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