Lost In the Taiga: One Russian Family’s Fifty-Year Struggle for Survival and Religious Freedom in the Siberian Wilderness
Siberia is the largest region contained within Russia. Its total area is around twice that of Alaska1. This vast region is a rugged one, from the Ural mountains to the Tundra and Taiga, Siberia is a locus of harsh conditions: its unforgiving winters are akin to an icy hell, where many have entered their permanent place of rest. Siberia has an ugly history as well, due to its function as a place of exile for political enemies of the soviet union, as well as the final resting place for many Gulag prisoners. The conditions one must survive through to live in this remote region of Russia would test the will of even the strongest among us. That being said, Siberia is mythical in Russian culture. Look no further than to Lake Baikal and the spiritual nature of this region becomes apparent in works of literature, culture, and politics. Making it through that test of will rewards people with a plethora of things: confidence, maturity, self-sufficiency, harmony with nature, the spirit, God, and self actualization, among other deeply important acclamations. All of these acclimations are encompassed by the people living in this region. Vasily Peskov, a writer for the Pravda soviet state-sponsored newspaper, had the opportunity to meet with one such people, The Lykovs, who had used Siberia as a “spiritual haven” in order to escape persecution. In his book, Lost in the Taiga. One Russian Family’s Fifty Year Struggle for Survival and Religious Freedom in the Siberian Wilderness, Peskov gives his readers a close up view of the lives of such people who have endured through these demanding conditions, and received their rewards. Through his work, the kind of life these people live and the type of struggles they have to endure, both internal and external, are made visible.
Lost in the Taiga centers around Peskov’s meeting and perpetual relationship with the Lykov family: a family who had been pushed farther and farther into the wilderness after the Great Schism that occurred under Peter the Great and Patriarch Nikon in the 1650s2. This Great Schism saw Patriarch Nikon institute reforms in Russian orthodoxy, such as crossing with three fingers instead of two, in order to reconcile it with Greek orthodoxy. This was met with severe backlash from those who would be later deemed “Old Believers” or Raskolniki (Schismatics)3. These Old believers denounced Nikon as the antichrist, and in the name of pursuing the true faith, participated in self-immolation and retreat into the Siberian wilderness to maintain their “true christains” status (Peskov, pp 39).
Peskov’s journalistic account of his meeting with the Lykov family reads like an investigative conversation without the awkwardness of a direct interview. While Peskov remains inquisitive about this family, He never is overbearing when it comes to questioning. He naturally lets dialogue play out and isn’t annoyingly inquisitive. He is respectful and treats the Lykovs gingerly. Upon their first meeting, conversation happens naturally, and many questions that are asked arise spontaneously: “After supper, questions about a bathhouse seemed to arise of their own accord. The Lykovs didn’t have a bathhouse” (Peskov, pp 30). Throughout the book, heavy questioning is almost nonexistent, and we get a genuine impression of the Lykovs, their way of life, thought processes, struggles, and overall natural state of existence. The only segments that truly break this narrative pattern are when questions arise about the only two members of the family left, the father Karp and his daughter Agafia, and what will happen after Karp’s death. This questioning is undertaken by Peskov, because Agafia is faced with being in isolation for the rest of her life, so by nature the severity of this circumstance warrants more questioning from our naturally inquisitive inquirer.
The book plays with this theme of questioning: What is right according to the Lykovs? What is wrong? Why are the Lykovs here? Why are they choosing to stay here? Why is it okay for the Lykovs to use a flashlight but not matches (Peskov, pp 133)? Why is it okay for them to have a new house built for them and move to it, but not go live with their relatives, who are living a still secluded but updated version of their own lives(Peskov, pp 193)? While their style of living seems odd to us, Peskov invites us to understand it through the questions posed throughout the book, of which all of them we would have found ourselves asking were we the ones to be meeting the family. In his writing, Peskov provides a balance of inquisitive journalism with quaint observationalism to bring us an encompassing view of this hermit family in a way that isn’t intrusive, but also doesn’t leave us wanting.
An exemplary instance of this balance is chapter 12, “Agafia’s Odyssey”. This chapter follows Agafia as she goes to visit her relatives, against her fathers wishes, and experiences what life with her relatives could be. Given the context of her fathers old age, and how she will likely be left in the Taiga alone relatively soon, this decision makes intuitive sense to us. The chapter starts off with a quarrel that occurred between Agafia and Karp, and Peskov’s inquisitions about it: “ Had [the family relatives] reproached the old man? Had they made weighty arguments that were convincing..?” (Peskov, pp 142). He then provides a bit of context as to why the father’s approval was so crucial: “For Agafia, parental blessing was a serious matter, and she softly began imploring her father to let her go… ‘ Papa, I want to see how people live’” (Peskov, pp 142-143). Then, the rest of the chapter is just a replay of what happened, written as if we were watching it on a film screen. No questions, no insertions of opinions, just observations. Peskov describes Agafia’s actions, the people’s reaction to her, her favorite parts from the trip, Karp’s response to being alone, and much more. This chapter is emblematic of the whole book’s balance of descriptions with perspective, observation with inquisition, and occurrences with opinion.
Peskov’s Lost in the Taiga is an account of a family whose struggles are foreign to many of those who take it upon themselves to read its pages. It provides context and background information on why the Lykovs are in the wilderness in the first place, and balances getting answers to questions all of us reading want answered, with observations about their daily lives and struggles that all of us wish to understand. It is a delicate handling of a story in which the characters and their health are waning, and the help that we wish we could give the family isn’t sated by Peskov’s accounts of the gifts given by the public to the Lykovs. The sense of impending isolation we feel through Agafia in the leadup to her father’s death- which culminated in her disobedience to go visit her relatives against her father’s wishes- is tangible from the descriptions Peskov gives us. Lacking Agafia’s understanding of the world, her admission that “God will provide” does not provide us or Peskov neither with the comfort nor the security that it provides Agafia with (Peskov, 193). Upon the final conversation Peskov has with Agafia – who is now completely alone in the Taiga- this is made all the more evident:
“ Was this exceptional person contemplating death? Did she understand that as circumstances had worked out, death could seize her at any moment? Yes. She and I spoke of this many times, but for Agafia death was not what it is for many of us. For someone convinced of the existence of a life other than this brief, earthly life, death is merely the frontier to another kingdom. ‘But you could run across a bear. He could tear you apart. What kind of resurrection would that be?’ Even this outcome did not concern Agafia. ‘ So. After all, Vasily Mikhailovich, everything three will be put back together again.” (Peskov, pp 254)
There is a balance in this book, and its delicacy made all the more apparent by the shifting of weight from inquiring to observing, which forces us to find a balance between Agafia’s decisions, and our understanding of the circumstances. It also leaves us with a question: Who is lost in the Taiga? Is it Agafia, who has quite literally found herself here? Or is it us, who feel we would be lost in such a large forest of worry?
Vasily Peskov. Lost in the Taiga. One Russian Family’s Fifty Year Struggle for Survival and Religious Freedom in the Siberian Wilderness. New York: DoubleDay, 1994
(Citations outside of book)
- “West Siberian Plain | Region, Russia.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/place/West-Siberian-Plain. Accessed 27 Apr. 2021.
- 3. “Raskol | Russian Orthodoxy.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Raskol. Accessed 27 Apr. 2021.