For 40 years, a family, after fleeing religious persecution, isolated themselves 150 miles from the nearest civilization 6,000 feet on the side of a mountain in the Siberian taiga. One living family member continues out life as a hermit there.
You might have heard of the Lykov family before — a book about them was published in 1994 — but if not, Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating feature about five people cut off from human contact for so long they didn’t even know that World War II had happened.
The Lykov’s were Old Believers, a Russian Orthodox sect that had seen hundreds of years of religious persecution. The family lived in a village until the mid-1930s when they fled after a relative was killed by a Soviet. This was in 1936 and the family wasn’t discovered until 1978 when a helicopter seeking a spot to land with geologists saw their settlement, Smithsonian described. The scientists, at a base 10 miles away, decided to investigate the family.
Researcher Galina Pismenskaya recalled that they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends […] I did check the pistol that hung at my side,” Smithsonian reported.
When the team of four arrived at the Lykov family’s one-room hut, they described it as like a “fairy tale” when an old, barefoot man, who was Karp Lykov, came out the door. The researchers greeted him and he eventually said to them quietly “Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.”
The other inhabitants of the home were so frightened by the visitors that the researchers retreated back outside. Smithsonian explains that eventually the family came outside. Over the course of several visits, the story of the Lykov’s and the extent of how long they had been isolated emerged.
Smithsonian reported Pismenskaya recalling anecdotes that showed the result of the Lykov daughters being isolated their entire life:
When Pismenskaya asked, “Have you ever eaten bread?” the old man answered: “I have. But they have not. They have never seen it.” At least he was intelligible. The daughters spoke a language distorted by a lifetime of isolation. “When the sisters talked to each other, it sounded like a slow, blurred cooing.”
Given the harsh conditions of the environment, not to mention hardship that comes with isolation, how did the family manage to survive? Here are a couple examples Smithsonian Magazine included in its feature:
- Birch-bark was made into galoshes. Cloth when needed for clothes was made from hemp grown from seed.
- The family used metal kettles until they rusted beyond use. Then they turned to birch-bark again, but this was difficult to use with flame. Their main diet was potato patties that included ground rye and hemp seed. A variety of berries and nuts were easily found as well. In the 1950s when the son was old enough, the family began trapping animals.
Even with this food though, Smithsonian pointed out they were frequently on the brink of starvation.
Smithsonian goes on to explain that with more frequent visits from the geologists and Russian journalist Vasily Peskov, who chronicled much about the life of the family, the personalities of the Lykov’s became known and they in turn began to accept more and more modern gifts — salt, eating utensils, food, eventually an electric lamp.
But it wasn’t long after the family re-established modern contact that it began to impact them negatively. Smithsonian reported three of the four children died within a few days of each other from kidney failure and pneumonia, not due foreign illnesses as might have been expected Peskov said.
Smithsonian reported that the geologists tried to get the two remaining family members — Karp and Agafia — to rejoin relatives that survived the persecution in old villages but they refused. Karp died in 1988 and Agafia remained living isolated in the wilderness. In 2010, RT reported that in her older age, Agafia has been accepting more visitors, but she won’t leave or go to a hospital.
Be sure to read Smithsonian Magazine’s full feature on the family for more details here.