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Agriculture's Edge

RSS By: Chris Bennett, Farm Journal

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An epic survival tale you’ve never heard

Jun 26, 2014

When a helicopter pilot spotted a series of furrows in a clearing halfway up a mountainside in the depths of Siberia, he lifted the veil on one of the most astonishing tales of isolation and survival in history.

Agriculture, no matter how primitive, is the telltale mark of human presence, especially in Siberia’s 5-million square mile blanket of emptiness, and when the Russian helicopter crew (on an iron ore scouting run in 1978) reported the sighting, they were met with disbelief. The clearing, 150 miles from any settlement, was off the grid — truly in the back of beyond — and entirely unknown to any Russian authority.

A team of four geologists, camped roughly 10 miles away, were given the location of the clearing and set off on foot to find out exactly what the pilot had glimpsed. What they found was a scene locked in a 44-year freeze — a family tucked away and hidden from the world and forgotten by time.

Smithsonian relates testimony from one of the geologists, Galina Pismenskaya, as the team first walked up on a decrepit hovel beside a stream: "… the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish — bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it … Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see. The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard."

 

For the Smithsonian article written by Mike Dash, see For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II

 

The man, Karp Lykov, had been concealed in absolute isolation in the wilds of Siberia for 42 years — and he wasn’t alone. Pismenskaya continues: "The silence was suddenly broken by sobs and lamentations. Only then did we see the silhouettes of two women. One was in hysterics, praying: ‘This is for our sins, our sins.’ The other, keeping behind a post … sank slowly to the floor. The light from the little window fell on her wide, terrified eyes … "

The geologists had found a family of five nearing starvation: Karp, sons Savvin, 45, and Dmitry, 36; and daughters Natalya, 42, and Agafya, 34. Karp’s wife had died 17 years earlier in 1961.
The Lykovs were members of the "Old Believers," a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, and Karp led his family (wife and only two children at the time) into Siberia in 1936 after communist soldiers murdered his brother just outside the family village. Karp grabbed what belongings he could, gathered up his family and kept going deeper and deeper into the wilderness — the realm of Gulags and merciless terrain. The communists didn’t follow and the Lykov family was forgotten, almost hermetically sealed from any outside contact.

 

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Burial Mounds: An agriculture venture like no other

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There are many survival/isolation tales that astound: the 1972 Andes plane crash survivors; Ernest Shackleton’s two-year Antarctic odyssey; the 1819 whaleship Essex disaster; Victor Aveyron’s feral childhood in the 18th century; Alexander Selkirk’s solitude on Juan Fernandez; and scores of other stunners. Yet outside of the Lykov family, no account features the mix of a 40-year duration, primal existence and religious fervor.

The shocking degree of seclusion and removal from basic societal awareness was immediately evident when Pimenskaya asked the Lykovs if they had ever eaten bread. Karp answered, "I have, but they have not. They have never seen it."

Their existence was dependent on extreme subsistence farming with a diet based on "potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds." (Their clothing was made from garden hemp production.) With no firearms or bows, game was difficult to catch and the Lykovs repeatedly came to close to starvation. Karp’s wife, Akulina, died from malnutrition in 1961, and the rest of the family only survived when "… a single grain of rye sprouted in their pea patch. The Lykovs put up a fence around the shoot and guarded it zealously night and day to keep off mice and squirrels. At harvest time, the solitary spike yielded 18 grains, and from this they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop."

Even after discovery, the Lykovs refused to return to their old village or let go of the past. In 1981, Savvin, Natalya and Dmitry died in succession; followed by Karp in 1988.

Agafya, born in unexplored Siberia, is still living there — alone — roughly 70 years old. Even for her, the isolation takes a harsh toll and in a recent letter she has called on the Russian government to send someone to live with her — yet she won’t leave. From her letter, excerpted in The Siberian Times: "We prayed together, and only went out to do outside works after prayers. And whatever else others were doing, one of us was forever inside, to keep reading our prayers. We prayed together during holidays. And now everything is on me, both the prayers and the household."

Agafya will keep her "Old Believer" vigil to her dying breath. After 70 years in Siberia, the last of the Lykovs is going nowhere.

 

For more on Agafya, see Can anyone help the woman who time forgot?

 

More from Agriculture's Edge:

How to kill a country: Take away the farmland

Agriculture and farmers are killing us all

Burial Mounds: An agriculture venture like no other

Where's your pain relief medicine grown?

 

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