Arkon Daraul in his book A History of Secret Societies (1962) has a chapter on the Skoptsi in Russia. He writes that the idea of castration in particular as a devotional act of self-mortification came from "the old mystery religions."
For men, the Lesser Seal was the removal of the testicles alone. The Greater Seal included the removal of the penis. Women members of the sect also mutilated their sexual organs. Initially "a red-hot iron" was used (hence, "Baptism of Fire"), but: "Because of human weakness this was amended to allow a sharp knife to be employed." (p. 109)
The mutilation was performed amidst a frenzied dance that "resembled shamanistic displays among the Mongols." (p. 107) Drums were played, and the dancer took two steps with each foot. Initiates submitting to castration had to swear that they were doing so of their own free will and that they would submit to death if need be rather than reveal the sect's secrets. In one case, a priest who spied on the ceremony for the Church reported back that the Skoptsi ate the severed parts as a sacred offering.
Men wore white shirts and carried white handkerchiefs. Women wore blue dresses and covered their hair in white. (p. 109)
A flagellant sect in Russia began castration in 1757 and "the Russian Government heard officially of the secret sect only in 1771." (p. 98) A court in St. Petersburg sentenced Andrei Ivanov, a peasant accused of encouraging 13 others to castrate themselves in ceremonies involving singing and dancing, to be whipped and exiled to Siberia, after which nothing more was heard of him. His accomplice, Kondratji Selivanov – described by Daraul as "plump and facially hairless (the consequences of his eunuchry)" – went to the district of Tambov and "started to preach the doctrine that salvation and fulfilment came only through the supreme sacrifice, the 'Baptism of Fire'." He traveled to Moscow in 1775 and, like Ivanov before him, was whipped and exiled. Daraul: "Several of his followers were beaten judicially, then sent to penal servitude in the fortress of Dortmund." (p. 99) Selivanov escaped from Siberia, and, in 1797, he appeared in Moscow again and the emperor sent him to a madhouse.
Baroness Krüdner "believed in magic and thought that Selivanov was a saint." (p. 100) She had influence over the new Czar Alexander I. She "arranged for him to be released from the asylum, and gave him the entreé to aristocratic circles." (p. 100) He attracted wealthy followers who gave him a beautiful house. They believed that Christ's spirit had incarnated in Peter III and then in Selivanov. A powerful man, State Councillor Alexei Michaelov Jelanski, was castrated and castrated others as part of his secret participation in the sect. Selivanov died in 1832 at the monastery of Spasso-Euphemius. Around that time, "the cult had centres in most Russian provinces" and members were actively prosecuted. (p. 103) Until 1902, the sect allowed only Russians to join.
The Skoptsi claimed that Peter III's son, Paul I, recognized Selivanov as his father and would have returned the crown to him, but he rejected Selivanov's call for him to castrate himself and threw Selivanov in jail. It was said that Selivanov's total castration gave him the ability to perform miracles. In the future paradise, Selivanov will rule Russia and "everyone will be castrated. Present-day followers of the cult (at least until recently in the Balkans, and currently quite secretly in the Lebanon and Turkey) have modified the teachings. Each member is allowed to have two children, after which he must be castrated..." (p. 102)
Of the origins of the cult:
The fact that they carried out castration as a part of their religious rites caused them to be considered to be insane. But, as one recent psychologist has pointed out, the movement spread in so many directions, numbered so many thousands of people, and continued for so long, that it cannot be regarded but as a psychological state which fulfilled some sort of deep inner need. This need, it is true, might have been implanted by suggestion. (p. 97)
He is probably referring to K. A. Menninger's 1938 book Man Against Himself, which he refers to later in the same chapter.
He ends on the question of whether the Skoptsi's attitude of self-sacrifice about their mutilation was only a matter of imaginary "mental states" or whether there is a real "inner resource which can be tapped by these means. Few people would go to the irremediable lengths of the Skoptsi in order to find out." (p. 112) This assessment and comment seems a little confused. Mental states are real inner resources. Perhaps he is asking whether castration really opens up a direct channel to the divine and really enables one to perform miracles. If so, however, castrating oneself and inducing a "mental state" would hardly be the most reliable way to ascertain the answer. One is never the best judge of whether one's mental state corresponds to the same reality shared by others.
"More than one theorist claims that there was a secret which was confided to the members, only after they had been castrated. By making a sacrifice of this magnitude, the member would not only be proved to be worthy; he would not have very much to go back to if he were to revert." (p. 103)
The Skoptsi claimed that the Empress Elizabeth "transferred her power to a woman of the court who resembled her" and went to live, under the name Akulina Ivanovna, with the Skoptsi prophet Filimon. Followers worshipped her until 1865. "Secret reports state that she was believed to be able to transfer her divine powers to a selected person, when on the point of death; thus keeping up the ability to give the Skoptsi their hallucinatory experiences of divine kinship." (pp. 100-101) Russian investigators said that Akulina Ivanovna was really a peasant named Karassanova, not the empress.
Also in 1865, by the Sea of Azov, investigators found hundreds of men and women who had undergone mutilation. They revered a woman named Babanin "who was believed to have the power to cure all ills by the touch, to speak with the voices of the dead (who resided within her) and to be able to procure favours for anyone, in any part of Russia, through telepathic hypnotism." (p. 104)
An investigation resulted in several dozen exiles to Siberia:
"In 1869, it was learned that a merchant kept gold and bank notes in his cellars, accounted for by "an extensive correspondence with numerous wealthy merchants in various parts of Russia – including a well-known St. Petersburg millionaire. The letters showed that all were members of the cult and were engaged in activities ranging from increasing their influence through bribery and recruitment to preparing for the overthrow of the State." (p. 105)
Arkon Daraul. A History of Secret Societies. (1962) New York: Pocket Books, 1969.