In the early 1930s, a paranoid and power-mad Joseph Stalin began to purge the Soviet Union of all dissent. His initial targets were members of the Communist Party who began to question his treatment of the peasants, deemphasized the push for industrialization and spoke out for greater internal democracy. Stalin’s enemies were put on “show trials” whose only outcome was a death sentence. Thousands of political enemies were summarily killed.
But the cult of Stalin was not just about his place in power over the political apparatus of the Soviet Union. A personality cult was also being established.
To do this, Stalin turned his purges toward the churches and common people of Russia. Religious icons were replaced with glorious images of Stalin. Those priests who refused were either executed or banished. Families sang praises to Stalin; mother’s taught their children that Stalin was the wisest man alive. Families that did not abide by these teachings disappeared. By the mid- 1930s some 10 million Russians had been forced from their homes and into Gulags deep in the Siberian taiga. By the end of Stalin’s rule he had sent more than 20 million people to camps scattered throughout Russia, where more than half died. And it is no wonder. The Siberian taiga is an inhospitable place.
Taiga is Russian for “forest” and is notorious for its weather swings; the temperatures drop below freezing for six months of the year encasing the land in an icy, snowy tomb with waist high snow drifts. Pine and spruce were the only greenery for miles. But when summer comes, and it comes but briefly, it brings with it piercing blue skies, warm air, rivers that run with wild abandon down narrow canyons, the smells of lilacs and pine, and for a brief time a sense of familiarity with nature. Just as quickly as it comes, winter slips in through an autumn so short you hardly notice its presence.
For Russians sent to camps in this harsh land, nothing could have been closer to hell on Earth. Forced to labor through harsh winters logging or mining where your daily output dictated the next day’s meager rations of bread and water, wearing the most threadbare of clothing, and sleeping in ramshackle huts on planks of wood.
But for a few Russians, going into the taiga was a matter of choice. For them, it meant survival. The survival of their way of life. The survival of their family. This was the case for the Lykov family.
The Lykov’s belonged to a group known in Russia as the Old Believers — members of a sect of the Russian Orthodox Church who held onto their beliefs until the bitter end. The story of the Old Believers goes back to the time of Peter the Great and the Great Schism of 1667. According to Vesily Peskov, from his book Lost In The Taiga, “The Old Believers looked on the ascension of Tsar Peter the Great, with his especially harsh innovations, as the coming of the Antichrist they had already predicted.” Many of the Old Believers moved further and further into the Siberian wilderness to distance themselves from this perceived Antichrist. These Old Believers were driven into tiny sects that were set apart from society. They shunned all things worldly, including, according to Peskov, “state laws, military service, passports, money, authority of any kind, games, singing, anything that people ‘not fearing God, could think up.”
The Lykovs followed the Abakan River into the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. Their first settlement was discovered shortly after World War II concluded by a group of military topographers. When they returned to the area a year later, the family had moved on. According to Peskov, the Lykovs were seen again in 1958 by “a group of tourists going down the Abakan” when they “suddenly came upon a bearded man standing with a fishing rod.” The guide told the tourists that there were somewhere near the Lykov “hermitage”. However, instead of settling on the river like they had in 1945, the Lykovs had settled up the mountain and their cabins were not seen. Each time they moved, they brought with them the seeds, some clothing, a few pots and pans, a spinning wheel and a loom they initially brought into the wild with them.
But how could a family survive forty-two years on their own in one of the harshest stretches of land on earth? Their isolation forced them to learn to depend on each other and on whatever the taiga provided.
They lived in what, on first glance, appeared to be a ramshackle hut, covered by years of soot, hurriedly thrown together. But the home was carefully thought out, including the roof where “the larch boards were shaped like troughs and laid out like the tile on European homes.” Inside, the family had constructed a fieldstone stove with a chimney that went out the sidewall not the roof. In one corner of the tiny house, the treasured loom and spinning wheel stood, and it amazed the first people to find the Lykovs that six grown adults could sleep in such tight confines.
Though the taiga provided more than enough materials to shelter the family from the harsh, long winters, ultimately, it was due to those long winters that the Lykovs lived in what Agafia called the “hungry years” because the large garden they’d rooted out of the taiga on the cold north slope of the mountain did not feed them well. Their diet consisted of potatoes, onions, turnips, peas, hemp and rye all grown from seeds they’d brought into the wilderness. At one time, the family had carrots but those seeds had been lost to mice years earlier. The staple of their diet was potato that they made into simple, unleavened bread that resembled a flat, black pancake.
THE WILD PROVIDES
What their gardens couldn’t provide, the taiga had. The birch trees that had supplied everything from pots when their iron ones rusted, to shoes, skis, and chests for storing potatoes, also gave them birch juice, which the Lykovs collected in April and stored in their natural refrigerator: The river, in, of course, birch bark containers. Summer in the taiga meant mushrooms, raspberries, huckleberries, currants, and nuts; in late August every member of the Lykov family would go nutting. They were all skilled in climbing pines to help gather “the potatoes of the taiga.”
The greatest hardship faced by the Lykovs was living without salt. Karp lamented to Peskov that life without salt was “true torture.” Though meat was a part of their diet keeping and curing meats for long periods of time became excruciatingly difficult without salt. Primarily, the family fished the Abakan, but they did set out traps for the musk deer that frequented the hills around their home. Most of the time they ate the fish raw, but dried it for near future needs, while the deer meats would be stored for religious days or when they were doing difficult jobs or long journeys.
Despite all this, the family still lived on the edge of starvation. Agafia recalls the family was “hungry all the time. Every year we held a council to decide whether to eat everything up or leave some for seed.” In 1961, a late June snow killed everything in their garden. The following winter the family quickly consumed everything in their stores. In spring they were reduced to eating their leather shoes, bark, and birch buds. Akulina had starved herself to death in order for her children to survive. The following summer, miraculously a single rye plant sprouted and the family took turns guarding it day and night from the mice, squirrels, and birds that were a constant threat to their seed stores. From that single rye sprout, the family worked to restock their stores. Their harsh diet probably accounted for the deaths of Agafia’s three siblings who died in 1981— Savin and Natalia, most likely from kidney disease, and Dmitry from pneumonia.
Time passed slowly for the Lykovs and each member of the family had specific roles they fulfilled. Sometime in the 1950s, Savin and Dmitry were separated from the family and moved into a cabin near the river almost six kilometers from the “main residence.” Peskov speculates for this separation: “First of all, it was crowded for six in one cabin; secondly, it was not such a bad idea to have an outpost by the river as well as a fishing base; thirdly, relations with Savin (who was religiously dogmatic and a harsh man) were becoming increasingly difficult; and finally, the most important possibility: they had to avert the danger of incest.”
Down by the river, Savin honed his leather making skills as Dmitry learned to chase animals down for the hunt. Without so much as a bow and arrow, Dmitry once chased a deer two days, barefoot, through the snow to feed the family. Savin served as the family’s priest of time; keeping track of time was of utmost importance to the family so that they could maintain holidays, prayers, fasts, and the times when they were forbidden to eat meat.
Natalia served as the family’s “Godmother” and she cooked, sewed and healed. Agafia (who still lived at the family homestead) taught herself to cook, wield an ax, fish and she even crafted furniture for the family.
The family would pay visits to one another at the two cabins. This brought a sense of diversity to their days. Another way they broke up the monotony of the long winters was to recount dreams around the fire as food for Holy Days was cooked or around the loom as the daughters sewed hemp clothing.
And they had plenty of time to talk. Making clothing was a herculean task for the family that consumed most their labor and effort. It all revolved around hemp. So important was hemp in their lives that Peskov repeatedly heard Karp mention it with reverence and gratefully in his prayers to God. The Lykovs used hemp for all their clothing needs, but it was also used as thread for their birch bark and later leather shoes (dipped in birch bark pitch tar for water-proofing), fishing lines and rope. The hemp growing around the house, and hung to dry inside, also served to keep away the fleas.
FROM THE WILDERNESS
Over time, the Siberian isolation wore down on the family, and finally, Peskov notes, “in 1978, the family was already so worn down by their struggle for existence that they had no desire to bury themselves away from people anymore, and they meekly accepted what fate had prepared for them.”
Karp Lykov died in 1988, exactly 27 year to the day after his wife Akulina. With the help of a geology team, Agafia buried her father beside the graves of the rest of her family. Though she’d gone into the cities a few times, Agafia Lykova, the sole survivor of her family, still lives on the remote mountainside in the Abakan Range, 150 miles from the nearest town. She refuses to leave her family’s homestead and continues to live a life of religious piety, simplicity and self-reliance on the land and her abilities.
For over seventy years Agafia Lykov, a child of the Siberian wilderness, with the taiga as her teacher, has scratched out a life that most would turn and run from.
“My greetings to everyone. Tell them we have been making ready for the winter,” Agafia wrote in 1986 in a letter to her relatives living in the cities.
May we all get ourselves ready for a long winter and many more.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.