Join 3,564 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Old Believers in the wilderness
January 28, 2013 6:52 PM   Subscribe

In 1978, geological explorers in a remote region of southern Siberia made an unexpected discovery: a family living alone, more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement. They had lived in isolation since 1936 and were unaware that World War II had happened.
posted by the duck by the oboe (65 comments total) 136 users marked this as a favorite

 
Incredible.
posted by odinsdream at 7:08 PM on January 28, 2013 [14 favorites]


Karp Lykov died in his sleep on February 16, 1988, 27 years to the day after his wife, Akulina. 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 seventies herself, this child of the taiga lives on alone, high above the Abakan.

She will not leave. But we must leave her, seen through the eyes of Yerofei 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.
Well. Dang. Imagine that. Alone on a mountainside with nothing but her dreams to comfort her.
posted by notyou at 7:09 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh my gosh. What an amazing story! Thank you for sharing it. It's amazing what the family missed desperately (salt, hot water) when they seemed able to withstand the lack of so many things.
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:16 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow.
posted by asperity at 7:17 PM on January 28, 2013


Famine was an ever-present danger in these circumstances, and in 1961 it snowed in June. The hard frost killed everything growing in their garden, and by spring the family had been reduced to eating shoes and bark. Akulina chose to see her children fed, and that year she 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. The Lykovs put up a fence around the shoot and guarded it zealously night and day to keep off mice and squirrels. At harvest time, the solitary spike yielded 18 grains, and from this they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop.
Wow.
posted by migurski at 7:17 PM on January 28, 2013 [18 favorites]


I think wow sums it up.
posted by bongo_x at 7:18 PM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


I came to highlight exactly what migurski did. To think that the kids weren't exactly unaware of their mother's decision is a powerful thing to realize.
posted by Chutzler at 7:24 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read that and I was like, "When you really think about it, you can kind of see how we humans occupied the entire Earth and bent it to our will."
posted by escabeche at 7:25 PM on January 28, 2013 [20 favorites]


How did this make you think of that, escabeche?
posted by clockzero at 7:29 PM on January 28, 2013


Goddamn.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:35 PM on January 28, 2013


Amazing. Although I would last for a pathetically short time under the same circumstances, I'm glad there are still remote places like this left on the Earth, and that people still choose to live in them. Agafia living for her entire life in the same area of forest in Siberia - incredible. Although I guess that's how much of humanity lived until relatively recently.
posted by pravit at 7:36 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Do not go to man. Stay in the forest! Go rather even to the animals! Why do you not want to be as I am—a bear among bears, a bird among birds?"

"And what is the saint doing in the forest?" asked Zarathustra.

The saint answered: 'I make songs and sing them; and when I make songs, I laugh, cry, and hum: thus I praise God. With singing, crying, laughing, and humming, I praise the god who is my god. But what do you bring us as a gift?"

When Zarathustra had heard these words he bade the saint farewell and said: "What could I have to give I you? But let me go quickly lest I take something from you!" And thus they separated, the old one and the man, laughing as two boys laugh.

But when Zarathustra was alone he spoke thus to his heart: "Could it be possible? This old saint in the forest has not yet heard anything of this, that God is dead!"

posted by Bwithh at 7:37 PM on January 28, 2013 [13 favorites]


Such an interesting story, but it is a shame that I have a hard time believing that it isn't widly exaggerated, given this:

It stretches from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: five million square miles of nothingness, with a population, outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people.

Which is a ridiculous sentence to write about an area with 40 million people living in it.

Can you imagine forty years without salt though?
posted by ssg at 7:37 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


The no salt thing was, for me, the most horrifying part.
posted by elizardbits at 7:46 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Will this work for World War III? Cause if so, I'm moving 150 miles from the nearest settlement.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:47 PM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


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.

"40 degrees of frost" is a quaint way of saying 40 degrees below freezing; so yes, wow.
posted by eurypteris at 7:51 PM on January 28, 2013 [14 favorites]


The no salt thing was, for me, the most horrifying part.

I'm reminded of a story I read in a book by either Redmond O'Hanlon or Tim Cahill. It concerned some foragers from an Amazonian tribe that the narrators encountered on their journey through the jungle. The narrators shared their own food with the tribesmen, but they did not have much to offer besides rice. One of the tribesmen was brought to tears by the taste of that rice. He had eaten cassava root all his life, he said, and had never tasted anything so good as that rice.

Will this work for World War III? Cause if so, I'm moving 150 miles from the nearest settlement.

I dunno, man. I'd have to think about it. That house, those cold comforts, all those years?
posted by Countess Elena at 7:51 PM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


How did this make you think of that, escabeche?

Because people are tough.
posted by escabeche at 7:52 PM on January 28, 2013 [14 favorites]


What I learned of Siberia in school, was much in keeping with what they wrote - it has a larger population than one might think, but it is intensely compacted into some cities and towns, and that it is common that one might walk 120+ miles in any direction, in some areas, without encountering another human being or human dwelling.

Siberia is about 33% bigger than the USA, with only 12% as many people. That means the population density of Siberia is only 9% of that of America, and there are far, far fewer small cities or or towns or villages, and very few outlying places of inhabitation. The 40 million people who live there are concentrated into relatively few places. So this . . .

It stretches from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: five million square miles of nothingness, with a population, outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people.

. . . is much closer to the truth than one might think.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:56 PM on January 28, 2013 [20 favorites]


“An anthropologist at Tulane has just come back from a field trip to New Guinea with reports of a tribe so primitive that they have Tide but not new Tide with lemon-fresh Borax.” -- David Letterman
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:57 PM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


There are Old Believers in Alaska. These folks though were and are amazing.
This had to be very bad as the children began to mature. :(.
And their poor mother!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:05 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Lykovs' unawareness of World War II and Bwithh's timely comment have me mulling over some stuff: I think it's remarkable that information's spread among people happens so naturally that finding people who aren't tuned into whatever's "obvious" at the moment is outright bizarre to the rest of us. Throughout much of our history as a species we've had this pervasive desire to inform the people around us with whatever means we've got: cave paintings, the oral tradition, letters and books, the internet - all of it.

That's just incredible to me.
posted by Chutzler at 8:08 PM on January 28, 2013 [13 favorites]


Holy crap.

Makes the Mayflower and its ilk look like pleasure cruises. The things people will do for liberty are amazing.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:16 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


It stretches from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: five million square miles of nothingness, with a population, outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people.

Which is a ridiculous sentence to write about an area with 40 million people living in it.


I raised an eyebrow at that sentence too. Looking at the 2010 Russian census, even if we are to take a narrow definition of Siberia as the Siberian Federal District (which would include the area the Lykovs were living in, but does not stretch all the way to the Pacific), the non-urban population is still over 5 million people. Perhaps he accidentally conflated the non-urban population of the specific administrative district the family was living in with all of Siberia when he wrote that bit?
posted by pravit at 8:18 PM on January 28, 2013


Wow. I just can't say anything more than that.

I mean...the thing is...

What about...

When you compare...

Wow.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:21 PM on January 28, 2013


For some reason it makes me really happy that someone, particularly in Russia, missed WWII.
posted by marxchivist at 8:21 PM on January 28, 2013 [33 favorites]


I love this stuff because it really shows you by way of extremes the macroscopic view of civilization. All the posturing and fighting, the armed conflicts and national boundaries are just artificial distinctions we draw up as a consequence of having to live with so damn many people around us at all times, inundated with such a plethora of weird abstractions like driving a car and fussing with the temperature dial or going to work and worrying about how ergonomic your desk setup is or how secure you feel around people who look marginally different from you. It's all nuances and rationalizations, bacterium to oranges.

It's a useful perspective and I think the author goes out of their way to paint it as such without romanticizing it and making it seem to be much more than the large amount of suffering it had to be. The taiga is not an enviable life but it is great foil for ours.
posted by dubusadus at 8:24 PM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


It really does put things in perspective. Even more so than today's incredible post about the space shuttle, this is so illustrative of the human race's evolutionary potential.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:28 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


A fantastic illustration of what all too many post-apocalyptic novels and survivalist nuts are inclined to forget about. I'm personally amazed that no one got: a) gangrene, b) tetanus, c) scurvy/rickets/other lethal deficiency.

Great find.
posted by smoke at 8:31 PM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


There are Old Believers in Alaska.

They were mentioned recently in a Seattle Weekly article about fisheries quotas.
posted by edeezy at 8:48 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion.

This brought Scott Carrier's "Running After Antelope" to mind. There's evidence that some cultures once used this as their main method of hunting large game, and its startling to see that these folks rediscovered it - seemingly atavistically.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:58 PM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


how did they do it?
They believed?
posted by Colonel Panic at 9:15 PM on January 28, 2013


Extraordinary story, thank you. This is what MeFi is for.

Agafya Lykova was in the news this month.
posted by rdc at 9:16 PM on January 28, 2013 [10 favorites]


With no salt, I wonder how they didn't all have goiter.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:22 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


" the non-urban population is still over 5 million people."

But as Dee Xtrovert points out, the land area is enormous. As an inhabitant of some small islands with 4 million people on them, where over 1 million live in the largest city and the biggest island has much less than half the people, with mountainous, difficult terrain, I can tell you that it's easy to have a numerous rural population in the fertile bits and wall to wall fuck all in the bad parts. I have no trouble believing this at all.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:40 PM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


I knew this was going to be a post about a religious fundamentalist patriarch who deprived his children of any chance of their own family before I even opened it.
posted by fshgrl at 10:12 PM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, you win then, fshgrl, because the rest of us are mostly bummed that Dad deprived his kids of salt..
posted by notyou at 10:17 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


so...I guess now we have to call it 'most-of-the-world war II' ?
posted by sexyrobot at 10:19 PM on January 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


the non-urban population is still over 5 million people.

Siberia has a population density of about 8 people per square mile. By itself, that's less than any US state except Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. But Siberia is equal in size to 51 (!) Wyomings, and it has more wilderness area (defined as less than one person per square mile) than ALL of the USA, plus an additional Alaska. There are only relatively tiny parts of America that have anything like the same lack of population that nearly all of Siberia has.

Even if you put all of Siberia's settlements into an area the size of Alaska, there could be miles of empty space between them, and the population density still would be lower than two-thirds of American states - around the same density as Arizona.

And there would still be more than six entire Alaska-sized spaces with no one living there at all!

In other words, those five million non-urban people share a space that's considerably larger than all of the USA, including Alaska and Hawaii. And another Alaska.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:56 PM on January 28, 2013 [14 favorites]


outside a handful of towns is the key bit.

This isn't a settled place. For Americans, we think perhaps of Montana and its wide-open prairies, with roads stretching for miles and miles ... but alongside someone's property, perhaps an enormous ranch or BLM land that is visited and managed. Siberia, though -- much of it -- is really much more comparable to a series of oil drilling rigs in a vast sea. And even in Russia these, today, are facing resource depletion and mechanization issues that are rapidly depleting even that meager population.
posted by dhartung at 11:40 PM on January 28, 2013


Surely we can all agree that Siberia is sparsely populated and at the same time that this simply isn't true: "outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people."

Also, living in Canada just to the north of Montana, we find it a constant source of amusement that urban Americans think Montana is empty.
posted by ssg at 11:49 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


During the purges of the 1930s, with Christianity itself under assault, a Communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother on the outskirts of their village while Lykov knelt working beside him. He had responded by scooping up his family and bolting into forest.

And somehow he remained ignorant of the enormous calamity that happened all around him just a few years later? Sibera was hardly untouched by WW2. Vast amounts of material where shipped to and from Siberia from the Western parts of Russia. The far East was under Japanese occupation. And Siberia itself was the home of the gulags and enemy POW camps. Sparsely populated, yes, there was hardly a square meter of the planet that wasn't affected. From planes flying overhead to the sound of artillery, I can't believe any Russian could not have known about Hitler. In particular this guy:

As the Soviet geologists got to know the Lykov family, they realized that they had underestimated their abilities and intelligence. Each family member had a distinct personality; Old Karp was usually delighted by the latest innovations that the scientists brought up from their camp, and though he steadfastly 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,” and Karp himself conceived a theory to explain this: “People have thought something up and are sending out fires that are very like stars.”

He figured out satellites were being launched but never heard about WW2? C'mon.

Moreover if I'm on the run from the Reds, I would poke my head up out of the forest every so often to see what they're up to. He never had in 40 years reason or curiosity to meet someone outside of his family? Any contact with any human during that time must have conveyed some knowledge of the terrible events of WW2. So this story has a distinct Lance Armstrong feel to it.

But if I spent 40 years hiding from the Commies when some Western reporter comes and starts asking questions of course I'm gonna get all Sergeant Schultz on him: "I know nothing."

Or maybe I have something else to hide. I hope those geologists looked for cellars and hidden rooms. Who knows what else he might have been hiding.
posted by three blind mice at 1:40 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


These people make Dick Proenneke look like David H. Koch.
posted by y2karl at 1:52 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's evidence that some cultures once used this as their main method of hunting large game

it's not culture, it's evolution, baby!
posted by beukeboom at 5:42 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


three blind mice:
"He figured out satellites were being launched but never heard about WW2? C'mon. "
He skipped WWII, not the whole 20th century. Jules Verne was writing at the end of the 19th so the idea of people sending stuff into space wouldn't be completely alien.
posted by charred husk at 5:47 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


tbm, that's a really weird read of the story. First, it's totally understandable that he didn't seek out contact with the outside world. His brother was shot right next to him while they were working in the field. Once you're that isolated, in Siberia, it would be pretty possible to not know about WWII. Don't underestimate the bigness of it. If you stayed away from the direct lines between towns - which it sounds like he did on purpose - you wouldn't have planes flying overhead, and even if you saw a stray one or two that wouldn't be too unusual. Artillery sound can carry for dozens of miles, but they were at least 150 miles from anything worth shooting at.

And it wasn't a Western reporter from the Smithsonian who found them, it was a team of Russian geologists. Probably he talked with the geologists because he had nothing more to lose at that point. If they wished him ill, there wasn't much he could have done about it once they found him.

Not sure what you're thinking you'd find in any hidden rooms.
posted by echo target at 7:09 AM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Lost in the Taiga: One Russian Family's Fifty-Year Struggle for Survival and Religious Freedom in the Siberian Wilderness

I've read other stories about families that go off into the wilderness, like Ralph Edwards, but this one makes me uneasy for the complete lack of contact for 50 years.
posted by stbalbach at 8:03 AM on January 29, 2013


I read Lost in the Taiga years ago when it first came out, and it made quite an impression on me. Great to find it again here. Thanks.
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 9:53 AM on January 29, 2013


tbm, that's a really weird read of the story.

To say the least. What possible reason would he have for such an elaborate ruse? Tax avoidance? Internet fame after he was dead and the internet was invented?

These are people who didn’t want to live with other people. They didn’t move after they were discovered. How would he know about Hitler or anything else if he haven’t talked to anyone in 40 years? Do you think he was checking the NY Times site on his iphone?
posted by bongo_x at 9:55 AM on January 29, 2013


This story is the most Russian thing I've ever read.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:05 AM on January 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


Interesting to contemplate whether religious belief in general is an asset or a liability in this sort of setup. On the one hand it maintained group cohesion and prescribed taboos and ways of doing things. On the other, it seems to have prevented them from exploring the wider world and probably developing a more comfortable and safer way of life. Fear and ignorance determined their behaviour, as it does with most of us in one way or another.
posted by binturong at 10:41 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not really surprised they had no contact with anyone for 40 years. They were struggling for much of that and focused on just getting by. I found it sad and ironic that even though it seemed like they escaped a bad situation they still didn't fair much better than their countrymen.

I was also struck by the note that their primary entertainment was recounting their dreams. Did all the time and attention spent on dreams make their unconscious dreaming capabilities stronger? Did that make up for the lack of new people and ideas to feed the dreams' content? Did they eventually develop their own common dream vocabulary? I wish the geologists had been accompanied by a psychologist to ask them about that.
posted by bleep at 11:01 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


On the other, it seems to have prevented them from exploring the wider world and probably developing a more comfortable and safer way of life.

Centuries of religious based persecution culminating in the local persecutors shooting your older brother dead, in broad daylight, while the two of you worked in a field, may have had a role to play in "preventing them from exploring the wider world." There actually really were devils and demons determined to do them harm.
posted by notyou at 11:03 AM on January 29, 2013


Remember in this thread when we were talking about how many Europeans might not be able to intuitively grasp the sheer expanses of distance that make up the US? This seems similar except instead of Europeans it's everyone else.
posted by bleep at 11:03 AM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


With no salt, I wonder how they didn't all have goiter.

Goiter occurs not because of a deficiency in salt but because of a deficiency of iodine. Iodine does not naturally occur in salt but is added to salt in order to combat iodine deficiency. Potatoes are naturally rich in iodine, and the article says their main food was potato patties, so it looks like that's where they got their iodine.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 11:31 AM on January 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


There actually really were devils and demons determined to do them harm.

Good point. But when you let early experience in life determine your behaviour for the next 40 years you really are running on fear of the wide world and that's never good.
posted by binturong at 11:49 AM on January 29, 2013


concurrently in Siberia...
posted by titus-g at 12:45 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


One thing I wondered in reading this was: what did they expect was the end game here? I understand the fleeing to the wilderness out of fear part, and maintaining a gap between yourself and civilization for religious reasons or fear of persecution but... what did the father think would happen, ultimately, to his family over time? Did he intend at some point to go back and never did? Did he figure they'd live out there for the rest of their lives and then just ... die out? I presume, based on what they report Dmitri and the surviving daughter saying and doing, that they believed that whatever happened was God's will, but at the same time you've basically lived his terrible way (and because you left civilization you KNOW it's terrible - you're watching your wife die of starvation when food is known to exist elsewhere) to maintain a religion that then will just die out when your family does. I guess this is just how extreme religious belief plays out?!

Based on there not being any additional generations of children it doesn't seem they practiced any incest (THANK GOD) and that would probably have been well outside the bounds of the religion anyway, but I wish they'd either probed a bit on the long-term motivations and end-game expectations of Karp or, if they did, explained some of that. I would sincerely have loved to know what he thought was going to happen to his family both when he immediately fled or over time.
posted by marylynn at 12:48 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


a single grain of rye sprouted in their pea patch. The Lykovs put up a fence around the shoot and guarded it zealously night and day to keep off mice and squirrels. At harvest time, the solitary spike yielded 18 grains, and from this they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop.

I have done this same thing in Minecraft and it seemed pretty miraculous at the time.
posted by echo target at 1:44 PM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


marylynn, I think you might be underestimating the effects of time and distance here. They lived out there for about a quarter of a century before his wife died. (They fled in '36, she died in '61) I'm not sure how real the outside world was to them by that time. Two of the children had never even seen another human.

But beyond that, there's the idea that him walking to the nearest town, getting food, and walking back before she starved would even have been possible. About a 300 mile round trip, when they were found in the '70s. Maybe farther in 1961.

He was probably starving as well, and I expect travel would have been slow. The terrain was pretty rough and would be difficult even for a healthy man. Then he'd have had to find a settlement, convince someone to give him food - he had no money and it doesn't sound like he had anything to barter.

Then he'd have to walk back.

Even if you leave their beliefs out of it, they weren't in a position to make the kind of decisions that might seem normal to us.

As far as what he (and his wife) thought the 'end game' would be, I expect they figured that eventually God would call each of them and they'd go to Heaven, or Hell. But at least they wouldn't have been persecuted and murdered for their beliefs.

I expect they lived in fear. Fear of persecution, fear of Hell.

"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."
posted by merelyglib at 2:29 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is one of those stories that's so quintessentially Russian that it could have been an Andrei Tarkovsky film.
posted by jonp72 at 2:44 PM on January 29, 2013


I would sincerely have loved to know what he thought was going to happen to his family both when he immediately fled or over time.

I suspect they thought they’d get old and die just like the rest of us.
posted by bongo_x at 3:51 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


In other words, those five million non-urban people share a space that's considerably larger than all of the USA, including Alaska and Hawaii. And another Alaska.

I agree completely that Siberia is extremely sparsely populated outside of the cities - not trying to suggest otherwise. Just questioning his figure of thousands for the non-urban population (not population density) when Russian census data has it in the millions. I still think the story of the Lykovs is incredible.
posted by pravit at 3:58 PM on January 29, 2013


I don't know how I've somehow missed Smithsonian Mag up until now, but between this and the Ida Wood story, I'm really loving what I'm finding there. Thanks for the great post.
posted by young sister beacon at 4:55 PM on January 29, 2013


"When you really think about it, you can kind of see how we humans occupied the entire Earth and bent it to our will."

When you really think about it, you can kind of see how we humans, without our technology, are very fragile and survival is not a given.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:01 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


« Older The New Yorker's take on Dr Mehmet Oz....  |  The (New) Daily Mail Oncologic... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments