The Smithsonian has put together a fascinating and almost unbelievable account of a Russian family of six who managed to avoid all human contact for four decades — a period of self-imposed exile that left them unaware of World War II and the Moon landings. Fleeing religious persecution during the 1930s, the family managed to survive the extremely harsh Siberian conditions, though at times coming perilously close to starvation.
Fleeing for their lives, the family ventured deep into Siberia a few hundred miles from the Mongolian border near an unnamed tributary of the Abakan. The mountain near which they settled was more than 150 miles (240 km) from any human settlement.
And indeed, the father, Karp Lykov, had much to be afraid of. His family was part of the fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect known as the Old Believers — a group that faced persecution since the times of Peter the Great in 17th Century Russia. Back then, in an effort to modernize the backward country, Peter forcibly cut off the beards of Christians. A few centuries later, with the onset of the atheist Bolshevik regime, the Old Believers once again faced serious assault. During the 1930s, a Communist patrol shot Lykov’s brother. In reaction, he gathered up his family and headed straight into the forest, never to return.
Writing in Smithsonian, Mike Dash explains what happened next:
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. All that Agafia and Dmitry knew of the outside world they learned entirely from their parents’ stories. The family’s principal entertainment, the Russian journalist Vasily Peskov noted, “was for everyone to recount their dreams.”
During the course of their 40 years of isolation, the family adapted to the forest, living perpetually on the verge of famine. Hunting proved exceedingly difficult, forcing the family to subsist primarily on roots, grass, mushrooms, potato tops — and even bark.
“We were hungry all the time,” said Agafia, “Every year we held a council to decide whether to eat everything up or leave some for seed.” And in fact, in 1961, rather than see her children go hungry, Akulina died of starvation. But it was also the year that a single grain of rye sprouted from their pea patch — a “miracle” that helped them produce subsequent yields.
After contact was made with the geologists in 1978, the family — with great trepidation — allowed the scientists into their home. Dash writes:
As the Soviet geologists got to know the Lykov family, they realized that they had underestimated their abilities and intelligence. Each family member had a distinct personality; Old Karp was usually delighted by the latest innovations that the scientists brought up from their camp, and though he steadfastly refused to believe that man had set foot on the moon, he adapted swiftly to the idea of satellites. The Lykovs had noticed them as early as the 1950s, when “the stars began to go quickly across the sky,” and Karp himself conceived a theory to explain this: “People have thought something up and are sending out fires that are very like stars.”
“What amazed him most of all,” Peskov recorded, “was a transparent cellophane package. ‘Lord, what have they thought up-it is glass, but it crumples!'”
Sadly, the Lykovs did not fare well after contact was made. By 1981, three of the four children had passed away, suffering from kidney failure (likely on account of their harsh diet). Dmitry eventually died of pneumonia, which might which might have begun as an infection he acquired from the geologists. Karp and his daugher, despite the requests of the geologists, insisted on staying in the forest.