Karp Lykov fled from the Soviet thugs in boots and great coats with his brother at his side. It was 1936, the year of the great purges, when an entire nation convulsed and devoured its own for no crime but existing. Their bullets cut down his brother as they ran in the night, but Karp ran on, and didn’t stop running for 50 years.
They were Old Believers, that remnant of a remnant who clung to the old rituals changed nearly half a millennium ago. The seed of that schism seems unbelievably minor from our contemporary context: arguments to the death over whether “hallelujah” should be intoned three times or two, whether the sign of the cross should be made with two fingers or three. The Orthodox Church executed them at times, Peter the Great ordered their beards cut off, and the Soviets hounded them into the camps. They were called “Raskolniki,” makers of schisms, a name which echoed down through the centuries to Dostoyevsky when he wrote Crime and Punishment.
Karp pulled his wife, Akulina, from their home, pulled their two children too, and made their way into the wilderness. By foot, they burrowed deeper and deeper into the Siberian forests, into the mountains of Khakassia so distant that not another human being was within a hundred and fifty miles of them.
They carried with them only prayer books, a bible, and a couple of kettles. The kettles rusted to dust after the first 20 years, but they carved themselves a life out of the mountain in a ramshackle hut. They had two more children, and their son Dmitri taught himself to hunt, stalking the woods barefoot even in the winters with temperatures plummeting to negative forty degrees routinely.
The worst time wasn’t a winter though, but a summer. In 1961, after 25years on the mountain, with no knowledge of world wars or Stalin’s death or men in space or atomic bombs, a hard frost descended on a June night. Their entire garden was annihilated, and only a single blade of rye grass remained. The family took shifts guarding it day and night, finally harvesting a scant 18 grains to hoard for spring to replant. Akulina died that winter, giving all her food to her children and slowly starving to death in secret before their eyes.
But even in infinite solitude, the universe made itself known. Their mountain was in the flight path of the Soviet spaceport of Baikonur, and so they watched the bright dots of satellites move overhead in the black nights, heard explosions in the heavens, and found the incomprehensible debris of rockets that had fallen from the sky littering their forest.
A helicopter survey team stumbled across them in 1978, 40 years since they had seen another living soul. The children’s Russian language had drifted so much from standard that the scientists could barely understand them at all, smattered as it was with ancient words and ones made up wholesale. They became a phenomenon in the Soviet Union, a testament to both Russian strength, and the memories of horrors from generations before. They were living time capsules of a time before the world changed. The government built them a new cabin in place of the original that was in such disrepair that the survey team had thought it an odd bit of forest debris from the air.
They stayed on their mountain, and were left mostly in a relative peace, but contact with the outside world had a physical virulence. In 1981, three of the four children sickened and died over only a few days. Karp himself died in 1988, but the youngest daughter, Agafia, survived it all and still lives on that mountain today in solitude. She is 70 years old and carved of granite, self-sufficient in a wilderness that would kill most people.
One of the scientists from that original survey team returned again and again to the mountain, becoming fast friends with Agafia. He built himself a cabin a hundred yards away from hers, and lived there for nearly two decades before dying a few years ago. Agafia buried him herself in the hard soil of the mountain.
She has a satellite phone now for emergencies, this child of a mountain who saw the first person she wasn’t related to when she was in her thirties. And she’s left the mountain on occasion for medical treatment, and once for a month-long tour of the Soviet Union, but she always returns to the only home she’s ever known as soon as possible.
A journalist asked her once if it was better after they had been found, and Agafia simply said: “back then we had no salt.”
(British filmmaker Rebecca Marshall is currently working on a documentary about Agafia, you can read more here)