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 Real Case of Spontaneous Combustion That Inspired a Death in Dickens's Bleak House

iStock.com/GeorgiosArt
iStock.com/GeorgiosArt

In The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, medical historian Thomas Morris presents a collection of bizarre but fascinating stories culled from the pages of old medical journals and other accounts. In this tale, he discusses the final moments of an aristocratic older women, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, whose demise would provide fodder for Charles Dickens over 100 years later.

 

Do human beings ever burst into flames? Two hundred years ago, many people believed that they could, especially if the victim was female, elderly, and a heavy drinker. Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early 19th century, after a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press. At a period when candles were ubiquitous and clothes often highly flammable, most were probably simple domestic fires in which the unfortunate victim’s subcutaneous fat acted as supplementary fuel. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which some were discovered—with the body almost totally incinerated, but nearby objects left untouched—led some to believe that these conflagrations must have another, more mysterious, cause. Numerous theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon: some supernatural, others scientific.

One of the true believers in spontaneous combustion was Charles Dickens, who even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, by means of a fire that left nothing of the old man except an object looking like a “small charred and broken log of wood.” Dickens had read everything he could find on the subject and was convinced that its veracity had been proved. His description of the demise of Krook was based closely on that of an Italian aristocrat, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, who was consumed by a fireball in her bedroom. Her case was reported in 1731 by a clergyman called Giuseppe Bianchini, and subsequently translated by a famous Italian poet and Fellow of the Royal Society, Paolo Rolli:

"The Countess Cornelia Bandi, in the 62nd year of her age, was all day as well as she used to be; but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy. She retired, was put to bed, where she passed three hours and more in familiar discourses with her maid, and in some prayers; at last falling asleep, the door was shut."

The following morning, the maid noticed that her employer had not appeared at the usual time and tried to rouse her by calling through the door. Not receiving any answer, she went outside and opened a window, through which she saw this scene of horror:

"Four feet distant from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched from the foot to the knee with their stockings on; between them was the lady’s head; whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture."

Mysteriously, the furniture and linen were virtually untouched by the conflagration.

"The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated the chest of drawers, even to foul the linen."

The soot had even coated the surfaces of a neighboring kitchen. A piece of bread covered in the foul substance was given to several dogs, all of which refused to eat it. Given that it probably consisted of the carbonized body fat of their owner, their reluctance to indulge is understandable.

"In the room above it was, moreover, taken notice that from the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish liquor; and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what; and saw the soot fly around."

The floor was also covered in a “gluish moisture,” which could not be removed. Naturally, strenuous efforts were made to establish what had caused the blaze, and several of Italy’s best minds were put to the problem. Monsignor Bianchini (described as “Prebendary of Verona”) was convinced that the fire had not been started by the obvious culprits:

"Such an effect was not produced by the light of the oil lamp, or of any candles, because common fire, even in a pile, does not consume a body to such a degree; and would have besides spread it-self to the goods of the chamber, more combustible than a human body."

Bianchini also considered the possibility that the blaze might have been caused by a thunderbolt but noted that the characteristic signs of such an event, such as scorch marks on the walls and an acrid smell, were absent. What, then, did cause the inferno? The priest came to the conclusion that ignition had actually occurred inside the woman’s body:

"The fire was caused in the entrails of the body by inflamed effluvia of her blood, by juices and fermentations in the stomach, by the many combustible matters which are abundant in living bodies, for the uses of life; and finally by the fiery evaporations which exhale from the settlings of spirit of wine, brandies, and other hot liquors in the tunica villosa [inner lining] of the stomach, and other adipose or fat membranes."

Bianchini claims that such “fiery evaporations” become more flammable at night, when the body is at rest and the breathing becomes more regular. He also points out that “sparkles” are sometimes visible when certain types of cloth are rubbed against the hair (an effect caused by discharges of static electricity) and suggests that something similar might have ignited the “combustible matters” inside her abdomen.

"What wonder is there in the case of our old lady? Her dullness before going to bed was an effect of too much heat concentrated in her breast, which hindered the perspiration through the pores of her body; which is calculated to about 40 ounces per night. Her ashes, found at four feet distance from her bed, are a plain argument that she, by natural instinct, rose up to cool her heat, and perhaps was going to open a window."

Then, however, he lets slip what is probably the genuine cause of the fire:

"The old lady was used, when she felt herself indisposed, to bathe all her body with camphorated spirit of wine; and she did it perhaps that very night."

Camphorated spirits (a solution of camphor in alcohol) was often used to treat skin complaints, and as a tonic lotion. The fact that it is also highly flammable is, apparently, quite beside the point.

"This is not a circumstance of any moment; for the best opinion is that of the internal heat and fire; which, by having been kindled in the entrails, naturally tended upwards; finding the way easier, and the matter more unctuous and combustible, left the legs untouched. The thighs were too near the origin of the fire, and therefore were also burnt by it; which was certainly increased by the urine and excrements, a very combustible matter, as one may see by its phosphorus."

So it was the “internal heat and fire” that caused the countess’s demise. Only an incorrigible skeptic would point out that an old lady who was in the habit of bathing in inflammable liquids, before going to bed in a room lit by naked flames, was a walking fire hazard.

Book jacket for The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth
Dutton/Penguin Books

Excerpted from The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Morris. Published by arrangement with DUTTON, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

A 'Lost' Disney Cartoon from 1928 Has Been Discovered in Japan

General Photographic Agency, Getty Images
General Photographic Agency, Getty Images

Before there was Mickey, the cartoon mouse who celebrated his 90th birthday on November 18, there was Oswald. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney's first official recurring cartoon character, starred in 26 shorts between 1927 through 1928. Until recently, seven of those shorts had been lost, but Smithsonian reports that one has been recovered from the collection of an animation historian in Japan.

Yasushi Watanabe, now 84, bought a film reel labeled “Mickey Manga Spide” (Mickey cartoon speedy) from a market in Osaka when he was a teenager. The film was a two-minute version of a 1928 Oswald cartoon called Neck n’ Neck made for 16mm home movie projectors.

Seventy years later, Watanabe realized the short was more than just a neat piece of Disney memorabilia. While reading the 2017 book Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons by Disney animator David A. Bossert, he learned that a handful of Oswald the Rabbit cartoons were lost, and he had a hunch that his reel might be one of them.

After getting in touch with the Walt Disney Archives, Watanabe confirmed that Neck n’ Neck was indeed one of the cartoons that had been missing for decades, and he donated it to Japan's Kobe Planet Film Archive. Bossert's book also led to the rediscovery of a 50-second clip of the same cartoon at the Toy Film Museum in Kyoto, but the original cartoon, which had been five minutes long, has yet to be unearthed in its entirety.

Oswald's time on the silver screen was short-lived. After Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks lost the rights to the character, the pair came up with Plane Crazy, the short that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. Oswald's obscurity means that some archivists may be holding on to the lost cartoons without even realizing what they are. In 2008, The National Library of Norway discovered that an illegibly labeled reel in their archive actually contained the lost Oswald short Empty Socks.

[h/t Smithsonian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER