For 40 years, this Russian family was cut off from all human contact, unaware of World War II

In 1978 a team of Russian geologists took a helicopter to a remote part of Siberia and encountered a family that had not had contact with anyone for 40 years. The family were Old Believers -- members of a "fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century." They fled to Siberia in 1936 to escape persecution.

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.

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."

For 40 years, this Russian family was cut off From all human contact, unaware of World War II


  1. Incredible. I cannot fathom the thought processes that would involve a voluntary choice to live like that even after know there was no longer danger from the government. Not condemning, just cannot fathom it.

  2. As much as I’d like to believe people could live in the wild, undetected for 40 years I have my doubts. Their pots wore out but what about their clothing? It looks like the women are wearing wool scarves and clothing? Where did they get the fabric? How were they able to supply their clothing needs as the children grew into adults? Last week a “30 million year old aluminum cog wheel” was “found” in Russia. What’s the next strange discovery from Russia we can look forward to reading about?

    1. “Karp Lykov and his daughter Agafia, wearing clothes donated by Soviet geologists not long after their family was rediscovered.”

      1. Thanks. I didn’t see that. Are there any photos of the family and their abode before they got the new clothes?

      2. There is also mention in the story that the family owned a loom which they carted with them deeper and deeper into the woods as they sought even more isolation.

    2. From the article: “Clothes were patched and repatched until they fell apart, then replaced with hemp cloth grown from seed.”  It also appears that some of the photos of the family were taken with them wearing clothing given to them.  
      There were plenty of things they couldn’t replace, such as metal tools: “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 they couldn’t cook with them directly over fire, they had to change their diet to accommodate that.
      The cog found in coal is a very real but not-at-all-mysterious phenomenon where coal dust compacts, sometimes around random objects, in coal mines, forming apparently unbroken, “solid” blocks.

      1. Thanks. I didn’t read about the donations. I still don’t understand how the Russian scientists declared the aluminum tool/cog to be 30 million years old.

        1. The coal is old.  Someone was just making the assumption that the object was the same age, despite the dust-into-blocks phenomenon being previously known.  Everyone involved should have known better.

      1. Yes, I remember reading about those people. Somehow indigenous people living in the wilds seems much more likely. Just saying. I used to wonder if there were any North American  indigenous group(s) living undiscovered deep in the Rockies or in the areas of Northern Canada that would be similar, actually, to the landscape these Old Believers were found in.

  3. Old Believers are sort of like the Orthodox version of the Amish. Plus they live in BFE, Siberia. So this sort of thing just might actually be true.

  4. Yeah, the lack of intellectual curiosity involved in seeing a plane fly over now and again for decades and never seeking out the answer to how the heck that is possible can really only be explained by religion and incest.,,,

    1. In this case “seeking out the answer” would have meant a perilous trek, on foot, over hundreds of miles of dangerous and imposing terrain to a settlement controlled by the very government they were in hiding from. Not so much a lack of intellectual curiosity as a different set of priorities.

    2. Seeing as how millions of their countryfolk perished in a war of civilizations, many by way of those wonderful aircraft, it’s tough to say they made the wrong choice. 

  5. As members of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, the Old Believers as they are described likely had limited choice about moving. The man decided that this is what he wanted and the women and children had to follow.

    The book’s title claims that they lived this way seeking religious freedom. Last August, Russian police freed children who lived underground and never saw the sun as part of an Islamist sect. Different religion, same outcome.

  6. The youngest one, Agafia, is apparently still alive out there, or was a couple of years ago. There are various articles from 2010/11 talking about how she accepts and even appeals for visitors to come and help out with the Siberian subsistence chores now that she’s old. Seemingly the local authorities give her support, but discourage people from moving in with her, because the whole area is now considered a nature preserve.

    2011 post (in Russian) on some ecclesiastical site, reporting her appeal for companions:
    2010, she approves of Medvedev:

  7. There are a few ‘modern’ amenities I would have a hard time learning to live without… soap, dentistry, glass window panes, indoor plumbing, toilet paper, knives, scissors, and sewing needles, to name a few.  OTOH, stories like these remind me that I could easily live with a lot less and everything would still be fine.  I have so much stuff, I can’t remember what all of it is, where it came from, or why I still have it.

    1. Soap at least, you can make yourself, albeit through a fairly labour intensive process – the starting ingredients are fat and wood ash.

      1.  Maybe those geologists could have pointed them towards some natural salt deposits, if any were in the area.

        “out of reach” depends on your skill level. They had worn out the last of their metal pots and were reduced to using birchbark bowls. Well, why didn’t they try making pots from clay?

    2. The earliest bone needles discovered date to 61000 bp.
      They had neither adequate modern nor palaeolithic technology.

  8. I ain’t buying it, look at the profile of the so-called babushka on the left – it’s Daniel Craig!

    1. 61k BP is approximately Mousterian period. Yes, I know: even though the needle was not found in Europe, and not produced be Neanderthals (but most likely by H. sapiens): this is palaeolithic. And, more importantly: their technology was awesome. I think, they call it the Howieson’s Poort Industry.

  9. Nice to know this is still possible on our planet.  Brutally simple, yes, but their choice.

    Not saying I would want to do it….just glad to know it can be done.

    1. They also made the choice for their children. Don’t forget that. The children didn’t get to make their own choice.

  10. More tragic is that there are Americans with iPods unaware of World War II  (Alright it’s a bit of hyperbole–but close.).

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