Surviving in Siberia

Via Vice comes an actually-interesting documentary, this time about Agafia – the last living member of a family that’s lived a super-remote part of Siberia for 77 years in almost complete isolation from the outside world. Here’s the doco:


Video link

A very quick summary of the history of the Lykovs. They were Old Believers (ie. holding the traditionalist pre-reform Russian Orthodox rites), which meant persecution ever since 1666 by the Russian Orthodox church, the authorities and wider society. It was 1936 and the Lykovs were feeling Stalin’s tentacles tighten around their home town of Lykova and the family patriarch Karp’s brother was killed by a Communist patrol. Karp took the family into the wilderness – possibly the smartest move made by anyone evah given what followed…

They were hundreds of kilometres from any other human in one of the harshest places on earth. It gets well below -30 there in winter. There, Agafia and her sisters were born and there they lived for 40 years without seeing a soul, without being aware of WWII or the gulags or anything that happened. Food sources were always limited so they were often on the brink of starvation, but in 1961 things got so bad that Agafia’s mother Akulina actually starved herself to death to increase her kids’ survival chances.

They were “discovered” by Soviet geologists in 1978. It was kinda lucky since by then their utensils were almost worn away and things were even harder. Unfortunately, Agafia’s sisters died almost immediately, apparently from contracting an infectious disease from the geologists. The family was visited every now and then and now Agafia is the only one left (although a geologist has built a cabin nearby and moved in). Agafia is now 70 and still takes care of herself, although it’s an absolute struggle in terms of how many things she must do each day to keep death from hunger, hypothermia and wild animals at bay.

That’s the story, but here are the reactions I had:

  • There’s a lot of discomfort about the level of religious fanaticism in the family. It did make sense for him to flee the city. But it does have the same level of the “god will provide” recklessness of this recent news story of the hyper-religious family that wanted to escape the godless USA and reach Kiribati on a boat. It’s true that the family did survive in the taiga (although the mother did starve to death). But I wonder if it’s a case of confirmation bias. There might have been a whole heap of families who fled into the taiga around the time with perhaps most of them dying quickly.
  • There is also the creepiness of a family living for decades and having children with no outside company whatsoever. I’m reminded of this recent article about the horrific endemic rape and incest in an insular hyper-religious Christian community in Bolivia. Am I just getting more cynical? In my defence, rates of child sexual abuse are a lot higher than one might think (see here for an initial collection of estimates) so it’s probably something to take seriously.
  • I can’t help having some admiration for any family that is committed and independent enough to go against broad social trends (see for instance my post on Deborah 13). There must be some relationship between independence and fanaticism that can hit close to home.
  • You might expect Agafia to have some words of wisdom about life but unfortunately she parrots the most clichéd of anti-science tropes. The world is going to hell because of “godless science” that’s “soul-destroying”. That last term she used is even stronger in Russian since it has connotations of murder or even genocide. No folksy wisdom here, folks.
  • This made me think about my reaction to Agafia’s life and views vs the reaction that I might have to – for example – indigenous people. Agafia’s lifestyle is quite close to a lot of indigenous subsistence farming, and her worldview is probably just as untouched by science. Is it then paternalistic and colonialist to feel like she somehow “shouldn’t” have the opinions she has since she missed out on any semblance of a modern education? If it’s ok for her then it would only be because her parents belonged to the Russian culture and not a culture that’s “normally” unacquainted with science. I guess I would feel sad for anyone of any culture, indigenous or not, whose opinions are the result of not being acquainted with how the world really works. Just like I’m sad when people in my own society have very misinformed opinions. But in all of these cases, the line between this and the British Empire would probably be coercion. Imagine how horrible it would be to take Agafia to live in town against her will. The same would apply to anyone, from any culture.
  • This struggle for existence that Agafia has lived in her whole life is not the pinnacle on the scale of struggles. This is the exact terrain that Stalin picked for his network of death camps. This is the terrain where millions faced the same struggles as Agafia, PLUS being worked, shot, starved, infected, frozen and beaten to death.
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The thinly-veiled identity of lives and rants in Sydney. Views not his own, provided by hivemind. All my original work on this blog is licensed under a CC BY-NC License.

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