Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

40 Years of Solitude

In 1936, Karp Lykov, a member of the Old Believer sect of Russian Orthodoxy living in a remote Siberian village, was working in the fields with his brother when a group of communists (who had little tolerance for the ultra-observant religious group) shot his brother. Lykov decided it was time to flee the Soviet authorities, and so he packed up his wife and two children (a nine year old son and two year old daughter) and moved off with them into the forested Siberian wilderness. Over the years they moved deeper and deeper into the forest, clearing small fields and building log cabins. Two more children were born, a son in 1940 and a daughter in 1943. The family so successfully isolated itself that they never saw another person until Soviet geologists stumbled upon them (having seen their fields when surveying by helicopter) in 1978.

The story is fascinating. One thing that particularly struck me was what the family didn't know versus what they did. They had, of course, no knowledge of world history over the last forty years. They knew nothing of World War Two and the utter cataclysm it had released upon Russia. But they did, in a way, know about the space program. They had seen satellites looking like swift moving stars as far back as the 1950s and had correctly deduced that they were the result of human effort.
As the Soviet geologists got to know the Lykov family, they realized that they had underestimated their abilities and intelligence. Each family member had a distinct personality; Old Karp was usually delighted by the latest innovations that the scientists brought up from their camp, and though he steadfastly refused to believe that man had set foot on the moon, he adapted swiftly to the idea of satellites. The Lykovs had noticed them as early as the 1950s, when "the stars began to go quickly across the sky," and Karp himself conceived a theory to explain this: "People have thought something up and are sending out fires that are very like stars."
The children in particular spoke Russian somewhat strangely, having never spoken to anyone other than in the family, but they could all read (the family had a bible and several prayer books) and successfully identified pictures of animals such as horses that they had never seen, having learned about them from the bible and their parents.
The Lykov children knew there were places called cities where humans lived crammed together in tall buildings. They had heard there were countries other than Russia. But such concepts were no more than abstractions to them. Their only reading matter was prayer books and an ancient family Bible. Akulina had used the gospels to teach her children to read and write, using sharpened birch sticks dipped into honeysuckle juice as pen and ink. When Agafia was shown a picture of a horse, she recognized it from her mother's Bible stories. "Look, papa," she exclaimed. "A steed!"

The other thing that struck me is how incredibly difficult this obviously able family found it to live in total isolation.
Isolation made survival in the wilderness close to impossible. Dependent solely on their own resources, the Lykovs struggled to replace the few things they had brought into the taiga with them. They fashioned birch-bark galoshes in place of shoes. Clothes were patched and repatched until they fell apart, then replaced with hemp cloth grown from seed.

The Lykovs had carried a crude spinning wheel and, incredibly, the components of a loom into the taiga with them—moving these from place to place as they gradually went further into the wilderness must have required many long and arduous journeys—but they had no technology for replacing metal. A couple of kettles served them well for many years, but when rust finally overcame them, the only replacements they could fashion came from birch bark. Since these could not be placed in a fire, it became far harder to cook. By the time the Lykovs were discovered, their staple diet was potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds.

In some respects, Peskov makes clear, the taiga did offer some abundance: "Beside the dwelling ran a clear, cold stream. Stands of larch, spruce, pine and birch yielded all that anyone could take.... Bilberries and raspberries were close to hand, firewood as well, and pine nuts fell right on the roof."

Yet the Lykovs lived permanently on the edge of famine. It was not until the late 1950s, when Dmitry reached manhood, that they first trapped animals for their meat and skins. Lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion. Dmitry built up astonishing endurance, and could hunt barefoot in winter, sometimes returning to the hut after several days, having slept in the open in 40 degrees of frost, a young elk across his shoulders. More often than not, though, there was no meat, and their diet gradually became more monotonous. Wild animals destroyed their crop of carrots, and Agafia recalled the late 1950s as "the hungry years." "We ate the rowanberry leaf," she said,
roots, grass, mushrooms, potato tops, and bark, We were hungry all the time. Every year we held a council to decide whether to eat everything up or leave some for seed.
Famine was an ever-present danger in these circumstances, and in 1961 it snowed in June. The hard frost killed everything growing in their garden, and by spring the family had been reduced to eating shoes and bark. Akulina chose to see her children fed, and that year she died of starvation. The rest of the family were saved by what they regarded as a miracle: 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.
Swiss Family Robinson this ain't.


Jenny said...

I read this piece yesterday and it really is fascinating. To lose your pots to rust and have to replace them with birch bark! How did they not despair? How frightened must they have been of the authorities to live in that level of poverty and still not make their way back to civilization when the very means of their existence were withering away.

How sad that we, with the hindsight of the atrocities of Soviet Russia, know they probably were not much worse off than those living in the village.

JP said...

Saw this on another site last night; saved it to my writing ideas list. NaNoWriMo 2013 perchance?

It'd be interesting to take the same general idea and go SciFi with it.

Anonymous said...

Wow! That was so interesting! Thanks for posting.

Banshee said...

I don't understand why they didn't make pottery. I can understand not being able to make a kiln per se, but you can fire better pots or make better adobe pots than you can make out of birchbark.

Permafrost and arctic soils aren't conducive to making clays, maybe?