000 years ago ice sheets over much of the northern hemisphere started to recede revealing new land underneath.
On the Asian mainland, early man saw a new development opportunity and quickly decided to migrate there. And so, 14,000 years ago we find tribes of early peoples living on riverbanks, building huts, making sweet-ass tools, and using them for hunting and farming.
Over time, these people connected with other tribes and started to trade furs and life on the peninsula hits its groove, and not much else happens until, during our time period, in the 17th century, the Russian Empire arrives and everyone is informed that they too are now Russian.
Inevitably, conflicts break out, which do not go the way of the indigenous people . Consequently, by the 19th century, what’s left of the native population are rolled up within the Russian Empire, paying taxes, drinking vodka, eating borscht, and squatting down in Adidas tracksuits while playing the balalaika.
As we head into the 20th century, international scientists and explorers hear about the natural wonders of the peninsula, and head over to study the various fauna, flora, and geological formations that have them very excited.
Unfortunately, along with their microscopes, bunsen burners and flower-presses, this international gang of science-bros, also bring with them some tasty new diseases, and this causes the population of indigenous people to collapse, from what was once around 50,000 people to just under 5,000.
In the 1950s, as the cold war heats up(?) the Soviet Union decides to turn Kamchatka into a military zone, so they can better point missiles at America. They close borders, build military bases, and restrict access from everyone - including Soviet citizens.
Forty years later, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapses, and Kamchatka is re-opened to the public, which is good news – or so you’d think – but unfortunately, during the past several decades the local economy had relied on military money, and with that being disbanded, an inevitable and crushing economic downturn causes widespread poverty.
New financial opportunities appear though with the rise of eco and adventure tourism, which brings international visitors back to the peninsula, bringing with them well-needed cash, and COVID-19. Oops.
More recently, other financial opportunities have emerged too, with several of Russia’s largest oil and gas companies showing an active interest in the region - much to the concern of environmentalists and remaining indigenous peoples.
But so far, the Peninsula remains undrilled - not due to any laws or restrictions preventing them from doing so, but largely just because of the difficulties of drilling in such a remote location, it’s not cost efficient and not easy to access or build infrastructure.
But as technologies develop, and demand grows for new sources of oil and gas, we might yet see drilling in Kamchatka during our lifetimes.
And I guess that’s where we find the Kamchatka Peninsula today, a region which still struggles with its economy, is reliant on conservation and tourism, and is an incredible place of insane natural beauty.
Personally, I hope it stays that way for a long time to come, and armed with several cans of bear spray, I’d like to visit one day and see it for myself
What do we mean by ‘Faith’?
Well, ‘faith’ is described as a belief or a trust in something without definitive proof.
“There’s no reliable evidence that aliens exist, but I have faith that they are out there somewhere”
There’s faith in ideals, like believing in the inherent goodness in people. There’s faith in principles, like ‘karma’, where you believe that good deeds result in positive returns and negative actions will come back to haunt you.
There’s faith in other people, where you might trust a friend to keep a dark and dangerous secret and there’s faith based on science and past experiences, such as trusting that the sun will come up tomorrow, or an asteroid won’t hit the Earth.
But it is perhaps most usually associated with religious faith.
People who have ‘Faith in God’ have a deep belief in a higher power, they follow religious teachings and participate in spiritual rituals, because they believe that there’s something else out there greater than us.
So, "Faith" then, as a concept, is inherent to everybody, we all experience some element of faith in our lives - depending on how it's being used and the person experiencing it.
But that doesn’t mean it’s universally accepted as a good thing. Some see faith as a sign of inner strength, like Martin Luther King Jr. who said… "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase"
Others see it as the enemy of rational thought, and would prefer that we place greater emphasis on living a life based on evidence and reasoning – people like Sigmund Freud, who said of religious faith, "The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life".
Others still choose to sit out the debate, people like Albert Einstein, who said that "All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom"
So, regardless of where you personally fall on the subject of faith, it does remain one of life’s great mysteries that continues to unite and divide humanity.
Now, in terms of this episode, despite there being no evidence that we’re gonna have a good show, I’d like you all to hold faith that I’ve got some good stories lined up.
But before I begin, just a quick word on the time-period, three hundred years between 1450-1750. This was a period of immense changes across the planet, with the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution, all working together to lead people out of their medieval ways of life and pave the way for the rise of colonial powers which were starting to dominate the globe.
But we’re gonna start our journey in the earlier years of our period - a time when Kamchatka was called Kamchatu, and gods and spirits played an active role in the lives of the people who lived there
The Indigenous People
Alright, so let’s start with faith in Kamchatka during the earliest part of our time period, specifically the time between 1450 and the arrival of the Russians in 1697.
During this time, the Kamchatka peninsula is home to a small number of indigenous peoples. There were the Itelmans, the Koryaks, the Chuk-chies, the Aluti, the Ayni, the Ayvens, and the Kamchadals.
They were all semi-nomadic people, spending their days fishing, hunting, reindeer herding, crafting wood, processing metal, making clothes and beads – all the things you might expect from a community on the move.
They each had their own culture, languages, traditions, but also their own religions based on Animism and Shamanism, where faith was tied to nature and the spirits.
The Itelmens, for example, were a tribe of about 20,000 people in the central-western parts of the Peninsula.
Said to be the original settlers to Kamchatka – their name ‘Itelmen’ means ‘living here’ and they indeed been living there for a long time. Specifically, they lived in underground homes called yarangas, along the coast and down riverways where they spent their time catching salmon, clubbing seals and battling bears.
And as you might expect from that lifestyle, a complex belief system developed which involved the spirits of animals – and a lot of emphasis was placed on appeasing the spirit realm, with Shamans playing a key role as the link between the people and the spirits.
One of the ways the Shamans were able to do this was taking a steam bath with them, conducting rituals in baths built over geothermal vents - the steam being thought to contain powerful energy from the underworld.
The shaman’s told children about the central creator, a being they called ‘Kutkh’ – which protected their people against a terrible tribe of giants known as the ‘Evayl’ who lived in the mountains and were said to be hairy, dim-witted brutes, who could freeze people just by looking at them
Along the southern coast lived the Ayni who were skilled hunters and traders. They lived in small villages of traditional houses with thatched roofs and were a people who arrived from northern Japan, and said to have an extraordinary language.
They were notable for their hairy men apparently, with each having long wavy hair and full thick beards – so much so that when the Russians first arrived in Kamchatka, they called the Ainu “Shaggies”.
Unlike the Itelmen, the Ainu followed an animistic religion, centred around the worship of bears – considering them sacred ancestors and conduits to the gods.
One of their more notable rituals involved capturing a bear cub, feeding them, offering prayers to them, and then ceremonially killing them, feasting on their flesh, and enshrining the skull as a means of returning the bears’ spirit to the mountain gods, whom they believed would be pleased and give them food, good weather and blessings of children.
Then there’s the people that occupied the northern peninsula and coastline.
Known to us as The Koryaks, they called themselves “chavchuvens” (the deer-people) and as you might guess, they moved around the land with herds of reindeer.
Like the Itelmen tribe, they also had a shamanistic religion, but their supreme being was a Raven called Txamyi. They celebrated Txamyi in poems and songs passed on orally generation by generation, and often recited them while wearing masks that were said to be vessels for the raven’s spirit.
The Koryaks even constructed a special hut which was dedicated to worshiping Txamyi.
Inside the sacred hut they built an incredible 20-foot idol of him out of wood and iron, with crystal lenses for eyes that looked up towards the heavens, and had wings which could be operated with strings to mimic the motion of flight.
Inside the hut, the shamans performed rituals to encourage Txamyi to fly off and consult with other spirits before reporting back with any omens and prophecies.
Sometimes encouraging the Raven to return with good news by making offerings of berries and furs.
In other rituals, shamans would use drumming to descend into a trance which they believed was a pathway to the underworld where they could communicate with ancestors and ask for wisdom and prophecy.
In fact, consulting with the departed was a big deal, because Koryak shamans also believed that, after death, your soul could be recalled from the underworld to reanimate your corpse so it could be talked to for advice and guidance.
They told stories of an evil shape-shifting demon called Keremet who could take animal or human form, and whom parents warned children would snatch them away if they misbehaved.
The Koryak also told tales of a race of tiny people, who were about the size of a finger and lived in the roots of trees, emerging only at night, where they would use small bows to shoot poisonous arrows, and would sometimes leave tiny clay pots or stone tools lying around behind them.
So, there you go, faith was very much a part of life in Kamchatka in the early days our time period… but let’s see how that played out in the days of the Russian occupation, when men of faith arrived armed with a big book of beliefs.
Russian Orthodox Missionaries
In the year 330, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great dedicated the city of Byzantium (in modern day Istanbul) as the new capital of the Roman Empire.
Now, initially, this Eastern Roman Empire preserved much of the traditional Roman culture, but when the Roman Empire collapsed, influences from Greek language and eastern cultures started to take over, and piece-by-piece, the Byzantine Empire increasingly became its own thing, with the church making Eastern Orthodox Christianity their dominant religion and a government which was turned into a monarchy with an Emperor in charge, crowned as God's representative on Earth.
But as the Empire’s power grew, so the Byzantine Emperor found himself under significant pressure from foreign challengers, with people like the Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Crusaders causing a nuisance by trying to invade their lands.
Facing threats on this scale was a problem because the Byzantine Empire wasn’t yet able to protect itself alone, and as such, they sought out alliances with friendly neighbours to help bolster their defences.
One potential ally was a rising power in the East consisting of multiple groups of Slavic and Finnic peoples who had united in a federation known as the Kievan Rus’.
Now, seeing that the Kievan Rus' might be able to provide a buffer against their some of their more significant enemies, Byzantine brothers and co-emperors, Basil II and Constantine VIII, decided to reach out to the Kievan Rus’ leader, Vladimir Sviato-slavich, otherwise known as Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev.
He proposed a mutually beneficial arrangement, a deal whereby the Kievan Rus’ would provide military assistance to the Byzantine Empire, and the Empire would give the Kievan Rus’ access to some lucrative trade routes in the south.
Vladimir agreed, and to ratify the deal, all he was asked to do was marry Basil and Constantine’s sister, and agree to be baptised as an Orthodox Christian. Easy.
Vladimir agreed to the terms, and thus, in the year 988, the ruler of the Kievan Rus was baptized and subsequently married to Anna, the Emperors’ sister. Vladimir returned home and from then on, Eastern Orthodoxy became the faith of the Kievan Rus’.
However, over time, as the Kievan Rus’ became the emerging state of Russia, variations started appearing in their religious faith, with the Russian church creating their own distinct religious identity that combined Christian beliefs with some of their previously held traditional faiths.
When the Byzantium Empire eventually fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the newly emerging Russian Empire saw itself as the rightful successor to both the Roman and the Byzantine empires.
The Russian Tsar named himself the supreme ruler of the Orthodox Christian world, and by 1589, the Russian Orthodox Church gained total independence and became a distinctly Russian institution.
Russia, now considering themselves the next great Empire, developed an appetite for expansion, with new territories and new peoples being needed to increase their power and control.
Not wanting to appear like a war-mongering, land-grabbing people, the Russians commissioned expeditions under the guise of spreading Christianity to “heathen” peoples – basically choosing to view their expansionist plans as part of a divine mandate to extend the reach of Christianity.
And so with religion and politics intertwined, priests and monks were tasked with heading out into the wild-lands to find and convert as many indigenous people as they could. And it worked, because as the missionaries pushed east and south, Russia’s territory expanded, with 'uncivilized' parts of the world brought within the grip of the Russian Empire, all under one faith – Russian Orthodoxy.
Which is a lot of backstory to bring us to… Ivan Berezhnoy.
Born in 1701, Berezhnoy undertook religious education at the Russian Orthodox theological academy in Moscow.
His training covered theology, church doctrine, as well as literacy and languages and he excelled in them all. In fact, after his education, the Holy Synod, which is the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church, recognised him as being the perfect candidate for missionary work.
And so, in 1728, Berezhnoy was given the task of travelling to Kamchatka to convert the local tribes.
The journey started overland on horseback, but as he headed east the roads ran out, and the terrain got more rugged, so he moved to travelling by boat through the vast network of rivers across the country until he eventually reached the eastern seaboard.
From the eastern coast, he boarded a small ship which set off through the Pacific Ocean, hugging the coastline to avoid the worst of the storms and rough seas.
Arriving in the Kamchatka peninsula after a journey that took almost an entire year - Berezhnoy was now alone, isolated and largely self-sufficient, having to forage for food, defending himself from the elements and the wildlife.
He travelled on foot, and as conditions got colder, by sleds pulled by reindeer.
Eventually his long journey paid off, because one day he found himself face-to-face with people from the Itelmen tribe.
Now as you can imagine, this must have been a moment of mixed emotions, and I’m sure he was pleased to get to work, but he had a huge challenge ahead of him. With no access to Google Translate, both Berezhnoy and the Itelmen found each other’s language unintelligible, and this made trying to communicate even basic information impossible - let alone trying to explain and comprehend complex Christian theology.
Berezhnoy was persistent and started to familiarise himself with the language, eventually reaching a point where he could start to communicate. But presenting Christian concepts to a people who have vastly different worldviews and belief systems was a much more tricky prospect.
And so Berezhnoy had to get creative, and make Orthodoxy seem less foreign. He replaced characters from the bible with imagery that they better understood, so, replacing people with bears, eagles and spirits – that sort of thing.
He replaced Christian names like Adam, Eve, and Noah into local equivalents like Ajishma, Ivanga, and Nachek. And since salmon held huge spiritual meaning to the Itelmen, he explained Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, by replacing Jesus with a salmon.
He explained tricky concepts like the Holy Trinity by comparing them to the earth, the ocean, and the sky and inspired by their tradition of repetitive chanting, he taught them his own ‘chants’ - which just so happened to be Christian psalms and prayers.
He incorporated Christian practices into local rituals, with coming-of-age, marriage and death rituals now sprinkled with prayers and the sign of a cross. He moved the dates of Christian festivals to align with local celebrations. And in an effort to get people onside and make conversion seem more enticing, he held back on criticising some of their more beloved customs, things like making offerings to the spirits, and of course, polygamy, which, unsurprisingly, tribal chiefs didn’t want to see changed.
Thus, despite all the difficulties that he faced, Berezhnoy started to make progress.
Not all of the tribes liked what he was peddling, and outright rejected any notion of abandoning their beliefs for Orthodoxy - but many spiritual leaders were won over.
Some just adopted a few of the Orthodox rituals, while others embraced Christianity completely, shifting their faith over to Christianity entirely and in some cases becoming Orthodox priests themselves and agreeing to help Berezhnoy to spread the word of Christ to some of the more stubborn tribesfolk.
And so, in a matter of a few years, Berezhnoy successfully managed to bridge the cultural divide, and convert much of the Itelmen faith systems to Russian Orthodoxy.
We don’t know how long Berezhnoy stayed in Kamchatka, but it was most likely a decade or two, long enough to establish a permanent presence, with churches, and a Bible translated into the Itelmen language.
But we do know that at some point he was joined by other missionaries from Moscow, priests like Ioann Luzhin, who took up the mantle for continuing Berezhnoy’s work, converting more tribal groups, leading efforts to build even more churches and chapels, and writing several books about the Itelmen people – which, it is said, is critical work that has helped to preserve their language.
Looking back on it now, it’s easy to say that the missionary work in the Kamchatka Peninsula was a success for the Russian Orthodox Church. It led to the establishment of a lasting Christian presence there, which was certainly the goal.
But in terms of the ethics of imposing a culture and religion upon another group of people, it’s worth considering and reflecting on the damage that this ‘success’ had on erasing a culture.
The Exploration of Kamchatka
Alright, so, as we know… This episode is focused on the years between 1450 and 1750, a time period known to history nerds as ‘the Early Modern Era’
This is an era considered to be the pivotal transitional period between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution. It was a period of time that saw giant leaps forward in the technology used for navigation, mapping, shipbuilding, and weaponry - all things that helped European powers flourish in a world of global exploration and colonisation.
But it wasn’t just Europeans that were looking to expand their reach.
As we discussed previously, the Russian Empire was looking to expand too. And in the late 1500s, a number of various merchants and explorers began probing the lands east of the Ural Mountains in search of furs, minerals, and access to the Pacific Ocean where they could more easily trade with the Chinese.
It wasn’t easy though, as they had to face an extremely harsh Siberian weather, hungry wolves and bears, and fearful tribes of remote people.
When word reached Moscow of indigenous Kamchadals living in the wilds of the Kamchatka Peninsula, a land rich in furs, minerals and access to the Pacific - a fast decision was reached to go there, colonise it, and establish settlements asap.
Which brings us to the year 1651, fifty years before Berezhnoy reached Kamchatka on his missionary… mission. We’re in the Kargopol region of Russia, and a baby boy is born who his parents name: Vladimir Atlasov.
He grows, he studies, he leaves education, and as a loyal servant of the crown decides to enter the military. As an officer he finds himself posted on several expeditions in Siberia, and over time he proves himself an adept and capable leader.
So much so in fact, that, in 1696, Tsar Peter the Great, appoints Atlasov as his main man to lead the first major expedition to the region.
This was a great honour and Atlasov accepted the challenge, and in the summer of 1697, he and an army of 100 men set off on their adventures east.
Let’s just imagine for a moment what Atlasov had agreed to… He didn’t have a map, he didn’t know what the geography of the land was like, he didn’t know what dangers were there, he didn’t know if there would be enough food and water for his men, he didn’t know what people he might meet.
He had the pressure of having to make the right choice on life-or-death decisions every day, potentially for years. He had to maintain morale among his men or else face a mutiny. All while knowing that he had the eyes of a powerful Russian Tsar on him with nothing but expectations of success.
And so, despite any evidence to the contrary, it’s easy to think that Atlasov must have had complete faith in himself and his abilities to do the job.
Anyway, after an arduous journey, similar to the one that Berezhnoy would make thirty years later, Atlasov and his men found themselves on the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula.
They quickly established a base and from there set out across the unexplored region, you know, exploring it.
Under his leadership, they did an incredible job. In just the first few years Atlasov became the first recorded person to travel the entire length of the peninsula, and the first person to map the entire region - including islands off the southern tip.
He claimed resources, encouraging indigenous people to pledge their allegiance to the Russian Empire - and deployed his army against anyone who resisted.
At one point, he and his men were even captured by the men from the Itelmen tribe, who held them captive for several months, threatening to kill them.
But Atlasov never lost his faith, and after negotiating his release, went on to bring the entire peninsula under Russian control by 1699, just three years after he arrived.
He commissioned the construction of Verkhnekamchatsk - the first permanent Russian settlement, and the place where tribesfolk had to pay their tributes of furs - which Atlasov then used to establish a lucrative fur trading industry.
With his mission completed, he returned to Moscow in 1701. Where he was promptly promoted and sent back to administer Kamchatka full time.
Today Atlasov is remembered by some as a ruthless conqueror who exploited the indigenous people of Kamchatka, while others see him as a courageous explorer who opened up the peninsula to Russian settlement.
But which ever side you fall on, I think it’s hard not to admire the impossibility of the task he faced and the strength of character it took to take it on and succeed.
The Skoptsy Sect
Historical records are scarce and often contradictory, but we do know that Kondraty Ivanovich Selivanov, was born to a family of peasants in the village of Ternovo in the Tambov Governorate in Russia sometime in the early 1700s.
Selivanov was raised within the Orthodox Christian church, and was initially a devout follower, but sometime in his twenties, he became disillusioned with the church’s teachings, and when, one day, he had a religious experience that convinced him he was a prophet - he started to preach his own new doctrine, a faith which emphasized the importance of spiritual purification.
What that meant was no alcohol and no sex - but also, and importantly – self-mutilation. Specifically, Selivanov believed that after being castrated, men and women would be freed from sin and temptation, their bodies then capable of being vessels to house angels, bringing the host closer to perfection, and ultimately to God.
He came to this conclusion from an interpretation of several Bible verses about castration – which he read as the bible telling him it was necessary to do for spiritual purification.
In essence, he thought that original sin came into the world by Adam and Eve having sex, and that after getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden, they had the forbidden fruit grafted onto their bodies as testicles and breasts.
He thought that by removing these organs it would then restore us to the pristine pre-forbidden fruit state that God had first intended.
In fact, Selvanov preached that Jesus Christ himself had been a castrate, and so had the apostles, and all the early saints.
He called his faith ‘Skoptsy’, meaning ‘castrated’ in Russian, and somewhat remarkably, slowly started to build up a small but loyal following, who he called the White Doves.
As years passed, the number of White Doves got so large that a whole community grew around him, and the Skoptsy sect now occupied an entire village. And all of these followers, men and women, had agreed to be castrated.
To be specific, they opted to participate in one of two kinds of castration. For men, the first option was "lesser seal" which meant the removal of the testicles only, while the second option, "greater seal," involved the removal of both the penis and the testicles. Men who underwent the "greater seal" used a cow-horn when urinating. Fun.
For women, the “lesser seal” meant removing or scarring the nipples or breasts, and the “greater seal” meant removing the breasts, and the labia, and the clitoris.
Originally this was done with a red-hot iron, which Selivanov referred to as the 'fiery baptism', but eventually he moved to using knives and razors, with the red-hot iron only just being used to stop the bleeding.
Obviously, they didn’t use anaesthetics, and alcohol was prohibited.
Unfortunately for Selivanov, his rise in popularity caught the attention of the authorities who were horrified by what he was doing. He and his followers were arrested as heretics, and exiled to darkest Siberia.
But that wasn’t the end of Selivanov and Skoptsyism, because despite his exile and teachings being banned, this just resulted in his martyrdom, with followers continuing the faith in underground networks of safe houses where they could continue to conduct castration rituals away from the prying eyes of Russian authorities.
In fact, at its peak, it’s estimated that the Skopsty sect had over 100,000 followers.
And many of those were recruited from fringe Christian groups and indigenous peoples in remote locations.
And that’s where we find Skoptsyism arriving in the Kamchatka Peninusla – right at the very end of our time period in 1750.
They arrived promising spiritual enlightenment to all the small communities on the Peninsula, the Russian Orthodox Christians and the indigenous peoples.
But this didn’t go down very well, with locals complaining about corpses being left to rot in the wilderness - bodies of those who had died during botched castrations.
Thankfully, like the bodies they left behind, the Skoptsy sect itself is now a discarded corpse, with the faith now a faint memory and any remnants scattered to the winds
So there you go - Faith in the Kamchatka Peninsula during 1450-1750!