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Reclusive Russian Family's Last Survivor Toughs It Out In The Taiga

Agafia Lykova has spent her whole life in a remote part of the Siberian taiga. The nearest human settlement is two weeks' walk from her home.
Agafia Lykova has spent her whole life in a remote part of the Siberian taiga. The nearest human settlement is two weeks' walk from her home.

SIBERIAN TAIGA, Russia -- Agafia Lykova emerges from the thick forest on the banks of the Abakan River like an image from Russian folklore.

Dressed in ragged black sackcloth with a tattered head scarf and a triangular prayer amulet hanging from a beaded cord around her neck, she greets visitors arriving by helicopter from another world.

Lykova lives 160 kilometers south of Tashtagol, an industrial town of 23,000 inhabitants centered around an iron-ore mine, but her world owes more to the remote past than to the 21st century. The nearest human settlement is two weeks away by foot.

Lykova was born in 1945, into a family of Old Believers that fled Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s persecution of religious groups in the 1930s and made their way deep into the southern Siberian taiga to live unmolested by modernity and the state.

Nearly 30 years after the death of her father Karp Lykov, her last remaining relative, she still lives alone in the wilderness.

A small woman with a face and forearms as dark as the cedar pine cones she collects from the forest floor for their nutritious nuts, Lykova says her religion forbids her to use items marked with a barcode -- such as matches or medicines.

But her daily liturgical practices, aided by dog-eared Bibles and prayer books, don't get in the way of her warm welcome to visitors.

Hosting a group of British women filmmakers who are making a movie about her and flew in by helicopter in early October, Lykova happily answered questions and often went off into lengthy stories told in her melodic sing-song voice.

Entirely self-sufficient, Agafia grows potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions and other vegetables on a small patch of ground that her family cleared decades ago, fringed by the forest on a steep south-facing slope above the river Abakan.

PHOTO GALLERY: Agafia's Life In Siberia

The family lived in utter isolation for decades until a group of Soviet geologists, flying over the Sayan Mountains on a mineral prospecting mission, discovered them in 1978.

Greeting those visitors warily, the family learned that Stalin was dead, that the brutal repression of his era had faded, and that the Soviet Union was an industrial power proud of the courage of its people in a world war the Lykovs knew nothing of.

Within a few years, though, all members of the family but Agafia were dead.

This month, asked by a journalist traveling with the filmmakers if she ever gets lonely, she said no.

"A Christian can never be lonely,” she said. “Every Christian has their Guardian Angel as well as Christ and the Apostles. I have an Icon that has been blessed. I am never lonely as I always have Christ with me."

Ancient Words

Old Believers are a part of the Russian Orthodox Church that split away in the 17th century and were long persecuted, making many feel isolated from the Russian mainstream.

Asked whether life is better now or was better before contact with the outside world, Lykova had an even simpler answer: "Back then we had no salt."

The outside world is not one that she feels she can live in, but those who come to visit her from that place are welcome, she says.

Her speech mixes ancient words and religious terms, sometimes making it difficult even for a fluent Russian speaker to understand her. Clothing is not odezhda but lopatinkha, good is not khorosho but basko; skin is not kozha but imanukha, and mushrooms are not gribi but putiki.

Lykova recalled seeing a satellite for the first time when she was 17.

"It was a summer night. I was sat outside by a small fire and was looking up into the stars and noticed one that was moving. How strange -- stars don't move like that, I thought. Later, we would sometimes hear explosions and things fell from the sky," she said.

Remote as the Sayan Mountains are, they lie under the flight path of rockets launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and the area is littered with space debris. A large piece of a Russian Proton rocket -- an air inlet and fan -- is wedged into the roots of a fallen tree on the banks of the river a few minutes’ walk upstream from her homestead.

That the outside world should eventually encroach on Lykova’s life was, perhaps, inevitable.

But she is adamant that she wishes to remain in the land of her birth.

The fish in the river "see everything in the forest," Lykova says, and she is part of that forest.

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