The Lykov Family – A Survival Story From The Siberian Wilderness

During the initial years of the 1930s, an increasingly paranoid and authoritative leader, Joseph Stalin, initiated a sweeping removal of dissent within the confines of the Soviet Union. His primary targets were individuals affiliated with the Communist Party who dared to scrutinize his treatment of peasants, downplayed the emphasis on industrialization, and advocated for greater internal democracy.

Stalin orchestrated “display trials” for his adversaries, leading to their inevitable execution. Numerous political opponents met their demise through this ruthless purge.

However, the glorification of Stalin extended beyond his dominance within the political structure of the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, a personality cult was taking shape.

Engagement in Religious Suppression

In pursuit of his agenda, Stalin redirected his purges towards both the churches and the common populace of Russia. Religious symbols gave way to glorious depictions of Stalin, replacing the traditional icons. Those clergy members who resisted faced either execution or exile.

Families enthusiastically extolled Stalin, with mothers imparting to their children the belief that he was the wisest man alive. Those who deviated from these teachings found themselves vanishing without a trace. By the mid-1930s, approximately 10 million Russians were forcibly uprooted from their homes and relocated to Gulags nestled deep in the Siberian taiga.

By the conclusion of Stalin’s reign, over 20 million individuals had been dispatched to camps scattered across Russia, and more than half of them succumbed to the harsh conditions. The Siberian taiga, an unforgiving landscape, played a pivotal role in this ordeal.

Taiga, the Russian term for “forest,” gained notoriety for its unpredictable weather patterns. The region experienced freezing temperatures for six months each year, enveloping the land in an icy, snowy tomb with waist-high snow drifts. Pine and spruce stood as the sole greenery for miles.

However, when summer did arrive, albeit briefly, it brought piercing blue skies, warm air, rivers cascading through narrow canyons, the fragrant scents of lilacs and pine, and a fleeting sense of connection with nature. As swiftly as summer graced the taiga, winter crept in through an all-too-brief autumn, nearly imperceptible in its presence.

The Pursuit of Freedom

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Arzhan-Khem Valley 

For Russians condemned to camps in the unforgiving landscape, it represented a descent into a living hell. Enduring brutal winters, they toiled in logging or mining, where their daily output determined the meager rations of bread and water for the next day. Cloaked in the most threadbare clothing, they slept in dilapidated huts on makeshift wooden planks.

However, for a select few Russians, venturing into the taiga was a matter of choice—a means of survival. It was the survival of their way of life, the survival of their families. This held true for the Lykov family.

The Lykovs were affiliated with a faction known in Russia as the Old Believers—a sect of the Russian Orthodox Church steadfast in their beliefs until the very end. The origin of the Old Believers dates back to the era of Peter the Great and the Great Schism of 1667.

According to Vesily Peskov’s account in his book “Lost In The Taiga,” “The Old Believers regarded the ascent of Tsar Peter the Great, with his particularly severe innovations, as the arrival of the Antichrist they had foreseen.”

In response, many Old Believers sought refuge deeper into the Siberian wilderness to distance themselves from the perceived Antichrist. These individuals formed small sects that isolated themselves from mainstream society, rejecting all worldly pursuits, including, as per Peskov, “state laws, military service, passports, money, authority of any kind, games, singing, anything that people ‘not fearing God, could think up.'”

Unveiled

As Stalin’s purges infiltrated the remote reaches of the Siberian wilderness, the Lykovs had already become a self-reliant family, leading a secluded existence far removed from the rest of the world.

In 1935, after a tragic incident where Karp’s brother was shot by a communist patrol while tending to the family’s potato crop, Karp Lykov, along with his wife Akulina and their two children—9-year-old Savin and 2-year-old Natalia—withdrew entirely from society.

Subsequently, two more Lykovs, Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia in 1943, were born in the wild. Until their chance encounter with a Russian geology team in 1978, these two individuals had never encountered anyone outside their immediate family.

The Lykovs charted their own path, following the Abakan River into the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. Their initial settlement was stumbled upon shortly after the conclusion of World War II by a group of military topographers. However, upon their return a year later, the family had already relocated.

According to Peskov, the Lykovs were spotted again in 1958 by “a group of tourists descending the Abakan,” stumbling upon a bearded man with a fishing rod. The guide informed the tourists that they were close to the Lykovs’ “hermitage.”

Unlike their 1945 settlement along the river, the Lykovs had now established their cabins higher up in the mountains, eluding sight. With each relocation, they carried essential items such as seeds, limited clothing, a few pots and pans, and the spinning wheel and loom they had originally brought into the wilderness with them.

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The Art of Surviving Alone

How does a family endure for forty-two years in one of the most inhospitable terrains on the planet?

Forced into isolation, the Lykov family mastered the art of self-reliance, depending on each other and the resources provided by the taiga. Their dwelling, at first glance appearing as a hastily assembled, soot-covered ramshackle hut, was meticulously planned. The roof, with larch boards shaped like troughs and arranged akin to the tiling on European homes, showcased their careful craftsmanship.

Within the modest abode, a fieldstone stove with a sidewall chimney was a testament to their ingenuity. In one corner, the cherished loom and spinning wheel stood, astonishing the first discoverers that six grown adults could coexist within such confined quarters.

While the taiga generously supplied materials for shelter during the harsh, prolonged winters, the Lykovs faced what Agafia termed the “hungry years.” Despite cultivating a large garden on the cold north slope of the mountain, the produce did not sustain them adequately.

Their diet primarily comprised potatoes, onions, turnips, peas, hemp, and rye—cultivated from seeds brought into the wilderness. Carrots, once a part of their diet, were lost to mice years earlier. The cornerstone of their sustenance was simple unleavened bread, crafted from potatoes, resembling a flat, dark pancake.

Nature’s Bounty

In the face of what their gardens couldn’t yield, the Lykovs turned to the taiga for sustenance. Birch trees, versatile providers in their own right, supplied the family with everything from makeshift pots to shoes, skis, and chests for storing potatoes. Birch juice, collected in April, found its place in their natural refrigerator—the river—contained in birch bark containers.

Summer in the taiga presented a bounty of mushrooms, raspberries, huckleberries, currants, and nuts. Late August saw every member of the Lykov family engaged in nut gathering, displaying their adeptness at climbing pines to secure “the potatoes of the taiga.”

The family’s most significant struggle arose from the absence of salt. Karp, expressing his anguish to Peskov, described life without salt as “true torture.” While meat featured in their diet, preserving it for extended periods became exceedingly challenging without salt.

Fishing the Abakan River became their primary means of securing sustenance, complemented by traps set for musk deer frequenting the nearby hills. Fish was often consumed raw, with some dried for future needs, while deer meats were reserved for religious occasions, challenging tasks, or long journeys.

Despite their resourcefulness, the family teetered on the brink of starvation. Agafia recounted the perpetual hunger, holding annual councils to decide whether to consume everything or reserve some for seed. In 1961, a late June snow obliterated their garden, leading to a winter where the family exhausted their stores. Spring brought desperation, forcing them to resort to eating leather shoes, bark, and birch buds. Akulina’s self-imposed starvation allowed her children to survive.

Miraculously, a single rye plant sprouted the following summer, becoming a symbol of hope. The family diligently guarded it against threats from mice, squirrels, and birds, rebuilding their stores from that lone sprout. The harsh diet likely contributed to the deaths of Agafia’s three siblings in 1981—Savin and Natalia succumbing, most likely, to kidney disease, and Dmitry to pneumonia.

The Lykovs, bound by specific roles within the family, adapted to their harsh circumstances. In the 1950s, Savin and Dmitry relocated to a cabin near the river, bringing diversity to their daily lives. Savin, a skilled leatherworker, and Dmitry, an adept hunter, played crucial roles in supporting the family. The separation was attributed to cramped living conditions, the need for a river outpost, strained relations with Savin, and the necessity to prevent incest.

Each family member contributed to the collective survival effort. Savin served as the family’s timekeeper and spiritual guide, tracking time for holidays, prayers, fasts, and periods prohibiting meat consumption. Natalia assumed the role of the family’s “Godmother,” overseeing cooking, sewing, and healing. Agafia, residing at the family homestead, became adept at cooking, ax-wielding, fishing, and even crafting furniture.

The two cabins provided opportunities for family visits, injecting diversity into their routine. Dream recounts around the fire, accompanied by food preparation for Holy Days or loom work as daughters sewed hemp clothing, helped break the monotony of the long winters.

Clothing production, centered around hemp, consumed much of their labor and effort. The family held hemp in high regard, utilizing it for clothing, as thread for birch bark and leather shoes, fishing lines, and rope. The hemp growing around the house served the additional purpose of warding off fleas.

Returning From the Wilderness

returning from the wilderness
Yerofei Sedov and Agafia Lykov

As the years passed, the harsh Siberian isolation took its toll on the Lykov family. Eventually, Peskov observed that “in 1978, the family, worn down by their relentless struggle for survival, lost their desire to seclude themselves from society and meekly embraced whatever fate had in store for them.”

In 1988, exactly 27 years to the day after his wife Akulina’s passing, Karp Lykov succumbed to the challenges of their rugged existence. Agafia, the last surviving member, enlisted the assistance of a geology team to lay her father to rest beside the graves of the rest of her family. Despite occasional visits to the cities, Agafia Lykova steadfastly remains on the remote mountainside in the Abakan Range, situated 150 miles from the nearest town.

Refusing to abandon her family’s homestead, Agafia continues to embody a life of religious devotion, simplicity, and self-sufficiency, drawing from the land and her own abilities. For over seventy years, Agafia Lykova, a child of the Siberian wilderness with the taiga as her mentor, has carved out a life that would deter most. In a letter to her city-dwelling relatives in 1986, she conveyed, “My greetings to everyone. Tell them we have been making ready for the winter.” May we all prepare for the challenges ahead, just as Agafia has for many winters to come.

Agafia Lykova was reported to have experienced leg pain in January 2016, leading to her being airlifted to a hospital for treatment in Tashtagol. Following her treatment, there were plans for her to return to the wilderness once emergency services could facilitate her journey back home. According to The Siberian Times, she did return, and as of mid-2019, she was reported to still be living in the wilderness.

In 2021, it was reported that the oligarch Oleg Deripaska had funded the construction of a new cabin in the wilderness for Agafia. This development was attributed to the deterioration of her previous dwelling.

Concluding

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The survival story of the Lykov family stands as a testament to human resilience in the face of extreme isolation and adversity. Cut off from the world in the vast Siberian wilderness, the Lykovs endured decades of harsh conditions, relying on their resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and deep connection with the taiga.

Living in seclusion, the family adapted to the challenges of survival, fashioning their existence from the materials provided by the unforgiving environment. From birch trees for essential items to the abundant offerings of the taiga, they ingeniously sustained themselves despite the lack of modern amenities.

The story is marked by profound sacrifices, such as Akulina’s self-imposed starvation, and the family’s struggle with hunger, particularly during the “hungry years.” Yet, their determination to preserve their way of life, rooted in religious piety and simplicity, persisted.

Agafia Lykova, the last surviving member, continues to embody the family’s legacy, navigating the complexities of the modern world while clinging to her roots in the Siberian wilderness. The assistance provided by Oleg Deripaska in constructing a new cabin underscores the ongoing challenges faced by Agafia.

The Lykov family’s saga reflects not only a captivating tale of survival but also raises contemplation about the delicate balance between human resilience and the formidable forces of nature. Their extraordinary journey serves as an inspiration and a reminder of the indomitable spirit that can arise in the most isolated corners of our planet.

Suggested resources for preppers:

A few unusual fire starters to get a campfire going

The #1 food of Americans during the Great Depression

Tips for starting a fire in any conditions

If you see this plant when foraging, don’t touch it!

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