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

20 Surprising Facts About King Tutankhamun

The burial mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamun.
The burial mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamun.
Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images

If you can only name one Egyptian pharaoh, it’s likely King Tut. Born around 1343 BCE, Tutankhamun made history as the youngest known monarch to preside over the ancient Egyptian empire. But that wasn’t his only claim to fame. In life, King Tut made important political decisions; in death, he captivated the public’s fascination and ignited their interest in mummies.

The discovery of King Tut's pristine tomb in 1922 remains one of the most important moments in all of Egyptian archaeology. From his confusing lineage to his impact on pop culture, here’s what you need to know about King Tutankhamun.

1. King Tut’s parents were related.

Tutankhamun was likely inbred—something that wasn’t uncommon with royal families trying to maintain a “pure” bloodline throughout history. Around 2010, an analysis of DNA taken from the mummies of King Tut and his relatives revealed that the boy pharaoh’s parents had been brother and sister, but that discovery has since been disputed.

Tut’s father has been identified as the heretic Akhenaten, but the identity of his mother remains unknown. At least one archaeologist believes that Tut’s mother was actually Queen Nefertiti—Akhenaten's cousin, and one of his wives.

2. King Tut had an incestuous relationship of his own.

King Tut was married to a woman named Ankhesenamun, who was the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. That made her Tutankhamun’s half-sister—or his full sister, if the theory about Nefertiti being his mother is true.

King Tut fathered two daughters with his wife, but unfortunately, both children were stillborn. Their bodies were mummified and eventually interred in King Tut’s tomb with him. Ankhesenamun outlived Tutankhamun and possibly got married to the pharaoh Ay (Tut’s uncle) after Tut’s death.

3. King Tut became pharaoh at age 9.

As the grandson of the pharaoh Amenhotep II and the son of pharaoh Ankhesenamun, Tutankhamun was destined for the throne. He assumed his position as Egypt’s leader at the young age of 9, and ruled until his death 10 years later around 1324 BCE. It is believed that King Tut is the youngest pharaoh ever to rule over the ancient Egyptian empire. Because he was so young when he came into power, his uncle Ay was likely in charge during those early years.

4. King Tut reversed his father’s religious reforms.

King Tut didn’t need to do much to impress his subjects—his father, pharaoh Akhenaten, had been a disastrous ruler. Akhenaten changed the established religion to focus on the worship of one god, the sun deity Aten, which left him branded as a heretic. Akhenaten also moved the holy capital from Thebes to Amarna.

When Tut became pharaoh he undid his father’s changes and declared Thebes to be the religious center once again. This helped him earn the trust of his people during his brief reign.

5. King Tut changed his name.

Profile of a wooden statue of King Tutankhamun.
Profile of a wooden statue of King Tutankhamun.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

King Tut went by many names during his lifetime. He was born with the name Tutankhaten, which translates to “living image of Aten.” After he become pharaoh, he changed his name to Tutankhamun or “living image of Amun.” This change was a reflection of Tut’s devotion to the god Amun, whom his father had neglected in favor of the god Aten. Today, Tutankhamun is most commonly known as King Tut.

6. King Tut had health issues.

King Tut had a severe bone disease that left him disabled. He had a clubbed left foot, which made it hard for him to move around. In ancient art he is regularly depicted sitting down when engaging in physical activities like archery, whereas other pharaohs were always shown standing up in similar scenarios. It’s believed that Tut’s inbred lineage contributed to his physical issues. CT scans of his mummy showed that his left leg had been broken and infected, which may have contributed to his untimely death.

7. Experts used to suspect that King Tut had been assassinated.

King Tut’s mummy was discovered with a hole in its skull, leading some people to believe that the young pharaoh had been assassinated with a blow to the head. This theory has since been widely debunked by experts. It’s now suspected that the hole was either put there by embalmers when King Tut was being mummified or it was created when archaeologists first removed the mummy’s gold mask. It’s much more likely that the infection in his leg was the cause of his death.

8. A chariot accident may have contributed to King Tut’s death.

King Tutankhamun's burial chariot, which was discovered in the pharaoh's tomb.
King Tutankhamun's burial chariot, which was discovered in the pharaoh's tomb.
Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

If King Tut did indeed die from a broken leg, the question still remains of how he broke his leg in the first place. According to one theory, the teen king died in a horrible chariot accident, which is why one side of his body—including his leg—was found crushed. The chariots used by royalty in ancient Egypt were small and light, allowing them to reach high speeds. Although there’s no evidence that chariots were used for racing during this period, they were used during war and for hunting rides.

9. King Tut wasn’t history’s only young pharaoh.

King Tut was likely the youngest pharaoh to lead Egypt, but not my much. Cleopatra became co-regent with her younger brother (and husband) Ptolemy XIII in 51 BCE when he was just 10 years old. Looking beyond ancient Egypt, there are many young monarchs from history who shave years off Tut’s age record. China, Russia, England, Spain, and France are just a few countries that have crowned “rulers” when they were babies.

10. King Tut’s successors tried to erase him from history.

While King Tut did a lot to reverse his father’s unpopular reforms during his lifetime, none of it did much to protect Tut’s legacy in the long run. His successors did their best to remove his wife, Ankhesenamun, from history—and the memory of Tutankhamun along with her.

Tut was buried quickly and in a small tomb normally reserved for private citizens, not one of the grander tombs meant for pharaohs. Because his tomb was out of the way, it remained untouched for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1922. Now King Tut is the most famous Egyptian pharaoh of all time.

11. King Tut's tomb was robbed—twice.

Crates are carried out of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923.
Crates are carried out of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before King Tut’s tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, it was visited by grave robbers. The first break-in took place shortly after Tutankhamun was laid to rest. Following that initial incident, there was rubble blocking the burial chambers, but it didn't take long for a second set of intruders to tunnel their way in. Carter found the tomb in shambles with entryways blocked off to provide further protection to Tutankhamun.

12. King Tut had three coffins.

Inside King Tut’s stone sarcophagus were three coffins: The outermost pair were made of gilded wood and the inner coffin was crafted out of solid gold. Over the head and shoulders of the mummy was the ornate gold death mask that many people associate with Tutankhamun. The mummy was placed inside the Russian nesting doll-style coffins, and everything was put inside a large quartzite stone sarcophagus with a pink granite top.

13. Some people think King Tut’s tomb is cursed.

King Tut’s tomb has inspired many legends since it was discovered decades ago. Because many people associated with the site have subsequently met with misfortune, stories have spread about its supposed curse. Some of the victims of this so-called curse include George Jay Gould, a financier who got sick after visiting the tomb in 1923, and George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who died of blood poisoning after funding the dig. This so-called curse has been blamed for more than a dozen deaths.

14. King Tut was entombed with a meteorite dagger.

The tomb of Tutankhamun contained many extraordinary objects, one of which was a dagger carved from a meteorite. The dagger was found on the body of the mummy when he was discovered, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry revealed that the materials came from space. The iron in the blade contained 10.8 percent nickel and .58 percent cobalt. Such a high nickel percentage indicated that the iron came from a meteorite, not Earth.

15. There are no hidden rooms in King Tut’s tomb.

Archaeologists surrounding sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
Archaeologists surrounding sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images

Even after it was excavated, King Tut’s tomb continued to capture the imaginations of archaeologists. In 2015, a British archaeologist put forth a theory based on laser scans that a second room was hidden behind a wall of the tomb and waiting to be explored. He even suggested that Tutankhamun’s stepmother, Queen Nefertiti, might be entombed there. That idea was put to rest when a comprehensive ground-penetrating radar survey showed there were no hidden rooms or corridors adjacent to the tomb.

16. DIY repairs were made on King Tut’s burial mask.

After surviving 3000 years in a tomb in Egypt, King Tut’s iconic gold death mask was badly damaged when, around 2014, the mask’s braided beard broke off, and museum curators used epoxy glue to reattach it. This improvised solution may have ended up causing more lasting damage than the accident itself. Epoxy glue is hard to remove, and attempts to scrape off the adhesive resulted in permanent scratch marks on the artifact’s priceless gold face.

17. King Tut was buried with an ancient board game.

The ancient board game senet.
The ancient board game senet.
Dmitry Denisenkov via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the world’s oldest board games was discovered inside King Tut’s tomb. Senet, or “passing,” had been played in Egypt for 1800 years prior to Tutankhamun’s death. It was played by people of all class levels, and though the exact rules have been lost to time, it’s believed to have something to do with life and death. It even may have been an early version of backgammon.

18. King Tut rocked pop culture.

When his tomb was discovered in the early 20th century, King Tut had a massive impact on pop culture. The Egyptian aesthetic infiltrated the 1920s, appearing in fashion, home design, and architecture. Americans especially were so fascinated by King Tut that president Herbert Hoover even went so far as to name his dog after the young monarch. Tut’s impact was felt for decades after his discovery. The historical figure has been depicted countless times in movies, songs, and television shows.

19. King Tut’s tomb recently received a makeover.

English Egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1923.
English Egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1923.
Harry Burton/Apic/Getty Images

After years of traffic from tourists, King Tut’s tomb closed to visitors in 2009 to undergo a long conservation project. At the beginning of 2019, the archaeological site finally reopened to the public. Today, the attraction features an air filtration and ventilation system, restored wall paintings, a viewing platform, and new barriers to protect precious artifacts from viewers. King Tut’s tomb is one of the most popular destinations for tourists visiting Egypt.

20. We may finally know what King Tut really looked like.

By conducting a virtual autopsy of his mummy with CT scan data, scientists were able to build a 3D model of what King Tut may have looked like when he was alive 3000 years ago. The computer-generated image looks much different than the striking face depicted on Tut’s iconic gold mask. Rather than the god-like figure that’s been shown countless times in pop culture, Tutankhamun was a frail, ordinary teenager in reality.

10 Enchanting Places That Align with the Vernal Equinox

A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On Thursday, March 19, the vernal equinox heralded the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Ancient civilizations built calendars and observatories to track the movements of the stars and mark this monumental time. Now, people still partake in a variety of traditions and rituals to honor the day when light and dark become equal. To take your celestial celebrations to the next level, here are 10 places that align with the spring equinox.

1. On the vernal equinox, a massive snake appears on the temple at Chichen Itza.

Legend says that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the Maya city of Chichen Itza receives an otherworldly visitor: Kukulcan, the feathered serpent deity. On these days, a shadowy snake slithers down the side of the god's namesake pyramid. As the temple darkens, a single strip of light stretches from the top of the northern staircase to the snake head resting at the bottom, creating the illusion of a wriggling reptile.

2. A beam of light illuminates a petroglyph within Arizona’s Boulder House each vernal equinox.

The Boulder House in Scottsdale, Arizona, looks like a strange home wedged amid a jumble of rocks. But it’s actually a modern house built around a sacred Native American site. The Empie family, who bought the parcel of desert land in the 1980s, commissioned architect Charles Johnson to transform the cluster of 1.6-billion-year-old boulders into a functional house. Johnson crafted a unique structure, incorporating the rocks into the house’s foundation and preserving the prehistoric carvings. On the equinox, sunlight pierces between two boulders in the unusual abode, striking a spiral petroglyph on the wall to create a dazzling piece of home decor.

3. On the vernal equinox, a group of Moai on Easter Island stare directly at the sunset.

Seven Moai gaze face toward the horizon
On the equinox, these Moai stare directly at the setting sun.
abriendomundo/iStock via Getty Images

People aren’t the only ones who pause to watch the sun slip beneath the horizon on the first day of spring. On Easter Island, at a sacred site called Ahu Akivi, a line of seven Moai—the island’s giant, mysterious heads—gaze directly at the point at which the sun sets in the sky on the equinox.

4. Each vernal equinox, light drenches a petroglyph-filled cairn at Loughcrew.

The hills of Loughcrew, one of Ireland’s four main passage tomb sites, are crowned by 5000-year-old megalithic structures. At dawn on the equinox, sunlight fills Cairn T, a passage tomb carved with astoundingly well-preserved examples of Neolithic art. As the light dissolves the darkness, the cup marks that dimple its walls and the symbols adorning its back stones blaze into view. The illumination lasts for about 50 minutes, giving observers ample time to take turns squeezing into the cairn.

5. On the vernal equinox, light streams through one of the Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples.

The Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples on Malta’s southern coast are archaeological wonders. They were built between 3600 and 2500 BCE and are believed to be among the world’s oldest freestanding stone buildings. Not much is known about the people who created these megalithic masterpieces, though it’s clear they constructed one of the temples with an eye to the heavens. On the equinox, the sun streams through the South Temple’s main doorway, flooding the structure’s major axis with light.

6. On the vernal equinox, the sun sits directly atop the main temple at Angkor Wat.

Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat would be a magical experience any day. Crowds hush as colorful hues paint the world’s largest religious structure with a gilded glow. Dawn at Angkor Wat is even more special on the equinoxes. Then, the sun rises behind the main temple before briefly seeming to balance on its tip like a fiery halo.

7. On the spring equinox, the sun rises through the entrance to Stonehenge Aotearoa.

Stonehenge has inspired replicas around the globe—including as far away as New Zealand. Stonehenge Aotearoa, which opened in 2005, was built by the Phoenix Astronomical Society. The structure is an astronomical tool for observing the local skies, and blends modern astronomy with ancient starlore. If you stand in the center of the circle on the Southern Hemisphere's vernal equinox, you can watch the sun rise directly through the Sun Gate, two carved pillars that flank the entrance to the henge.

8. The shadow of the intihuatana at Machu Picchu disappears at noon on the equinox.

A curious stone structure stands atop a temple at Machu Picchu. It’s one of the rare surviving intihuatanas that wasn’t demolished by the Spanish conquistadors. This “hitching post of the sun” is believed to have been an astronomical tool. At noon on the equinox, the granite pillar’s shadow briefly vanishes. Unfortunately, the invaluable object now looks a bit battered. In 2000, a crane toppled into the intihuatana during the filming of a beer commercial, smashing part of it.

9. At sunrise on the spring equinox, the sun bursts through the door of a temple at Dzibilchaltún.

Sunrise at Dzibilchaltún
Each equinox, the sun appears within the door of the Temple of the Seven Dolls.
renatamsousa/iStock via Getty Images

Though now reduced to a medley of ruins dotting the jungle, Dzibilchaltún was once the longest continually inhabited Maya administrative and ceremonial city. The star attraction here is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, a building named for the mysterious human-like figures discovered inside. At dawn on the equinox, the sun shines through the temple’s main door. It’s believed the sacred structure was aligned with the equinoxes to mark the beginning of the planting season and the end of the harvesting season.

10. The 'Woodhenge' at the Cahokia Mounds aligns with the sunrise on the equinox.

During the Mississippian cultural period, Cahokia's population exceeded that of London. In addition to giant pyramids, the North American city also featured circles of wooden posts, since dubbed “Woodhenge.” The wooden markers were likely used to track the sun’s movements. One of the posts aligns with the equinoxes, as well as with the front of Monks Mound. On sunrise on the equinox, it looks as though the sun is emerging from the enigmatic earthwork.

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