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.

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