A family of religious refugees lived in the Siberian wilderness for 40 years completely cut off from civilization. According to an article published Monday in Smithsonian magazine, when archeologists found the Lykov family, they were on the verge of starvation and had no knowledge of major events of the last half century, including World War II.
The steep mountains and thick forests of Siberia make up the forbidding terrain known as the taiga. It is one of the most isolated and deserted places left on the planet, with winters that stretch from September to May. Its five million square miles are largely uninhabited save by bears and wolves and the occasional lonely villages, which are home to only a few thousand people. These chilly, pine-forested wastes stretch from “the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific.”
Siberia provides Russia with much of its oil and mineral resources, but the terrain is treacherous to navigate in summer and impassable in winter. In the summer of 1978, a team of Soviet surveyors were flying over a heavily wooded valley looking for a safe place to land a crew of geologists. The sides of the valley, which was formed by a tributary of the Abakan River, were nearly vertical and almost impossibly narrow, with rows of slender pine and birch trees that tossed and swung in the downdraft from the helicopter rotor.
The pilot was looking for a place to set down when he saw something he did not expect, a clearing with man-made rows for cultivation. Some 6,000 feet up the mountainside, someone had dug a large garden. The surveyors reported back to the four scientists who were running the exploration mission that they had found signs of human habitation. The scientists were initially alarmed.
At length, the geologists, led by scientist Galina Pismenskaya, decided that rather than wait at their temporary base, 10 miles away, they would muster an exploration party. Pismenskaya recalled that the team “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends.” But, she said, just to be sure, she packed her pistol as well.
As they made their way up the mountain, the Soviet team began to encounter signs of human habitation, a path, cut trees, a tiny shack filled with cut and dried potatoes. Then, Pismenskaya said, they found the cabin.
“Beside a stream there was a dwelling,” she said. “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 door of the cabin opened and a barefoot old man came out, “straight out of a fairy tale,” Pismenskaya described him as looking “frightened and very attentive.”
“Greetings, grandfather,” she said to him. “We’ve come for a visit.”
Uncertainly, and seemingly with great reluctance, the old man said that since they had traveled so far, they might as well come in.
They found five people, the old man, Karp Lykov, 81, his sons, Savin, 54 and Dmitry, 38. Karp’s two daughters, Natalia and Agaifa, were 44 and 37. Karp and his wife Akulina had fled into the taiga with their family in 1936 to escape religious persecution. The Lykovs were members of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect called the Old Believers, who had been subject to ridicule and harassment since the reign of Russia’s Peter the Great.
Living on potatoes, leaves and whatever animals Dmitry could hunt and kill, the family had survived in the wilderness, completely cut off from civilization. The two youngest, Dmitry and Agaifa, had never met anyone outside their own family.
The family had endured many hardships, including the gradual disintegration of anything made of metal they had brought with them, ultimately resulting in the loss of all cooking pots and kettles for water. They had lived, at times, on shoe leather and leaves. Akulina died of hunger in 1961 when she decided to feed her children rather than herself.
The Lykovs would accept no gifts from the visiting scientists at first except salt, which had been “true torture” to go without for 40 years, said Karp. His sons and daughters knew of a world beyond their forest, with nations and cities and wars, but these things were an abstraction. They knew nothing of World War II or the technological advances that had occurred since the 1930s.
Karp refused to believe that men had set foot on the moon, but was quick to grasp the concept of satellites because the family had observed them as early as the 1950s, when “the stars began to go quickly across the sky.” Karp concocted a theory that mankind had invented fires like the stars that they could send up into the sky.
The younger son, Dmitry, became a favorite with the scientists. He was the first of the family to visit the Soviets’ camp downstream. He was an avid woodsman who had learned to read the taiga’s moods from day to day and season to season. He was particularly enchanted with the camp’s sawmill, which converted trees to clean boards before his very eyes, a task that took him days to do by hand.
Sadly, only three years after being introduced to outsiders, three of the Lykov children fell ill and died within days of each other. Natalia and Savin died of kidney failure in 1981, brought on by their years of inadequate nutrition. Dmitry died of pneumonia, presumably from an infection he caught from interacting with outsiders for the first time in his life.
Dmitry’s friends among the Soviets begged him to allow them to call a helicopter and have him flown to a hospital to treat his pneumonia. He refused, whispering, “We are not allowed that,” moments before he died. “A man lives for howsoever God grants.”
Karp died in his sleep five years later in 1988. With the help of the scientists, his daughter Agaifa laid him to rest, then returned to the family’s cabin. She resisted all entreaties to join surviving relatives back in the villages at the edge of the taiga.
An oil driller named Yerofei Sedov who became close with the family wrote of leaving Agaifa on the day of her father’s funeral, “I looked back to wave at Agafia. She was standing by the river break like a statue. She wasn’t crying. She nodded, Go on, go on.’ We went another kilometer and I looked back. She was still standing there.”
Agaifa Lykov still lives by herself in the family cabin. She is now in her 70s.
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