Vasily Peskov: Lost in the Taiga

January 21, 2016

41SubYN8UnL._AA160_51-v0KQnlxL._AA160_This is the most astonishing and moving book I’ve read for a very long time. It’s a true story, first published in the last days of the Soviet Union.

A few years ago, I first came across the amazing story of the accidental discovery, in 1978, by a geological survey team, of a family living in the depths of the taiga, at least 150 miles from any known settlement. A helicopter, flying over a deserted area, noticed clear signs of land cultivation and investigated. The family had been living, hidden there for over 35 years.

They were a family of Old Believers, a religious sect dating from a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church over 350 years ago, who avoid the world, and any contact with it, and have nothing to do with the ‘secular’ world, including papers and identification, and money. They were hermits: a father and his four children, two sons and two daughters (their mother had died, basically of inanition, in the 1960s). A couple of weeks ago, their story resurfaced in the media as the final survivor, Agafia, now in her seventies, had been taken ill and airlifted to hospital. I’d tracked down the book written by a journalist from Komsomolskaya Pravda in the 1990s a while back; and this latest story prompted me to buy and read it. (Note: the English translation is out of print and advertised at the usual idiotic telephone number prices on a certain website; I bought the cheap current French paperback edition.)

The family lived in a hovel, in unbelievably primitive conditions, on potatoes, gruel, and whatever fish and game they were able to catch, wove cloth to clothe themselves, and fabricated whatever else they needed to the best of their ability. They had basically reached the end of their resources and were in desperate straits. Initially suspicious of visitors, they eventually got used to them, and related their past and their beliefs. Many modern things were instantly judged to be forbidden. Ill-health suddenly carried off three of the children, leaving the father and one daughter; eventually the father died of old age, leaving the daughter completely alone. Despite offers from various relatives and other Old Believers to take her in, Agafia judged them to be spiritually wanting and remained alone in the taiga, which was where she had grown up.

There are a couple of films about them on You Tube (which I haven’t seen yet) and apparently an English documentary-maker is making a film for TV later on this year.

It was a gripping and fascinating story for a number of reasons. Firstly, apparently thousands of Old Believers did just the same; this family happens to have been found, where others will have died in isolation and never be known about. Secondly, only Russia is vast enough for people to be able to hide liek this. More impressive was the strength and power of belief the family demonstrated: that this was the way they should live, and made no compromises. Yes, looked at from outside, their beliefs and practices seem completely mad, but – and I found this interesting – once discovered, their way of life was respected by the Soviet state, and via the geological station and some of its workers, the family was helped as much as they would allow themselves to be helped. And the author, a Soviet journalist for a mass-cicrulation newspaper, treats them sympathetically and with understanding.

Finally, I reflected on this degree of isolation. There was a beauty and attractiveness about its purity to me, in particular the rejection of the secular world, but there was also a sense of horror: here is something I know I could never put up with, here is something I put on the level of people deciding to travel one-way to Mars: most humans need each others’ company…



One Response to “Vasily Peskov: Lost in the Taiga”

  1. […] probably Vassili Peskov’s Ermites dans le Taiga, a true tale of a family totally isolated and surviving in the depths of Siberia for almost forty […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: