When his brother was killed in front of him by Bolsheviks in the 1930s, Karp Lykov took his family and fled into the vast wilderness of the Siberian “taiga”. It was only the beginning of an epic journey, one which culminated in an extraordinary discovery where the old world met the new.
The taiga proved the ultimate hiding place. Even in 2013, Smithsonian.com described it as the “last and greatest of Earth’s wildernesses. 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”.
The reason his brother died, and why Karp himself faced death, lay in the religious persecution which accompanied the Russian Revolution of 1917.
As written in a 2017 Moscow Times article, “the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) served as an important pillar of the autocratic system. Just how subservient the church was to the state remains a matter of debate.” However, “the institutional Church’s association with the tsarist state was certainly a liability when the revolutionary year of 1917 arrived.”
Karp was an “Old Believer”, part of the Russian Orthodox Church that had been attacked since the days of Peter The Great. Under measures such as the infamous “beard tax” imposed by Peter at the end of the 17th century, Karp’s very appearance was enough to get him in trouble.
Now the Bolsheviks’ atheist agenda had led to a violent “purge”, it was time for the Lykovs to leave, and leave quickly. There was Karp, his wife Akulina, son Savin (9) and daughter Natalia (2).
While their community may have wondered what became of them, it took over 4 decades for the truth to be revealed.
In 1978 a helicopter was hovering over unexplored territory, looking for a place to land. Aboard were a team of geologists, on a mission to search for iron ore.
As the fliers entered a valley, Smithsonian.com writes that the pilot noticed “something that should not have been there… a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows.”
As this was 150 miles from any form of civilization, the crew experienced a double take moment. The copter “made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time…”
When a group of four geologists investigated further, no mean feat considering the untamed terrain, they found a small hut.
Out of the hut stepped the “figure of a very old man… 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.”
They were looking at an elderly Karp Lykov.
Inside his cramped, makeshift home, which reportedly had a floor made from pine nut shells and potato peelings they found his terrified daughter Natalia, together with her sister Agafya, who was born in 1943. Three years earlier Savin had been given a younger brother in the form of Dmitry.
Their clothes and possessions eventually disintegrated, so the clan made their own clothes and adapted accordingly to the environment.
As he grew, Dmitry became a “consummate outdoorsman… He was the most curious and perhaps the most forward-looking member of the family. It was he… who spent days hand-cutting and hand-planing each log that the Lykovs felled. Perhaps it was no surprise that he was also the most enraptured by the scientists’ technology.”
This was the Lykovs’ first encounter with modern civilization for decades. So cut off were they from the outside world that they didn’t know World War II had come and gone.
Their isolated existence was very much dictated by the elements. Sadly those had claimed the life of mother Akulina, when a hard frost in 1961 led to her starving to death. At that time the family were surviving on tree bark, and even eating their own shoes. In kinder weather, Dmitry hunted for meat. The Lykovs also consumed potato patties.
The encounter between science and living history had been momentous, yet the family were intrigued by modernity rather than compelled by it. Karp was most fascinated by cellophane, which he regarded as collapsible glass, and the group enjoyed watching television. Salt was also a luxury they embraced.
None of it was enough to tempt them from their lives in the wilderness though. Plus there was a tragic dimension to the geologists’ interactions with the Lykovs. Dmitry later died from pneumonia in 1981. It isn’t clear whether the infection was brought in from outside.
That same year Natalia and Savin suffered from kidney failure, thought to be connected to their diet. Karp, the man who started it all, passed away in 1988.
Now Agafya is the only remaining member of the family. Geologist Yerofei Sedov set up home in a hut 100 meters away and became a long-standing friend and neighbor, though he died in 2015.
She still lives in the same environment, though in recent times she has come under threat. Last year the governor of Khakassia, Viktor Zimin, made headlines when he called a halt to aircraft visiting the survivor at the Khakassky Nature Reserve.
The Siberian Times reported that “Russia’s ‘loneliest woman’ has received increasing help from outsiders visiting her, bring her animals, food supplies and cutting logs for her.” In a nod to the 21st century, Agafya has access to a satellite phone.
Zimin has highlighted the fact that public money is spent on her aid, and clarified his objection is not based on her religion. Governor of nearby Kemerovo and friend of Agafya’s Aman Tuleyev took a humanitarian approach, frustrating Zimin.
TV presenter Andrey Grishakov is quoted saying, “Agafya Lykova is not your ordinary elderly woman. Today many people asked me why I was helping, and why so many effort was invested in keeping in touch with her. But she is a golden mine of knowledge, experience and culture of Russia as it was five, six centuries ago.”
Agafya faces daily hardship out in the taiga, though appears content with her life on the whole. Her father Karp ran from the authorities, and in a sense this pursuit is still going on.
Will the new world erase this remaining symbol of the old…? If it does, it will close the book on an astonishing tale of a truly alternative way of life.