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 civilisation 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 civilisation 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.
When we arrived, Agafia was waiting for us outside her cabin like a sweet granny expecting a visit from her grandchildren. The nature reserve where she resides was named the Lykov Territory in honour of her family, and her cabin sits atop a bluff near the swiftly flowing Erinat River. For a 70-year-old woman who once had to eat her shoes to survive, I was surprised by how nimble and healthy she appeared. Her property includes several cabins and smaller buildings for goats, chickens, supplies and preserved food, as well as a garden on the steep hill behind the main dwelling. (The garden was covered in snow during our visit, as it remains for much of the Siberian winter.) Throughout the years, with the help of friends and admirers, she’s built up her property from the one-room shack the whole family used to live in. Dozens of cats freely roam the property.
After giving her a goat and a chicken I had brought as gifts, I interviewed Agafia at a little table by the banks of the river. I asked what had happened since her father died nearly 20 years ago. “When he died,” she said, “I had nobody left to help me or to rely on. I cut firewood myself.” Like many older folks in Russia, Agafia receives a government subsidy but is still mostly self-sufficient – cooking, foraging and fishing on her own. She told me the strains of day-to-day life in the taiga have become more difficult as she gets older.
“It’s not easy to cut hay and take care of my goats,” Agafia said and went on to explain how she now owns a shotgun to fight off local wildlife. “Last summer, a bear came and was vandalising around here while I was hiding inside. He grabbed a bag of my flour and trampled down my carrots. I dug out a hole, and the bear got trapped in it.”
Agafia, however, is not entirely alone. She has a neighbour named Yerofei Sedov. He initially came here to work as an oil prospector and lived about ten miles away from Agafia, with other geologists from his company. Eventually, he was fired from that job for reasons that are unclear and which he wouldn’t comment on. He then returned to the big city, where he somehow ended up with gangrene and lost his leg. When a doctor told him that moving back to the clean waters of the taiga might help his health, he set up shop down the hill from Agafia, on the banks of the river, where he’s lived for the past 16 years.
Yerofei told me that he’d primarily come to the taiga because he wanted to help Agafia, who had been all by herself for years. Looking at his peg leg, his motivation didn’t seem very realistic. Agafia told a different story. “In the beginning he was helping me out with the goats. He cut firewood. Now he doesn’t do that anymore. I [ended up] helping Yerofei with firewood for two winters. He cannot even bring precut firewood in for himself in the winter. How can he help me? I have been helping him for these 16 years. I plant potatoes for him. I bring him firewood. Sixteen years and he completely depends on me. Yerofei is a waste. Nobody needs him. He is not a helper. He needs to be helped.”
One day while interviewing Agafia, another somewhat cryptic aspect of her relationship with Yerofei became apparent. “There were two bad accidents,” she said. “Who knows what was on his mind… He committed one sin after another. He was threatening me.” When pressed, Agafia refused go into further detail. Yerofei also declined to comment on her remarks. It was hard to tell if Agafia’s inscrutable but ominous comments hinted at something deadly serious or were just the product of two bickering senior citizens who’ve gone a bit crazy with cabin fever. Whatever happened, Agafia and Yerofei still sometimes get together at his place to listen to the radio. This is their only regular contact with the outside world. “I listen to the news about crime and explosions,” Agafia says. “It’s scary. What’s wrong with [those] people who make suicidal public explosions?”
Even if she owns few possessions in the material world, Agafia does have a strong faith. Like her immediate family and her long-dead uncle – the one who was killed by the Communists in 1936 – Agafia is an Old Believer. She learned to read by studying the Bible and still wakes up early to pray every morning. Occasionally, she reads Old Believer newspapers, depending on how often her sporadic visitors deliver them. One of the more peculiar notions she’s picked up from these papers is that bar codes are marks of the devil. “It’s the stamp of the Antichrist,” she said. “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,” she said. “God won’t save everyone.”
The only things Agafia hates as much as bar codes, are cities – which, perhaps surprisingly, she’s well-enough acquainted with. In the early 80s, when Vasily Peskov’s series of articles about the Lykovs turned the family into a national phenomenon, Agafia received an invitation from the Soviet government to travel throughout her country for the first time. Much to her father’s chagrin (he coincidentally died shortly after her return), she accepted the offer and for a month travelled the nation by helicopter, train, plane and car. She saw novel things like cows, horses, shops, cities and money, and later returned to her father, grappling with how to explain the disaster at Chernobyl.
Since then, despite pressures from Russian authorities over the years to move to a city or town, she’s only left home about five times – primarily to visit relatives she had never met and to receive medical treatment. She told us that drinking anything but the water from her beloved Erinat River made her ill, and city air made her sick, too.
“It’s scary out there,” Agafia said. “You can’t breathe. There are cars everywhere. There is no clean air. Each car that passes by leaves so many toxins in the air. You have no other option but to stay at home.”
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