The Russian Family That Cut Itself Off From Civilization for More Than 40 Years

Photo Illustration: Lucy Quintanilla. Images: iStock
Photo Illustration: Lucy Quintanilla. Images: iStock

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

The Ultimate Charles Darwin Quiz

16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright, who was born (and died!) on April 23.

1. Shakespeare's writing was likely influenced by his father's legal troubles.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argued that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. Shakespeare got married because of an unexpected pregnancy.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory (and there are many) suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an actor.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. Shakespeare may have participated in organized crime.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. Shakespeare was a matchmaker (and a marital peace-maker).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. The first printed reference to Shakespeare as a playwright was an insult.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. Shakespeare likely helped steal a theater, piece by piece.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. Only one handwritten script of Shakespeare's exists.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. Shakespeare might have experimented with drugs.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. Shakespeare may have been a tax cheat.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. Shakespeare was a grain hoarder.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. The Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. Shakespeare laid a curse upon his own grave.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. Shakespeare's legacy has killed a lot of trees.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. Shakespeare's legacy lived on thanks to two fellow actors.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

This story was first published in 2018.

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