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Alone in the taiga
In 1936, said Mike Dash, a Russian family fled to the wilderness and lived in primitive isolation for decades.
 

SIBERIAN SUMMERS DON'T last long. The snows linger into May, and the cold returns in September, freezing the taiga into a still life awesome in its desolation: endless miles of forests scattered with sleeping bears and hungry wolves; steep-sided mountains; white-water rivers that pour in torrents through the valleys; a hundred thousand icy bogs. The taiga stretches from Russia’s arctic regions to Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: 5 million square miles of nothingness.

When the warm days do arrive, the taiga blooms, and for a few months it can seem almost welcoming. It is then that man can see most clearly into this hidden world—not on land, for the taiga can swallow whole armies of explorers, but from the air. Siberia is the source of most of Russia’s oil and mineral resources, and, over the years, even its most distant parts have been overflown by oil prospectors and surveyors.

Thus it was in the remote south of the forest in the summer of 1978. A helicopter was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into a thickly wooded valley. The pilot saw something that should not have been there. It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before concluding that this was evidence of human habitation.

It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored. The Soviet authorities had no records of anyone living in the district.

Four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting and left their base, 10 miles away, to investigate. As they scrambled up the mountain, they came across signs of human activity: a rough path, a staff, a log laid across a stream, and finally a small shed filled with birch-bark containers of cut-up dried potatoes. Then, geologist Galina Pismenskaya said, “beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks.... The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged.... Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened.... Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’”

THE SIGHT THAT greeted the geologists as they entered the cabin was like something from the Middle Ages. The dwelling was not much more than a burrow—“a low, soot-blackened log kennel that was as cold as a cellar.” Looking around in the dim light, the visitors saw that the single room was cramped, musty, and indescribably filthy, propped up by sagging joists—and, astonishingly, home to a family of five: “The silence was suddenly broken by sobs and lamentations. Only then did we see the silhouettes of two women. One was in hysterics, praying: ‘This is for our sins, our sins.’ The other, keeping behind a post...sank slowly to the floor. The light from the little window fell on her wide, terrified eyes, and we realized we had to get out of there as quickly as possible.”

The scientists backed out of the hut and retreated to a spot a few yards away, where they took out some provisions and began to eat. After about half an hour, the old man and his two daughters emerged. Warily, they approached and sat down with their visitors, rejecting everything that they were offered—jam, tea, bread—with a muttered, “We are not allowed that!” When Pismenskaya asked, “Have you ever eaten bread?” the old man answered, “I have. But they have not. They have never seen it.”

Over several visits, the full story of the family emerged. The old man’s name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer—a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshipping in a style unchanged since the 17th century. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday; for him, Peter was a personal enemy and “the Antichrist in human form.”

Things had only got worse for the Lykov family when the atheist Bolsheviks took power. Under the Soviets, isolated Old Believer communities that had fled to Siberia to escape persecution began to retreat ever further from civilization. During the purges of the 1930s, with Christianity itself under assault, a Communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother while Lykov knelt working beside him. He had responded by scooping up his family and bolting into the forest.

That was in 1936, and there were only four Lykovs then—Karp; his wife, Akulina; a son named Savin, 9 years old; and Natalia, a daughter who was only 2. Taking their possessions and some seeds, they had retreated ever deeper into the taiga, until at last they had fetched up in this desolate spot. Two more children had been born in the wild—Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia in 1943—and neither of the youngest Lykov children had ever seen a human being who was not a member of their family. All that Agafia and Dmitry knew of the outside world they learned from their parents’ stories.

The Lykov children knew there were places called cities where humans lived crammed together in tall buildings. They had heard there were countries other than Russia. But such concepts were no more than abstractions to them. Their only reading matter was prayer books and an ancient family Bible. Akulina had used the Gospels to teach her children to read and write, using sharpened birch sticks dipped into honeysuckle juice as pen and ink.

The Lykovs had carried a crude spinning wheel and the components of a loom into the taiga with them, but they had no technology for replacing metal. A couple of kettles served them well for many years, but when rust finally overcame them, the only replacements they could fashion came from birch bark. Since these could not be placed in a fire, it became far harder to cook. By the time the Lykovs were discovered, their staple diet was potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds.

It was not until the late 1950s, when Dmitry reached manhood, that they first trapped animals for their meat and skins. Lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion. Dmitry built up astonishing endurance, and could hunt barefoot in winter, sometimes returning to the hut after several days, having slept in the open in 40 degrees of frost, a young elk across his shoulders. More often than not, though, there was no meat, and their diet gradually became more monotonous.

Famine was an ever-present danger, and in 1961 it snowed in June. The hard frost killed everything in their garden, and by spring the family had been reduced to eating shoes and bark. Akulina died of starvation. The rest of the family were saved by what they regarded as a miracle: A single grain of rye sprouted in their pea patch. At harvest time, the solitary spike yielded 18 grains, and from this they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop.

THE SOVIET GEOLOGISTS slowly got to know the Lykovs. Old Karp was usually delighted by the latest innovations that the scientists brought up from their camp, and though he refused to believe that man had set foot on the moon, he adapted swiftly to the idea of satellites. The Lykovs had noticed them as early as the 1950s, when “the stars began to go quickly across the sky.”

Karp held to his status as head of the family, though he was well into his 80s. His eldest child, Savin, dealt with this by casting himself as the family’s unbending arbiter in matters of religion. “He was strong of faith, but a harsh man,” his own father said of him. Certainly the eldest son would have encountered little resistance from Natalia, who always struggled to replace her mother as cook, seamstress, and nurse.

The two younger children, on the other hand, were more approachable and more open to change. “Fanaticism was not terribly marked in Agafia,” the writer Vasily Peskov said, and in time he came to realize that the youngest of the Lykovs had a sense of irony and could poke fun at herself. She was markedly intelligent, and took charge of the difficult task, in a family that possessed no calendars, of keeping track of time.

Of all the Lykovs, though, the geologists’ favorite was Dmitry, an outdoorsman who knew all of the taiga’s moods. He was the most curious and perhaps the most forward-looking member of the family. He spent days hand-cutting and hand-planing each log that the Lykovs felled. Perhaps it was no surprise that he was also the most enraptured by the scientists’ technology. Once relations had improved to the point that the Lykovs could be persuaded to visit the Soviets’ camp, he spent many happy hours in its little sawmill, marveling at how easily a circular saw and lathes could finish wood. “It’s not hard to figure,” Peskov wrote. “The log that took Dmitry a day or two to plane was transformed into handsome, even boards before his eyes. Dmitry felt the boards with his palm and said, ‘Fine!’”

Karp Lykov fought a long and losing battle with himself to keep all this modernity at bay. When they first got to know the geologists, the family would accept only a single gift—salt. (Living without it for four decades, Karp said, had been “true torture.”) Over time, however, they began to take more. They took knives, forks, handles, grain, and eventually even pen and paper and an electric torch.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the Lykovs’ strange story was the rapidity with which the family went into decline after they re-established contact with the outside world. In the fall of 1981, three of the four children died within a few days of one another. Both Savin and Natalia suffered from kidney failure, most likely a result of their harsh diet. But Dmitry died of pneumonia, which might have begun as an infection he acquired from his new friends.

The geologists attempted to talk Karp and Agafia into leaving the forest and returning to be with relatives who had survived the persecutions of the purge years. But neither of the survivors would hear of it.

Karp Lykov died in his sleep on Feb. 16, 1988. Agafia buried him on the mountain slopes with the help of the geologists, then turned and headed back to her home. The Lord would provide, and she would stay, she said—as indeed she has. A quarter of a century later, now in her 70s herself, this child of the taiga lives on alone.

©2013 by Smithsonian Institution. Reprinted with permission from Smithsonian Enterprises. All rights reserved. Reproduction in any medium is strictly prohibited without permission from Smithsonian Institution. The complete version of this story is available at SmithsonianMag.com.

 

 

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