In this week’s Smithsonian Magazine, writer and historian Mike Dash recounts the amazing story of the Lykov family, who fled from civilization to the Siberian wilderness in 1936 to escape the Communist purges. They were discovered living in a mountainside shelter by Soviet geologists in 1978, having been totally isolated from the outside world for 42 years.
Karp Lykov was an Old Believer, a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect persecuted from the days of Peter the Great through to the Communist purges of the 1930s. One day in 1936, a Communist patrol shot Lykov’s brother on the outskirts of their isolated Siberian village while Lykov was working beside him. Lykov rushed home, gathered his young family and a few possessions, and fled into the Taiga, the vast forest covering most of the high northern latitudes.
The Lykov family consisted of Karp; his wife, Akulina; their son Savin, aged 9; and their daughter Natalia, aged 2. They had two more children born in the wild: a son Dmitry in 1940, and a daughter Agafia in 1943. Neither Dmitry nor Agafia ever saw a human being who was not a member of their family, and all they knew of the outside world was learned entirely from their parents.
They family eventually settled in the crudest of dwelling places, 6,000 feet up a mountainside above the Abakan River, a hundred miles from the Mongolian border. Their only reading matter consisted of prayer books and an old family Bible, from which the children learned to read and write using sharpened birch sticks dipped in honeysuckle juice as pen and ink. Their main entertainment was recounting their dreams to each other.
As the Lykov’s hastily grabbed possessions began to fall apart over the years, they replaced them with natural material from the wild. They made birch-bark shoes and hemp clothes, grown from seed and spun on their crude spinning wheel and loom. When their trusty kettles finally succumbed to rust, they had no technology to replace them and cooking became a struggle.
Starvation was their constant, biggest threat. Their staple diet was potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds, and it wasn’t until Dmitry reached adulthood that they were able to trap animals for their meat and skins. Dmitry became a natural hunter and could hunt barefoot in winter, often sleeping out in the open in 40 degrees of frost over several nights while in pursuit of prey. More often than not, however, there was no meat and the late 1950s were remembered as their “hungry years.” When a hard frost killed everything in their garden in 1961, and the family was reduced to eating bark, Akulina died of starvation rather than seeing her children go hungry. The rest of the family were saved by a single grain of rye from which they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop.
Each member of the family had their defined roles. Karp was the undisputed head of the family. His elder son, Savin, was the family’s harsh religious enforcer (Karp worried what would happen to his family if Savin took control after he died). His elder daughter, Natalia, reluctantly assumed her late mother’s role as cook, seamstress and nurse. His younger son, Dmitry, was the natural outdoorsman and handyman. His younger daughter, Agafia, had the challenging role of keeping track of time in a world without calendars and clocks.
In the summer of 1978, after 42 years without meeting another soul, they received unexpected visitors. A team of 4 Soviet geologists, prospecting for iron ore, landed by helicopter to set up camp in their remote area of forest. From the air, the geologists had been amazed to find evidence of human habitation in this unexplored wilderness. After establishing their camp in the wooded valley below, they decided to pay their new neighbours a visit. They took some of their provisions as gifts, but also went armed with pistols – unsure of the reception they would receive. One of the geologists, Galina Pismenskaya, recalled what happened when they finally reached the Lykov’s mountainside clearing:
“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. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see. The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. 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 dishevelled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’ The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have travelled this far, you might as well come in.'”
The geologists were astonished to find the surviving family of 5 living in medieval conditions: their cramped, single room, log shelter was cold, damp, dimly lit and filthy. The roof was blackened by soot and the earth floor was covered by potato peel and pine-nut shells. The unexpected intrusion was too much for Karp’s daughters and they became hysterical. The geologists beat a hasty retreat.
From a safe distance, they took out their provisions, and half an hour later the frightened but curious Karp Lykov and his two daughters emerged from their cabin and tentatively joined them. At first, they refused everything that they were offered—jam, tea, bread—with a muttered, “We are not allowed that.” The only gift they would accept was salt – Karp said that living without it for over 40 years had been “true torture.”
When Pismenskaya asked, “Have you ever eaten bread?” Karp replied: “I have. But they have not. They have never seen it.” While Karp was intelligible, his daughters’ spoke “a language distorted by a lifetime of isolation.” To Pismenskaya’s ears it sounded like “a slow, blurred cooing.”
Slowly, over several visits, the geologists gained the Lykovs’ trust. Old Karp was fascinated by the innovations they had brought with them and their news from the outside world. The Lykovs were completely unaware that World War 2 had occurred. They had noticed the development of orbiting satellites in the 1950s, when “the stars began to go quickly across the sky,” but Karp refused to believe that man had set foot on the Moon. The technology which amazed him most was cellophane packaging; when he first encountered it he exclaimed: “Lord, what have they thought up—it is glass, but it crumples!”
When the Lykovs were eventually persuaded to visit the geologists’ camp, they were amazed by the innovations they saw. Their first encounter with television proved addictive; Karp would sit directly in front of the screen, while Agafia watched poking her head from behind a door. They later tried to pray away their ‘sinful’ viewing.
The saddest part of the Lykovs’ story is their swift decline after re-establishing human contact. In autumn 1981, three of the four children died within a few days of one another. Both Savin and Natalia suffered from kidney failure and Dmitry died of pneumonia. Whether their deaths were a direct result of re-establishing human contact is not clear. Dmitry’s death in particular shook the geologists. Despite their desperate efforts to save him, he refused to be evacuated to hospital by helicopter and abandon his family.
After Savin, Natalia and Dmitry were buried, the geologists tried to persuade Karp and Agafia to leave the forest and return to their surviving relatives in their old village. But neither of them would hear of it. They rebuilt their old cabin and stayed in the wilderness they called home.
Karp Lykov was around 90 years old when died in his sleep in 1988 and was buried on the mountain slopes by his last surviving child, Agafia. A quarter of a century later, now aged 70 herself, she remains there alone. She did briefly stay with Old Believer relatives in her father’s old village but, having lived her entire life in the wilderness, she could not cope with even basic civilisation and was compelled to return to the forest.
Loneliness and old age is now clearly taking it’s toll on her. A letter from Agafia found it’s way to the Russian Orthodox Old Believers’ Church in Moscow in 2011. It was an appeal for help:
“I bow to you before the damp earth, and wish you God’s good health, salvation and well-being. I have a most humble request. I need a man to help me. One who will outlive me, one who can cope with weeks of loneliness. I need firewood to cook, and help to mow the hay. My health and strength are declining. I am a true Believer, so do not abandon me, for Christ’s sake. Have mercy upon a wretched orphan, who is in trouble and suffering.”