All photos by Peter Sutherland
There are certain ethical quagmires, grappled over by anthropologists and ethnologists since time immemorial, in attempting to document uncontacted or lost people tucked into the few remaining hidden pockets of this earth. But these issues become moot when the invasive and kudzu-like world inevitably finds its way to them. The Lykovs—a Russian family who lived in the Siberian wilderness without human contact for most of the 20th century—are not an undiscovered tribe like the few that remain hidden from the modern world in South America. Nor did they violently resist outside contact like the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands, who continue to do so today. When I asked 70-year-old Agafia, the sole surviving member of the Lykov clan, if she wished that the geologists who discovered her family in 1978 in the completely isolated wilderness of Siberia’s taiga forest had never found them, she shook her head. “I don’t know if we would have survived [without them],” she said. “We were running out of tools and food. I no longer had any scarves.” For once, humanity’s unyielding curiosity to uncloak every remaining secret of this world may have preserved rather than contaminated a singular phenomenon.
It all started in 1936 when Karp Lykov and his wife, Akulina, spurned civilization completely. Fed up with the Communists and city living in general, they journeyed deep into the taiga with their two sons. The impetus for their journey was the murder of Karp’s brother, who was shot by a Bolshevik patrol on the outskirts of their small village near the city of Kursk, in far western Russia. The Lykovs were strict pacifists, members of the Old Believers, an ultra-orthodox sect of Christianity that split off from the Russian church in the 17th century.
After choosing their plot, the Lykovs built a cabin, birthed two more children, and lived the kind of brutal existence that made Little House on the Prairie look like spring break in Daytona, Florida. They relied on a spinning wheel they’d dragged hundreds of miles with them to make clothing and survived on potatoes and wild mushrooms. In 1961, after almost three decades in the woods, a snowstorm wiped out their crop. They survived by eating tree bark and their shoes; Akulina starved herself to death so her kids wouldn’t go hungry.
After Akulina died, the family continued their insular existence until 1978, when the geologists (who were surveying the area for potential oil deposits) happened upon their settlement. Over the next few years, word of the strange, secluded family living in the absolute middle of nowhere slowly but steadily spread throughout Russia, and they became unlikely folk heroes. Much of the attention was due to Vasily Peskov, a Russian journalist who wrote several articles about the family as well as a book, Lost in the Taiga, that was a bestseller in Russia but totally flopped in English markets. (Last we checked, it’s out of print and copies on Amazon were going for $900.) One by one, each of the family members died. Some have speculated that the introduction of foreign germs by the geologists to the Lykovs' immune systems was ultimately responsible for their deaths; others believe their deaths were natural. Whatever the case, Karp passed away in 1988, outliving all of his children except Agafia, his youngest daughter. Agafia buried him on the mountain slopes with the help of some geologists who had befriended the family. As my film crew and I were preparing for the trip to visit the last remaining Lykov, we almost called off the story when the Smithsonian published an archive-based article in January that ended with Agafia, then 45 years old, deciding to continue living alone in the Siberian wilderness after her father’s death. But that was 25 years ago, and the author did not have either the means or the fortitude to travel to the taiga to see how life was treating Agafia at 70. So we went.
In February, we flew to Siberia to find Agafia and catch the world up to speed on her life. She lives more than 155 miles from civilization and getting there required navigating seemingly endless, onion-like layers of Putin’s government approval—including getting past various park officials who dubiously claimed jurisdiction over the taiga—to track her down. In the summer, I was told, she could be reached via a seven-day canoe trip. In the winter, the only way to get to her was by helicopter. Considering the hardship of her daily existence, I thought it only proper to visit during the most challenging time of the year.