About those Orthodox hermits in the Siberian wild

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Every now and then, someone sends your GetReligionistas the URL for a story that is simply too good, too interesting to post right away. The problem is that it’s hard to know what to write, when dealing with one of those stunning long reads that reads like the summary of a 12-hour documentary series, with all of the imagery playing on a big screen in your head.

That was certainly the case with the recent Smithsonian piece by Mike Dash that ran under the double-decker headline that certainly didn’t bury the lede:

For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II

In 1978, Soviet geologists prospecting in the wilds of Siberia discovered a family of six, lost in the taiga

So what is the hook for this amazing story of human survival? The story, in a way, begins in 1978:

A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the skinny pine and birch trees swaying in the rotors’ downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there. It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time.

It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored.

However, the deeper truth is that the story started much, much earlier than that — even before the Soviet Union. Other than the usual out-of-context use of the word “fundamentalist,” the story paints a quick and gripping image for why the Lykov family fled into the wild:

Slowly, over several visits, the full story of the family emerged. The old man’s name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer — a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday; for him, Peter was a personal enemy and “the anti-Christ in human form” — a point he insisted had been amply proved by Tsar’s campaign to modernize Russia by forcibly “chopping off the beards of Christians.” But these centuries-old hatreds were conflated with more recent grievances; Karp was prone to complain in the same breath about a merchant who had refused to make a gift of 26 poods [940 pounds] of potatoes to the Old Believers sometime around 1900.

Things had only got worse for the Lykov family when the atheist Bolsheviks took power. Under the Soviets, isolated Old Believer communities that had fled to Siberia to escape persecution began to retreat ever further from civilization. During the purges of the 1930s, with Christianity itself under assault, a Communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother on the outskirts of their village while Lykov knelt working beside him. He had responded by scooping up his family and bolting into forest.

That was in 1936, and there were only four Lykovs then — Karp; his wife, Akulina; a son named Savin, 9 years old, and Natalia, a daughter who was only 2. Taking their possessions and some seeds, they had retreated ever deeper into the taiga, building themselves a succession of crude dwelling places, until at last they had fetched up in this desolate spot. Two more children had been born in the wild — Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia in 1943 — and neither of the youngest Lykov children had ever seen a human being who was not a member of their family.

It’s amazing material. But there is one problem.

Obviously, for me, all of this raises questions about the form of the Orthodox lives of the various members of the family.

It’s crucial to know that the Orthodox faith places a heavy emphasis on community and the belief that there is much, much, much more to the quest for salvation than the decisions of an individual acting as a spiritual free agent.

So no World War II? OK. But no priest? No sacraments? How did the family handle that? Did they — literally — see themselves as religious hermits?

Readers are told that the children grew up reading, logically enough, the Bible and prayer books. There were religious tensions inside the family, as well, since all questions about faith had to be settled among them — without the help of clergy or outside elders.

Believe it or not, that’s just about all readers learn on the “why” side of the equation in this story. We hear about prayers, we are told about crosses, but the form of the family’s religious life — especially their loss of the Sacraments — is left a blank slate.

This is hard to believe, since the story does such an amazing job — in a relatively short feature story, as these things go — when it comes to describing the practical details of their survival in the harsh realities of Siberia. We learn a lot about their bodies, but next to nothing about their souls.

Why was the family in Siberia in the first place.

By all means, read the whole story. Let me know what I missed.

Of course, I found the end especially moving, yet, once again, wanted to know more about the spiritual side of the final struggles of these religious hermits. Holy fools?

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the Lykovs’ strange story was the rapidity with which the family went into decline after they re-established contact with the outside world. In the fall of 1981, three of the four children followed their mother to the grave within a few days of one another. … (Their) deaths were not, as might have been expected, the result of exposure to diseases to which they had no immunity. Both Savin and Natalia suffered from kidney failure, most likely a result of their harsh diet. But Dmitry died of pneumonia, which might have begun as an infection he acquired from his new friends.

His death shook the geologists, who tried desperately to save him. They offered to call in a helicopter and have him evacuated to a hospital. But Dmitry, in extremis, would abandon neither his family nor the religion he had practiced all his life. “We are not allowed that,” he whispered just before he died. “A man lives for howsoever God grants.”

When all three Lykovs had been buried, the geologists attempted to talk Karp and Agafia into leaving the forest and returning to be with relatives who had survived the persecutions of the purge years, and who still lived on in the same old villages. But neither of the survivors would hear of it. They rebuilt their old cabin, but stayed close to their old home.

Karp Lykov died in his sleep on February 16, 1988, 27 years to the day after his wife, Akulina. Agafia buried him on the mountain slopes with the help of the geologists, then turned and headed back to her home. The Lord would provide, and she would stay, she said — as indeed she has. A quarter of a century later, now in her seventies herself, this child of the taiga lives on alone, high above the Abakan.

What a great, great story — with one giant missing piece. The body is here, but where is the soul?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ivan

    If I’m not mistaken, the family were Bezpopovtsy, that is, the branch of the Old Believers that rejects clergy and the attendant sacraments, including the Eucharist. That would account for the gap.

  • tmatt

    That certainly would explain the gap.

    Does anyone else think that would have been a crucial point to have included in the story?

    Did I miss that somehow? I mean, I saw the Old Believers reference. But the Orthodox without Sacraments?

  • tmatt

    Here is an OrthodoxWiki reference with TONS of information.

    http://orthodoxwiki.org/Old_Believers

    Key info:

    Since none of the bishops joined the Old Believers (except Bishop Pavel of Kolomna, who suffered execution), apostolically ordained priests of the old rite would have soon become extinct. Two responses appeared to this dilemma: the “priestist” Old Believers (??????? (Popovtsy)) and the non-priestist Old Believers (?????????? (Bespopovtsy — literally “priestless ones”)).

    The Popovtsy represented the more moderate conservative opposition, those who strove to continue religious and church life as it had existed before the reforms of Nikon. They recognized ordained priests from the new-style Russian Orthodox church who joined the Old Believers and who had denounced the Nikonian reforms. In 1846 they convinced Amvrosii Popovich (1791-1863), a deposed Greek Orthodox bishop whom Turkish pressure had had removed from his see at Sarajevo, to become an Old Believer and to consecrate three Russian Old-Believer priests as bishops. In 1859, the number of Old-Believer bishops in Russia reached ten, and they established their own episcopate, the Belokrinitskaya hierarchy. Not all priestist Old Believers recognized this hierarchy. Dissenters known as ???????????? (beglopopovtsy) obtained their own hierarchy in the 1920s. The priestist Old Believers thus manifest as two churches which share the same beliefs, but which treat each other’s hierarchy as illegitimate. Popovtsy have priests, bishops and all sacraments, including the eucharist.


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