The sight that greeted the geologists as they entered the cabin was like something from the middle ages. Jerry-built from whatever materials came to hand, the dwelling was not much more than a burrow—"a low, soot-blackened log kennel that was as cold as a cellar," with a floor consisting of potato peel and pine-nut shells. Looking around in the dim light, the visitors saw that it consisted of a single room. It was cramped, musty and indescribably filthy, propped up by sagging joists—and, astonishingly, home to a family of five:The Smithsonian Magazine has an amazing story about a family of hermits found living in the wilds of Siberia. The father, Karp Lykov, was a member of a fundamentalist Orthodox sect called the Old Believers.
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, and we realized we had to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Agafia Lykova (left) with her sister, Natalia.
Led by Pismenskaya, the scientists backed hurriedly out of the hut and retreated to a spot a few yards away, where they took out some provisions and began to eat. After about half an hour, the door of the cabin creaked open, and the old man and his two daughters emerged—no longer hysterical and, though still obviously frightened, "frankly curious." Warily, the three strange figures approached and sat down with their visitors, rejecting everything that they were offered—jam, tea, bread—with a muttered, "We are not allowed that!" When Pismenskaya asked, "Have you ever eaten bread?" the old man answered: "I have. But they have not. They have never seen it." At least he was intelligible. The daughters spoke a language distorted by a lifetime of isolation. "When the sisters talked to each other, it sounded like a slow, blurred cooing." (source: Smithsonian Magazine)
The sect had been persecuted under the Tsars, and things only got worse for them when the communists took over. In 1936, during the purges, Lykov's brother was killed in front of him for his faith and Karp took his family and fled into the Siberian wilderness seeking safety. Over the years they moved several times and faced bouts of near starvation.
They were found in 1978 by a group of geologists surveying the area. The article discusses their introduction to the modern world, and the difficulties they had adjusting. It is a fascinating story of lives spent on the fringe.