Old Believers

There are many problems with writers, and one is a tendency to overly dramatise their own situations in their heads. I am currently in pristine isolation in a small cottage far away with no television or telephone and barely an internet connection. I’m purposefully far from loved ones and in-laws, and I forgot my toothpaste so I’m brushing with soap and salt and rainwater from a barrel. I wear a pair of worn canvas shorts, tied with a length of frayed rope instead of a belt. I’d like to say I hiked here from the highway turn-off with my laptop, a tunafish sandwich and a claspknife in an old knapsack, but that would be going too far.

There’s nothing vaguely heroic about anything of this, yet this morning I caught myself striking a hero’s pose, staring out at the weather like a lighthousekeeper or Ernest Hemingway. I’ve even started growing a beard, for stroking purposes. It’s true that I don’t gaff my own fish with a marlinspike or fight my beefsteak to a lonely death, but then again, Hemingway doesn’t have a book deadline in less than a month, so who’s the real tough guy, Papa?

But the heroic pose doesn’t suit me, so it’s good to remember Agafia Lykov. Right now, Agafia is shoveling snow or sewing a pair of birchbark shoes in a small wooden shelter in the Siberian taiga, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest settlement. She has been there seventy years, all her life, and she’s the last child of a family so lost from the world they didn’t even know that World War Two had happened.

The Lykovs were Old Believers, members of a strictly orthodox Russian church with a long proud history of being persecuted, all the way back to Peter the Great. In 1936, when Stalin got in on the act, Karp Lykov took his family into the vastness of Siberia, past where the cart-tracks ended, further and further on foot till they found a place in the Sayan Mountains, beyond the sight of even the Supreme Soviet.

It’s hard to express how big Siberia is. Siberia is more than 8 million empty square kilometres, stretching from the Urals to the Sea of Okhotsk. It’s one-and-a-half times bigger than the USA; meteorites hit Siberia unseen in vast explosions and craters no one even knows about. Before helicopters, the only way to reach the Lykovs was seven days in a canoe in summer, then a long walk. For 42 years, no one reached the Lykovs.

Baby Agafia was born in a pine trough in 1943, in the middle of a war they didn’t know about. She learnt to read from the 400-year-old family Bible and to write using a sharpened twig and honeysuckle juice; for entertainment the family recounted the dreams they’d had last night. Some suspected Agafia’s brother Dmitri of embroidering his dreams to make them more entertaining, but no one really minded.

In 1961 it snowed in June and the rye failed so Karp’s wife starved herself to death so that there’d be enough food for the family. In the 1970s they noticed the bright specks of satellites moving across the Russian sky. Karp supposed that humans had sent up fire into the heavens, and they shuddered.

In 1978 a team of geologists prospecting for oil spotted the homestead from a helicopter, and first contact was made. Within a month, Agafia’s two brothers and sister were dead of pneumonia. Karp followed later. Agafia still lives in the wooden home her parents made, an arched speck amid mountains like white knives, dusted with birch trees like grey stubble.

She has ventured out to the cities five times, but they frighten her and she believes they made her sick. One of the geologists, a one-legged old man named Yerofei, built a cabin down the hillside and has lived there sixteen years, but she has to look after him, and she doesn’t care for his company. He has a radio, she says, and listens to news bulletins. They’re all about people who blow themselves up, and people who die in coal mines. Why does anyone listen to that?

You can see Agafia in a video made by Vice magazine, who sent an expedition in a chopper to visit her. She moves slowly but she’s strong. She fends off bears by singing the 9th prayer to St George. In January this year Agafia wrote a letter to a Siberian newspaper, asking for help. She’s out of logs, she says, and she hasn’t time to cut more trees because time is running out for her and she needs to say her prayers. It’s nearly summer now in Siberia. The snow will be melting soon, and for three months she’ll be warm. I hope she’s made it through all right.

The Times, 25 May 2014