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Children of the Taiga

In 1978, a helicopter flying over the taiga – an immense wilderness stretching from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions to as far south as Mongola – spotted something unusual below: a clearing, 6000ft up a mountain. They concluded that it was evidence of human habitation though it was 150 miles from the nearest settlement and authorities had no records of anyone living there.

Led by Galina Pismenskaya an investigative group “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side”. Making their way up the mountain they came across signs of human activity: a rough path, a staff, a log laid across a stream, and a small shed filled with cut-up dried potatoes. Then:

"a very old man emerged … Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking … He looked frightened … We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’ … Finally we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have travelled this far, you might as well come in.’"

Over several visits the story of the family emerged. The man was Karp Lykov, an Old Believer – a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthadox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 1600s. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday. Ever since they had retreated further and further from civilization.

There were four children. Two had been born in the wild and had never seen a human being who was not a family member. They were educated using prayer books; were not aware that WWII had occurred, and lived permanently on the edge of famine. Karp’s wife died of starvation in 1961, choosing to see her children eat after snow in June ruined their crops.

Karp was delighted by the innovations the scientists showed him, and though he steadfastly refused to believe that man had set foot on the moon, he adapted swiftly to the idea of satellites. They had noticed them as early as the 1950s, when “the stars began to go quickly across the sky,” and Karp conceived a theory that: “People have thought something up and are sending out fires that are very like stars.”

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the Lykovs’ strange story was the rapidity with which the family went into decline after they re-established contact with the outside world. In the fall of 1981, three of the four children died within a few days of one another. Their deaths were not, as might have been expected, the result of exposure to diseases to which they had no immunity.

When they had been buried, the geologists attempted to talk Karp and his daughter into leaving the forest but neither would hear of it. Karp died in his sleep in 1988 and was buried on the mountain. His daughter would stay, she said—as indeed she has. 25 years later, now in her seventies, this child of the taiga lives on alone, high above the Abakan.

[This is a heavily edited version of a Smithsonian Magazine article and I highly recommend you read the whole thing. Thanks to Vintage-Royalty]

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