The Russian Family That Cut Itself Off From Civilization for More Than 40 Years

Photo Illustration: Lucy Quintanilla. Images: iStock
Photo Illustration: Lucy Quintanilla. Images: iStock

In 1978, four geologists were surveying for potential iron ore from a helicopter hovering above the mineral-rich, but ultimately uninhabitable, taiga forest of southern Siberia when the pilot spotted something out of the ordinary down below: a garden, unmistakably manmade. It was 150 miles away from the nearest glimpse of humanity and thousands of feet up a mountainside, where survival wasn’t just questionable—it was considered impossible.

But the garden was there, which meant that people must be there, too. The geologists decided to land nearby and trek to the spot. They prepared themselves with offerings of food for what they hoped would be a peaceful meeting. At least one brought a handgun in case of the alternative.

When the team made its way into the area, they discovered a small dwelling. “Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks,” geologist Galina Pismenskaya later recalled. “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.”

Then a figure emerged: a man with a wild beard and makeshift clothing. “Greetings, grandfather,” Pismenskaya said. “We’ve come to visit!”

After an uncomfortable silence, he spoke: “Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.”

The man's name was Karp Lykov, and he had a tale to tell: He and his family had been living in complete isolation from the world on the remote Siberian mountainside for more than 40 years.

OLD BELIEVERS ON THE RUN

In the mid-17th century, the Russian Orthodox Church made alterations to its liturgical rituals to bring them more in line with Greek practices. Most members accepted the changes, but a group known as the Old Believers refused to assimilate. Though it may seem trivial to break from a church over disputes like the number of fingers used when giving the sign of the cross, the Old Believers considered the changes blasphemous, enacted by a centralized church they did not support. They were so dedicated to their traditional ways that many would have suffered self-immolation rather than follow the new customs.

This schism led to the imprisonment, torture, and even execution of Old Believers by the Russian Orthodox Church; persecution and exile persisted for centuries. Many fled the country; those who stayed faced an intensified threat with the coming of an atheist communist regime in the 20th century.

The Lykovs' situation reached a tipping point in 1936, when Karp's brother was killed by a Bolshevik patrol. With their Old Believer status threatened more than ever, Karp moved his wife, Akulina, and their two children—9-year-old son Savin and 2-year-old daughter Natalia—into seclusion in the insular wilderness of Siberia.

It was there, in the frigid forest, that the family made their home. They built a single-room hut out of whatever materials they could find. They had no electricity or plumbing, and survived on potatoes, nuts, rye, berries, and whatever else the land provided. Their shoes were fashioned from bark, and once their existing clothing could no longer be patched or repatched, they made replacements from hemp.

Though the situation was grim, the family managed to grow: Son Dmitry was born in 1940 and Agafia, a daughter, arrived in 1943. The children learned to speak both Russian (albeit interspersed with a lot of archaic words) and Old Slavonic, and though they knew little of the outside world, Karp did tell them stories about Russian cities and life beyond the hut—but it was through the lens of an Old Believer. That meant stories of a modern society that was godless and sinful, populated by people that were to be "feared and avoided."

Aspects of life that are routine in civilization were a terrible struggle for the family, and the harsh Siberian weather wreaked havoc on the Lykovs' makeshift food supply. During one particularly barren stretch, Akulina often gave up her own food to ensure that her children's stomachs were filled just a bit more. She died of starvation in 1961.

A FAMILY OUT OF TIME

By the time the geologists made contact with the family, the Lykovs had been living away from the world for approximately 40 years. World War II had passed without their knowledge, and Smithsonian reported that Karp didn't believe that we had landed on the moon—though he had a feeling we had at least made it to space, judging by the streaking satellites he had observed. “People have thought something up and are sending out fires that are very like stars,” he said.

The family remained in the dark about much of the progress of the 20th century, and they were greatly interested in the new technology they were shown. Dmitry, in particular, was astonished by a circular saw that could accomplish in moments what would take him hours or days to finish. Karp, on the other hand, seemed most excited by the geologists' gift of salt, which the family patriarch described as “true torture" to live without.

The Lykovs would eventually grow to have the same weakness as many of the rest of us: television. Vasily Peskov, a Russian journalist who chronicled the family, observed that the Lykovs would have an internal struggle about the glowing box in front of them. They were at once enraptured and guilt-ridden when they’d watch it while meeting with researchers over the years.

“On their rare appearances, they would invariably sit down and watch,” Peskov wrote (via Smithsonian). “[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—and once again stuck her head out. The old man prayed afterward, diligently and in one fell swoop.”

Like a parable with an all-too-convenient moral, the Lykov family’s contact with the civilized world would be followed by tragedy. Savin, Natalia, and Dmitry all died in 1981: Savin and Natalia of kidney failure, and Dmitry of pneumonia. While most sources will put the kidney failure blame on the family’s rough diet, Dmitry’s death was possibly brought on by his exposure to new people with unfamiliar germs his immune system simply couldn’t fight. He was offered to be taken to a hospital by helicopter for treatment, but the family's beliefs wouldn't allow it. “A man lives for howsoever God grants," he said before he died.

THE LONE LYKOV

Since Karp’s death in 1988, Agafia remains the last of the Lykovs. She’s still in isolation, though she’s far more accepting of outside help than her family had been for decades. Her story has inspired people to bring her food, Old Believer newspapers, and other supplies to ensure her health and safety. She has even made trips into civilization—just a handful—for medical attention and to visit relatives in recent years.

But Agafia is still not built for the world outside what she knows. She told Vice that her body can only tolerate water if it’s from the local Erinat River, and city air is nearly unbreathable for her. Even the bags of seeds she receives from outsiders bear a reminder of the evils of modern life: the barcode, which Old Believers see as the mark of the devil.

“It’s the stamp of the Antichrist,” she told Vice. “People bring me bags of seeds with bar codes on them. I take the seeds out and burn the bags right away and then plant the seeds. The Antichrist stamp will bring the end to the world.”

Still, civilization has its upside. When a documentary film crew asked Agafia if she thought life was better before or after being introduced to society, she replied, "Back then, we had no salt.”

Additional source: Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, by Martin Sixsmith

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Take Two: When Kim Jong-il Raised North Korea's World Cinema Profile By Kidnapping Two South Korean Stars

Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Choi Eun-hee knew there was trouble even before the needle sent her into unconsciousness.

It was 1978, and Choi, one of South Korea’s most prominent actresses, was struggling to regain the success she had achieved earlier in her career. A promise of a possible film partnership by a man claiming to be from Hong Kong had lured her to Repulse Bay, a waterfront locale in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, where she exited a vehicle and noticed a group of men standing near a boat. Choi sensed something wasn't quite right, but before she could consider it any further, she was grabbed, sedated, and thrown onboard.

When she awoke, Choi found herself in the captain’s quarters. Above her was a portrait of Kim Jong-il, then the chief of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, was the leader of the country, a communist regime that had now seemingly absconded with Choi—for reasons the actress couldn't imagine.

Roughly eight days after being kidnapped, Choi found herself in Pyongyang, where Kim greeted her not as someone who had been forcibly subdued and delivered to him, but as an honored guest. In a way, she was. In Kim’s mind, Choi and her ex-husband, award-winning film director Shin Sang-ok (who would soon join them, also involuntarily) were the very people the country needed to spearhead a new era in North Korean filmmaking, one that would make the entire world sit up and take notice.

That both Choi and Shin would be captives of the state was of little concern to those in charge. Regardless of how their guests got there, they were there. And Kim had no intention of letting them leave.

 

Kim, who eventually succeeded his father as leader of North Korea and ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, was a movie buff. He reportedly owned more than 30,000 films—including a great deal of pornography—and ordered traveling diplomats to bring back copies of international films for his enjoyment. Kim even authored a book, 1973’s On the Art of Cinema, that was intended as an instructional guide for filmmakers in the country. He preached a devotion to a singular, unified vision and bemoaned that North Korean films had too much ideology and crying in them. All but ignored by the rest of the film world, Kim wanted the North producing features that would be embraced by film festivals.

Kim Jong-il loved movies so much he decided to abduct some talent.Getty Images (Kim Jong-il) // JurgaR/iStock via Getty Images (Movie Theater). Photo composite by Mental Floss.

At the time, it was not uncommon for North Korea to fill a need for trained workers simply by kidnapping them. It had worked for the country when they wanted to learn more about South Korea; between 1977 and 1978, they abducted five South Korean high school students who became instructors for future undercover Northern operatives. They also once attempted to kidnap a concert pianist, who grew wise to the situation when he arrived for his private appointment and heard several people speaking with North Korean accents. (He fled.) Even so, Kim used a similar strategy when he decided that kidnapping an actor and director would be the most effective way to achieve his movie aspirations.

Choi was only one part of the plan. Once she was grabbed, Shin began a desperate search for her. The two, who had once been considered a “golden couple” in South Korea, had divorced in 1976 following Shin's affair with a younger actress, but they remained close.

Of course, Shin was a cinematic superstar in his own right. Though his career had also recently cooled off, he was a celebrated director who had once been referred to as "the Orson Welles of South Korea." Though there are different stories as to how Shin ended up in North Korea, the official version is that he wanted to help locate his missing ex. And when that trail eventually led him to Hong Kong, Shin, too, soon found himself with a bag over his head, being hustled to Pyongyang. While Choi had resigned herself to some acceptance of her fate—she was living in a luxurious villa surrounded by guards—Shin was more combative. After numerous escape attempts, he was sent to prison.

For four years, Shin subsisted on a diet of grass, salt, and rice, never once seeing Choi or getting any update about her safety. As far as Shin knew, she was dead. Finally, in 1983, Shin was released and “invited” to a reception. To their mutual shock, the former couple was reunited, neither one knowing the other had been there the entire time.

Kim apologized for the delayed meeting, saying he had been busy. On the subject of Shin being imprisoned for four years, he dismissed it as a misunderstanding. It was only then that Kim explained why the two were there: North Korean filmmakers had no new ideas, he explained, so he wanted Shin and Choi to make films that would establish North Korea in the movie business.

None of it was presented as a choice. That same year, the couple remarried—also reportedly at Kim's suggestion.

The filmmakers spent years trapped in North Korea.NatanaelGinting/iStock via Getty Images

There was discussion of escape, particularly when the couple was allowed to travel to Berlin to scout locations for productions, but Shin dismissed it.

"What's the matter with you?" Shin recalled telling Choi in his 1988 memoir, Kingdom of Kim. "I will not make an attempt unless it's 100 percent certain. If they caught us, we'd be dead."

Instead, Shin pondered the opportunity. Kim gave him the equivalent of $3 million as an annual salary, for both personal and professional use. His production offices grew to more than 700 employees. Aside from some firm edicts—Kim wanted to project an image of North Korea as a political titan, while somehow softening its image as a totalitarian terror—Shin had a large degree of creative freedom. He filmed North Korea’s first onscreen kiss. He made Runaway, a 1984 film about a wandering Korean family in 1920s Manchuria, that Shin believed was the best film of his career.

Most famously, he directed Pulgasari, a monster movie clearly inspired by Godzilla that featured an oversized monster aiding an army of farmers looking to overthrow a cruel king. Kim even convinced several filmmakers who worked on the Godzilla films to come to North Korea to assist with the production by guaranteeing their safety. Kenpachiro Satsuma, who was the second person to wear the Godzilla suit, performed as Pulgasari. Thousands of North Korean soldiers were used as extras.

 

Kim was very happy with the work Shin and Choi were producing, which grew to seven films. Some had even made it to festivals in the Eastern Bloc. Gradually, he gave them more and more freedom to travel, eventually allowing them to take an escorted trip to Vienna in 1986 to help stir up a possible European distributor that would make a North Korean film easier to circulate. As they were preparing to leave for Austria, the two decided to act.

"To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony," Shin wrote.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in The Lovers & the Despot (2016).Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The two got in touch with a Japanese film critic they knew and met him for lunch. With North Korean guards in pursuit, Shin and Choi took a taxi to the American embassy and explained their eight-year ordeal as creative captives of Kim. Within a week, they were telling their story to reporters in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the CIA.

North Korea denied that the two had been there against their will, arguing that they simply wanted to escape the restrictive nature of South Korean filmmaking. But Choi had seen to it that they came back with evidence. She had snuck an audio cassette recorder into her handbag during one meeting with Kim, who advised that if they were ever asked what they were doing in North Korea, to say that they were there voluntarily. She had even managed to have the tape smuggled out of the country before escaping, a stunt that could have resulted in her death if the betrayal had been discovered. For those in the U.S. government gathering intelligence on North Korea, it was the first time Kim’s voice had ever been heard.

Shin and Choi remained in the United States, where they had been granted political asylum. Shin even directed the 1995 film Three Ninjas Knuckle Up and produced several more movies under the pseudonym Simon Sheen. They eventually returned to South Korea in 1999, though some South Koreans believed Shin had gone to the North and pledged allegiance to communism voluntarily and treated him with suspicion.

"I could not dare return [to South Korea] without evidence that I had been kidnapped to the North," Shin said in an interview. "If [the Seoul government] charged me with entering the North on my own and cooperating with the North Koreans, I would have had no evidence to deny it."

Shin and Choi's story was explored in depth in Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's documentary The Lovers & the Despot, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Shin died in 2006, Choi in 2018. In a 2015 interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, Choi said that she still had nightmares about being pursued by North Korean agents. "Even though [Kim Jong-il] did not use the right means to get what he wanted, I understood his desire to develop the North Korean movie industry," she said. "He mentioned that he wanted to bring about change to North Korean movies, all of which were similar in terms of directing and acting. But please don't misunderstand that my forgiveness of him means that I agree with the North Korean system, because I don't."

Though North Korea never did admit to abducting the pair, in 2002 Kim Jong-il did come clean about snatching several Japanese tourists in the late 1970s and 1980s, and issued a formal apology.

When it finally received a wider release, Pulgasari was dismissed as silly. Now under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea has yet to make any impact on the international film scene.