Salvation through Sin:
The Secret World of Russia’s Khlysty Sect
I recently read a bit about a cultish sect known as the Khlysty
(Христы) that was active in Russia from the seventeenth through the early
twentieth centuries. I figure it might be of interest to some people here—the story of the Khlysty is one of secrecy, ambiguity, forbidden spiritual
doctrines and extreme philosophical stances.
Banned by authorities and the source of scandalous rumor, the Khlysty survived in a secretive, underground world of strange, antinomian rituals.
Believing that one needed to plumb the depths of sin in order to gain salvation, the Khlysty were akin to many “left-hand path” groups throughout
religious history in that they fused forbidden and sexual behavior with spirituality. Comparisons to Vamachara Tantra, Tantric Buddhism, and
Sabbatean-Frankist Judaism, as well as certain antinomian groups throughout Christian history such as the medieval Brotherhood of the Free Spirit,
certainly suggest themselves.
The Early Years
The origins of the Khlysty are placed in 17th-century Siberia, when a peasant and army deserter, Danilo Filipov, declared that he was a living God,
and that there was no inherent barrier between the human and the divine. The word "Khlysty" is usually seen to refer to the whips that sect members
used upon themselves in their rituals. (More on this below.)
Filipov declared his follower Ivan Suslov as his Christ. The Russian authorities, however, were unconvinced—and unamused. Suslov was crucified and
hung on the wall of the Kremlin in Russia, while Filipov was exiled to Siberia. According to the Khlysts, the body of Suslov rose from the dead only
to be tortured, flayed, and crucified again, before rising yet again and ascending to heaven in 1718.
The Radaev Line
In its early days, the cult stressed asceticism and self-denial. Alcohol, marriage, and swearing were forbidden, and children (the product of sex)
were called “sins.” People could marry, but the women were known as “spiritual wives” and no sex was allowed.
This would change with the advent of a Khlyst cult leader known as Radaev and his followers, or “line.” Radaev taught the following doctrines:
-Chastity was a sin because it was rooted in pride.
-Radaev was animated by God’s will, not his own base desire, and if he wished to sleep with a woman she must agree, as it represented God’s
-Generally, Khlysts should live daily, sex-free lives between rituals, when they would meet in groups.
The Secret Khlysty Meetings
Khlysty were organized in small, secret groups known as “arks.” Each ark was led by a “Pilot” and later other positions (such as the “Mother
of God,” or highest ranking female) were introduced. Official estimates of membership in the banned group ranged from 40,000 to 120,000, although
such figures are guesswork. Because the groups were illegal, members were encouraged to be especially devout and active in their local Orthodox
churches, to maintain secrecy and deflect possible suspicions.
Khylsty meetings were held in forest clearings and secret dugouts beneath barns. The meetings would begin with singing and drumming around a bonfire.
The members began to dance, seeking a state of mystical transport they called radeinie
, or “frenzy,” which was seen as necessary for
possession by the Holy Spirit. They would whip themselves with birch-branches and begin to speak ecstatically in what they called “the Language of
Jerusalem.” As the sense of divine intoxication mounted, the ritual reached a creshendo when the group would collapse into indiscriminate sexual
orgy. This was called “using sin to drive out sin,” which (interestingly) reminds me of the Tantric Buddhist description of left-handed (sexual)
Tantra as “using poison to cure poison.”
In addition to their “scandalous” sexual behavior, the Khlysty held some other unusual view. They believed that man could be united with the
divine in this lifetime (another belief shared with Tantrics and indeed mystics of all stripes). They also believed Christ was constantly reincarnated
and in each era walked the earth somewhere as a humble peasant. In other words, they believed that given moment, somewhere, the current incarnation of
Christ walking in the body of a poor man. Sin was said to be necessary for salvation, because without sin there could be no repentance, and without
repentance there could be no salvation.
Rasputin and the Khlysty
, the wandering monk who ingratiated himself with the Tsar’s family in the
final years before the Russian Revolution, was rumored to have been involved with the Khlysty in his early years in Siberia, but no conclusive proof
was ever unearthed of this. Certainly his words and deeds evidenced Khlysty themes, such as the intertwining of sexuality and religion, and his use of
a mysterious underground chapel while in Siberia. As a young man, Rasputin wandered about seeking knowledge from many religious teachers in Russia,
and it is possible he had some contact with or was influenced by this group.
Much of the information for this came from Brian Moynahan’s excellent biography of Rasputin. Also of possible interest:
The Khlysty Sect: Short articles
Another article on the Khlysty
Possible topics for discussion
-What do you make of the sect’s philosophy of “salavation through sin”? Is this philosophically valid, evil incarnate, or somewhere in
-Should governments take steps to forbid sects like this?
-There are many possible parallels with other antinomian sects and movements like Tantra, as described above. Are these just coincidence…or are they
all linked in some way?
-Do hints of this philosophy linger on in today’s spiritual world?
edit on 12/15/11 by silent thunder because: (no reason given)