The Lykovs: How a Russian family isolated themselves in the Siberian wilderness for over 40 years

The Lykovs belonged to a faction of Russian Orthodox Christianity known as Old Believers. In the 1930s, the Bolsheviks seized power in the Soviet Union and sent them fleeing to the wilderness for safety


                            The Lykovs: How a Russian family isolated themselves in the Siberian wilderness for over 40 years
(Getty Images)
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The coronavirus pandemic has us trying to adjust to a life of self-isolation, where we are homebound, working remotely and practicing social distancing. As a measure to contain the spread of Covid-19, preventive guidelines were imposed and we were forced to comply with a new way of living our lives while in lockdown. It has been a chaotic couple of months and many have been struggling amid the pandemic with norms in place because these unprecedented times were unexpected and none of us were prepared to face the consequences.

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The situation today is a stark reminder of a certain family that over seven decades ago went into partial isolation and spent 42 years in the Siberian wild because they were faced with a similar unprecedented challenge. The Lykovs, a Russian family hailing from Lykovo, belonged to a centuries-old faction of Russian Orthodox Christianity known as the Old Believers.

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In the 1930s, the Bolsheviks seized power in the Soviet Union and outlawed Christianity, essentially threatening their religion. After the Lykov patriarch's brother was unfairly killed by Communist troops in 1936, Karp Lykov, along with his wife, Akulina, and two children Savin and Natalia, packed up and fled their hometown settling down in the Siberian wilderness. The family set up their homestead in the taiga, near the Yerinat River, about 250 miles away from civilization. For more than 40 years they lived there in isolation, where their two other children, Dmitry and Agafia were born.

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The Abakan Mountain Range where the family lived (Wikimedia Commons)

They were discovered to be inhabiting the land when in 1978, a helicopter pilot flew a team of geologists over the region. He spotted a clearing amid long furrows situated some several thousand feet up a mountainside which clearly indicated that there were people living there. And while they realized they were more than a hundred miles away from any settlement, Soviet authorities had no record of anyone living in that area of the district.

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The pilot and the team of geologists had been deployed to the district to scour prospective land for mining iron ore and when they realized there were signs of life in the deserted region, they decided to investigate. They established contact with the Lykovs, introduced them to modern civilization, and even became life-long friends thereafter. However, the Lykovs didn't relocate themselves from the place that they had called home for over four decades. 

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When they first climbed up the mountain, the group discovered a log cabin that had been set up beside a stream. The cabin was small, cramped, dingy, musty and cold, with potato peel and pine-nut shells serving as the make-shift floor. How it housed a family of five was astonishing because it was hard to even come to terms with the fact that someone actually lived there.

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Safe to say none of them had seen another human for a long time and their two children who had been born while in isolation were seeing someone other than their immediate family member for the very first time.

Map indicating where the family lived (Wikimedia Commons)

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Living in the wilderness wasn't easy for the family and took a toll on them when nature wasn't on their side. Here's an account of how they managed with basic necessities via the Smithsonian and The Clymb.

Food 

The family depended mostly on their home-grown potatoes which they smoothed into patties and used hemp, rye, and other flavors for seasoning. An added supplement to their diet were pine nuts, wild berries, and even hunted game. However because of the cold frosty weather, their crops were often devastated and 1961, when a snowstorm hit, the family was forced to survive by eating shoes and bark. Tragically, Akulina died of starvation choosing for her children to not go hungry. 

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Clothes

When the family escaped from the Soviet Union, they brought with them components of a spinning wheel and loom.  When their clothes began to perish, Akulina used the contraption to design garments from hemp seeds and when their shoes fell apart, Karp carved out galoshes from birch bark. 

Water

The family initially brought along two metal kettles, but both rusted over time and became unusable. The Lykovs used birch bark to carve out kettles, however, they could not be placed in the fire so heating them became difficult. In turn, cooking became a hard task. 

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(Left) Agafia Lykovo (Getty Images)

Although the family went through several hardships, they were reluctant to accept any form of help that the geologists extended and were unwilling to leave the forest. Initially, they only accepted salt from the geologists, but in time also ended up taking the knives, forks, handles, grain, pens, paper, and an electric torch that they were given.

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In 1981, three of the four Lykov children died one after the other, just days apart. When Dmitry, the youngest son got pneumonia, they rejected the geologists' offer to take him to a hospital by helicopter because he refused to abandon the family. Savin and Natalia died of kidney failure. The Lykov patriarch passed away in 1988, and Agafia became the only living member of the Lykov family. In 2016, 71-year-old Agafia Lykov made headlines when she was airlifted to a hospital to treat a leg issue, but returned back to her home in the forest soon.

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