Last month, noted historical writer Mike Dash published a mind-blowing article on Smithsonian.com. His piece concerned the Lykovs, a Russian family who belonged to a centuries-old sect of Russian Orthodox Christianity known as ‘Old Believers’. When the Bolsheviks seized power and launched an anti-religious campaign throughout the Soviet Union, Karp Lykov (whose brother was unjustly shot by Communist troops) packed up his wife and two children and fled into the Siberian wilderness. The family established a homestead less than a hundred kilometers from the Mongolian border, and proceeded to live off the land for more than 40 years; during that time, two more children were born. They were finally discovered by a team of geologists in the late 70’s, who introduced the Lykovs to modern civilization and forged a life-long friendship with the family.
The whole article is a fascinating read. Here are some of the most astonishing details of the Lykovs’ decades-long survival in what is considered some of the world’s harshest, most isolated terrain.
The family largely subsisted on potatoes grown in their backyard kitchen garden, which were rolled into patties and seasoned with hemp, rye and other flavors. They supplemented their diet with pine nuts, wild berries and, on occasion, hunted game. But on several occasions, their garden was devastated by bitter frost. At one point, the crops were reduced to a single grain of wheat that, miraculously, sustained the family for several months and allowed them to rebuild their garden. But tragically, it was too late for Karp’s wife, Akulina; she perished from starvation in 1961.
You may be wondering how the Lykovs hunted game without firearms, bows or other killing implements. The answer is simple: the two sons, Savin and Dmitry, simply chased any large animal they could find — typically deer or elk — until the creature dropped dead from exhaustion. Understandably, this method yielded variable rates of success; the youngest daughter, Agafia, explained that the family sometimes went more than a year without meat.
During their flight from Soviet persecution, the Lykovs brought along the components of a spinning wheel and loom. When their clothes finally fell apart and the fabric supply was exhausted, Akulina fashioned garments from hemp seeds. When their shoes fell apart, Karp carved galoshes out of birch bark. After Akulina’s death, the eldest daughter, Natalia, assumed the role of homemaker.
The family originally brought two metal kettles, but both of these items succumbed to heavy rust until they were unusable. So the Lykovs carved kettles out of birch bark, but (understandably), heating these wooden kettles over a fire proved to be an impossible task.
Dmitry was arguably the craftiest member of the Lykov family. He created an axe-like tool for falling trees, and developed his own log-planing technique. He took a great interest in the tools used by the geologists. The family was also introduced to a nearby Soviet camp, where they could obtain food and supplies, learn advanced livelihood techniques and interact with other Russians. Dmitry was quite inquisitive, often remarking at the marvel of everyday devices. Karp, on the other hand, was captivated by another modern advent: television. He reportedly watched TV in the camp’s rec room every time he visited.
Upon initial contact, Agafia’s unusual speech and plain demeanor gave many the impression that she was slow-witted. As it turned out, she was quite intelligent; Agafia made the conscious decision to keep track of time (without a calendar, mind you), and her records provided valuable dates when the family’s story was later turned over to historians.Today, Agafia is the only living member of the Lykov family. Now in her mid-70’s, she still lives in the Siberian home where she was born. Though she has lived alone for more than 25 years, those who have met her say she is quick to brush aside any concerns about her solitary lifestyle. Her reply: “The Lord would provide.”