There are few places on our planet as desolate and forbidding as the Siberian taiga. Here is a never-ending vast expanse of permanently frozen earth, icy bogs, frigid lakes and rivers, perilous mountains, and scattered dark forests prowled by bears and wolves. This is a land that has defied civilization and mankind since time unremembered, a deadly, inhospitable domain of endless bleakness and perpetual cold, a place not meant for us. It is for this reason that in 1978 a helicopter full of geologists scouting for potential oil fields were surprised when they spotted perched upon a windswept clearing thousands of feet up a mountainside what looked to be a manmade garden complete with furrows. It was largely considered impossible that anyone could be there, after all this particular area was hundreds of miles from even the tiniest settlement, an uncharted lonely realm that had never even been explored by geologists. At the time the terrain was too treacherous to land, but it was such a baffling anomaly that they made it a point to land some distance away in the valley and trek out to the site to investigate. What they found would amaze them, and launch an amazing tale of survival, adventure, and the power of the human spirit.
The team made their way up the mountainside, braving perilous footing and fierce, freezing winds that conspired to stop them at every turn, their minds the whole way racing to try and figure out why anyone would be living out in that wasteland, or if anyone was even still there at all. Surely no one could survive long in these conditions? Their curiosity was roused even further when they reached the clearing they had seen from the air and spotted what seemed to be a decrepit old log hut lodged away between scraggly pine trees. It was such a disarming thing to see out in this remote place far from any other humans that it was almost akin to finding life on another planet, so anomalous and unexpected was it. It was a true oddity, yet as the team stared in disbelief at the dwelling and over the garden it quickly became even more bizarre when the door to the hut creaked open and out stepped a wizened, ancient looking man. One of the geologists on the team, Galina Pismenskaya, would describe the hut and the appearance of the mysterious man:
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 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.’
The interior of the hut was a hovel, low ceilinged, cramped, and cold and dim, more like an animal’s burrow than a human habitation. There featured only a single filthy room, littered with debris and pervaded by the smell of unwashed bodies and other unidentifiable scents, the floor littered with pine nut shells and potato peels, and it soon came to the realization that the man did not live here alone. Behind him in the gloom were two women, wild-eyed and obviously afraid. They chattered amongst each other in what sounded like “a slow, blurred cooing,” before one of them exclaimed while jabbing a finger at the intruders “This is for our sins, our sins!” The other woman became hysterical as well, which was enough to convince the team that it was time to leave. They hurried out of that filthy hovel to retreat to a spot some distance away and try to figure out what to do, and one of the team produced a handgun he had brought along just in case, gripping it hard until his knuckles turned white.
After some time had passed, the door to the hut squeaked open again, and the old man once again appeared from within the dank darkness within. He then began walking towards them, seemingly indifferent to the frigid earth upon his bare feet, and behind him the two women followed. The women were at this point calmer, although they had the air about them as wary animals approaching a stranger, and the geologists offered some of their food to them in a show of peace. They refused the food, with the old man explaining that they were “not allowed” to eat these things, and that the two women had never even seen bread before. He then introduced himself as Karp Lykov, and the two women as his daughters Agafia and Natalia, Agafia having been born out on the taiga, explaining that his family had been there for 40 years. He also introduced another two people who lived there as well, his sons Savin and Dmitry, two younger men with a wild look and a coiled lean, wiry strength about them. And so it began that over the course of several visits he would spin quite the fantastic tale, indeed.
According to Karp, their plight began in 1936, during an era in which the communist regime was exacerbating the crack down that the Russian Orthodox Church had long been carrying out against what were called the Old Believers, those who had refused to adopt the new liturgical rituals that had been introduced back in the 17th century, and who the Lykovs were considered among their numbers. This refusal to bow down to the new ways had long been a source of persecution towards the Old Believers, only made worse when the communists took control, sending many of the Old Believers into self-imposed exile from their homelands. It was in 1936 that Karp’s brother was shot and killed by a Soviet patrol, and fearing for his family’s life Karp whisked them off into hiding in the Siberian Taiga. Along with him on this journey into the unknown were originally his wife, Akulina, and their two children, Savin and Natalia, eventually finding their way to the spot where they now stood.
Upon arrival, the family had managed to eke out a living in this harsh environment, building their ramshackle hut, creating their potato and rye garden, and collecting nuts, rye, berries, roots, grass, mushrooms, as well as digging traps for animals and gathering whatever else they could get their hands on out in the wilderness, but they were constantly just one step away from starvation. Frosts would kill crops in their garden, wild animals would raid their food stores, and on one occasion they managed to rebuild their meager crop of rye from a single stalk that had survived being eaten by rats. Somehow, they managed to survive through ingenuity and sheer willpower. When the clothes they had brought disintegrated beyond repair they crafted clothes and shoes from leaves, bark, and hemp. The metal pots they had brought with them eventually rusted away to nothing, meaning it was harder for them to cook, forcing their diet to rely less on meat or fish. Agafia would later say of the hardship of securing food, “We were hungry all the time. Every year we held a council to decide whether to eat everything up or leave some for seed.”
Over time they would have two more children out there in their new realm, the daughter Agafia and a son named Dmitry, and for the next 40 years they would live in this forsaken place with only each other as company. World War II came and went without them even knowing it had ever happened, humans travelled to the moon, something which Karp refused to believe when told this, and civilization thrived and grew as they remained as insects in amber, frozen in another time. Indeed, the two children Agafia and Dmitry had never seen a car, horse, or an airplane, had never eaten bread or salt, and had no knowledge at all of the outside world. Karp would tell them stories of what was out there and the world he had left behind, but to the children these were like fairy tales and science fiction stories rather than reality. Their reality was the bleak expanse of taiga and the perpetual cold.
Through their time out there they had known much hardship, but also tragedy. Karp’s wife Akulina died in 1961 after forgoing her own food supply to offer to her children during a particularly fierce winter, yet they had soldiered on. According to Karp, they had occasionally met others out in the wilderness, but had always shied away from them, preferring to live in complete isolation. The team of geologists was their first real contact with anyone from the outside in decades, which explained the wariness and panic displayed by the daughters, yet while they were somewhat afraid of these outsiders, they were at the same time fascinated. Indeed, in particular Dmitry and Agafia were completely perplexed by the clothing and technology the geologists had with them. They visited the geologist camp and were perplexed by a circular saw that could cut wood in minutes, amazed by the “glass that crumples,” which we know as cellophane, and were astounded and enraptured when they first saw a television set. As far as they were concerned this was all akin to magic. Over the time the geologists were there, they gifted the Lykovs with metal eating utensils, pots, knives, a flashlight, and their most cherished commodity, salt, which the younger ones had never eaten and which Karp had long lamented the absence of.
At the time, word got out on this lost family out in the taiga and it was all over the news, but sadly their reintroduction to the modern world was quickly followed by tragedy. In 1981, Savin and Natalia both died of kidney failure in quick succession, followed by Dmitry, who died of pneumonia. Allegedly, the geologists offered to airlift Dmitry to a hospital for treatment, but he refused to leave, both because of his fear of what waited out there and his religious beliefs, reportedly saying with his dying breaths, “We are not allowed that. A man lives for howsoever God grants.” Karp himself would later pass away in 1988, leaving Agafia to inherit their home as the sole survivor of her mysterious family. The geologists offered to take her away from there, to introduce her to distant relatives and allow her to rejoin the modern world, but she refused, instead choosing to stay where she was, as she believed God intended, although she completely rebuilt a much better cabin and was supplied with all the equipment and clothing she needed. She would also receive goats and chickens, and gain some company in the form of one of the geologists, a man named Yerofei Sedov, who would live there with her for 10 years up to his death in 2015, after which she replaced him with a man named Georgy Danilov, recruited with an actual ad in the newspaper.
On a handful of times, Agafia ventured out to civilization, if only briefly. One of these excursions was a tour of Russia organized by the Russian government. This was her first times to see cars, streets, houses, airplanes, horses, money, and many other things that most people take for granted. Some of these things fascinated her, while others frightened her, such as busy streets and, oddly, barcodes, which she believed were the mark of the Devil. She also believed that the air and water outside of the taiga was slowly poisoning her, meaning that she never left her home on these trips for very long. She has since been the focus of the book Lost in the Taiga: One Russian Family’s Fifty-Year Struggle for Survival and Religious Freedom in the Siberian Wilderness, by journalist Vasily Peskov, and was visited in 2013 by a crew from Vice Magazine, led by John Martin, who would write of his first impression of her:
For a 70-year-old woman who once had to eat her shoes to survive, I was surprised by how nimble and healthy she appeared. Her property includes several cabins and smaller buildings for goats, chickens, supplies, and preserved food, as well as a garden on the steep hill behind the main dwelling. (The garden was covered in snow during our visit, as it remains for much of the Siberian winter.) Throughout the years, with the help of friends and admirers, she’s built up her property from the one-room shack the whole family used to live in. Dozens of cats freely roam the property.
As of mid-2019, Agafia was reportedly still living out on the taiga away from civilization, and as far as anyone knows she still is. When asked about whether she was lonely or not, she told one journalist, “Every Christian has their Guardian Angel as well as Christ and the Apostles. I have an Icon that has been blessed. I am never lonely as I always have Christ with me.” The story of the Lykovs seems to end here, with their last remaining member living in exile as she always had, only this time in hiding from the modern world rather than persecution. It is all a rather thrilling, yet ultimately sad tale that seems to have mostly been forgotten. The story of the Lykovs is a fascinating look into the spirit of survival and the ability for humans to overcome the greatest hardships, a mesmerizing tale that is not only both tragic and enthralling, but also one of the indominable human spirit. One can only hope that whatever it is that Agafia Lykov is looking for, that she has found it.