Stretching for more than five million square miles between the Ural Mountains and Pacific Ocean, Siberia is, for all intents and purposes, a wasteland–rich in minerals and natural resources, but tough on human settlements. The Soviets knew this when they installed harsh POW camps in the heart of the Siberian wilderness, and the region has remained largely uninhabited to the present day. But for the Lykov family, Siberia has been home, sweet home, for more than four decades.
The Lykovs are the subject of a fascinating article written by historical writer Mike Dash that appeared on Smithsonian.com earlier this year. According to Dash, the family was ‘discovered’ in 1978 when a helicopter shuttled a crew of four geologists to a dense Siberian forest near the Mongolian border. Just before the chopper touched down, the pilot noticed a structure that seemed out of place; as the helicopter descended and his view improved, the pilot realized that he was peering down at a man-made garden. The sighting was strange, to say the least; Soviet authorities had no record of anyone living in that area, and the closest established settlement sat more than 150 miles away. Once they set foot on land, the geologists decided to investigate.
After collecting some gift offerings for whomever they might encounter (and confirming their pistols were loaded), the four men began their trek. Along the way, they encountered more signs of human activity–a shoddy footpath, then a hand-carved staff, and then a food storage shed. Finally, the team spotted a crude abode situated along the banks of a small creek; as they approached the dwelling, the door creaked open and an old man emerged. The whole situation was “straight out of a fairy tale”, said lead geologist Galina Pismenskaya.
“[He was wearing] a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking,” the geologist recalled. “He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. 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 traveled this far, you might as well come in.’”
Perhaps a more cautious crew would have politely declined the invitation and gotten the hell out of there, but not Pismenskaya’s team–their curiosity was piqued. Inside, they found a dwelling that appeared largely unchanged for centuries. The structure was poorly supported by flaccid wooden ballasts, and the ‘floor’ was little more than bare earth covered in potato peels and nutshells. As the geologists surveyed the rustic homestead, they realized that the old man was not the only resident. He was merely the patriarch.
“The silence was suddenly broken by sobs and lamentations,” Pismenskaya noted. “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.”
In the weeks that followed, Pismenskaya and her team learned the amazing story of this family. The old man, Karp Lykov, hailed from a long ancestral line of Old Believers–practitioners of a sect of Russian Orthodox Christianity that dates back to the 1600s. The Old Believers had long been victims of persecution; in his exchanges with the geologists, Karp bitterly referred to Peter the Great (who died in 1725) as the devil incarnate for his bloody campaigns against the small denomination. But the vilest instances of this bigotry occurred after the 1917 revolution, when Bolsheviks–a notoriously anti-religious group–took power and did their best to erase organized religion from Russian society. When Karp’s brother was shot to death in front of him in 1936, he decided to round up his family–wife Akulina, son Savin, and daughter Natalia–and flee into the woods. They remained in the same ramshackle house for more than four decades; two more children, son Dmitry and daughter Agafia, were born there.
Karp, said to be a fairly no-nonsense sort of guy, related shocking stories of survival. The family subsisted largely on garden-grown potatoes, rolled into patties and seasoned with rye and hemp seeds, and supplemented their diet with pine nuts and wild berries. When a bitter winter struck the area, food became dangerously scarce. Rather than watch her children starve, Akulina elected to go without food most days; she eventually grew sick and succumbed to starvation. At one point the family ate shoes and bark to survive, and the garden was reduced to a single grain of rye that, somehow, managed to yield enough food to sustain the family through the winter. Karp told the geologists that if the grain had died, his family would have surely perished.
By the time civilization caught up with the Lykovs, the family had certainly mastered the art of living in the barren wilderness. They wore hand-stitched clothes and galoshes fashioned from birch bark, spent their days gardening and foraging, and managed to salvage the same tools and utensils for decades. In a way, religion saved the Lykovs; under strict guidelines put in place centuries ago by the founders of the Old Believer sect, worshippers were required to live modestly and resourcefully. During the initial encounter, old Karp only requested one item: salt. But arguably the most amazing aspect of the family’s story is that their extreme isolation prevented them from learning anything about the outside world. Because the children were too young to remember their flight from persecution, they only vaguely understood concepts such as cities and foreign countries. And no one in the family had any idea that World War II occurred.
The geologists made several subsequent visits, and eventually introduced the Lykov family to a nearby Soviet camp where they could obtain food and supplies, receive job training, and even watch television–an advent that seemingly held great appeal for each member of the family. “On their rare appearances, they would invariably sit down and watch,” said Pismenskaya. “Karp sat directly in front of the screen. Agafia watched poking her head from behind a door. She tried to pray away her transgression immediately—whispering, crossing herself…. The old man prayed afterward, diligently and in one fell swoop.”
But tragically, the Lykovs did not last long in the modern age. Three of the children died not long after Pismenskaya’s team made initial contact. Dmitry succumbed to pneumonia, leading some physicians to believe that he contracted an infection from one of his family’s visitors; Savin and Natalia, on the other hand, both died of kidney failure that likely resulted from a lifetime of poor dietary practices. All three of them died at their family’s home, refusing to leave the others. ”We are not allowed that,” Dmitry said on his deathbed. “A man lives for howsoever God grants.” Karp passed away a few years later, on the 27th anniversary of his wife’s death.
Agafia has lived alone in the house for more than 25 years; though she is now in her mid-70s, the last of the Lykovs does not appear to be slowing down. Over the years many have expressed concern about her solitary lifestyle, but whenever they do she simply shakes her head and says: “The Lord would provide.”
By Brad Nehring