Through your 20s and 30s, you stay with your family. But when they pass away, you choose to continue living in near-total solitude.
That has been the experience of Agafya Lykova, whose deeply religious parents fled into the remote Siberian wilderness in the 1930s before she was even born. Lykova was raised on the family's homestead in the forest — about 90 miles from the nearest town — under the strict traditions of the Old Believers religious sect of Russian Orthodox Christianity.
Their lives changed in the 1970s, when a group of geologists discovered them living deep in the Siberian taiga in the Russian republic of Khakassia. Even then, the family doubled down on their decision to shun modern society. Lykova, now 71 and the sole survivor of her family, has kept that pledge for the past three decades, living in near solitude since the death of her father in the late 1980s. She lives and survives on her own even in the bitter Siberian winters, when temperatures can drop to -65 degrees Fahrenheit.
She’s so spritely. It’s incredible. I was struggling wading in the river, and she was...almost prancing along, carrying heavy sacks.
Like many who learned the family's incredible story as it spread across Russia and the rest of the world, filmmaker Rebecca E. Marshall was completely fascinated by Lykova. But the articles and books Marshall read were missing a crucial element: Lykova's voice. In all those accounts, she "never saw Agafya finding the time herself to express herself as a person."
"She’s a kind of hermit that hasn’t chosen that lifestyle, in a way — she hasn’t rejected the world in a position of having known the world," Marshall tells Refinery29. "She knows the forest very intimately and that is her life and her world. I wanted to meet her in person."
So she did. Marshall and a small, all-female film crew traveled to meet Lykova, spending a week living alongside her in the pristine corner of the taiga she's called home for her entire life.
Lykova took a brief respite from her isolated world at the start of 2016, when she used a satellite phone given to her by a regional official to call for help with pain in her legs. She was airlifted to a hospital, but decided to return to the homestead alone after several days of treatment. Shortly after that news broke, Refinery29 spoke with Marshall to learn more about Lykova and her incredible life.
"With all the research, you make presumptions about someone, and I went thinking that she was going to be really lonely... And I thought she made drawings because I had seen in some of the articles about her that she had these drawings. So I kind of thought, So here is this person that even in the middle of nowhere has the very human urge to make marks about her life — I thought it was an incredible thing that...someone even on their own would need to make these marks; it’s like an ancient drive. And actually, she doesn’t do that. It was the journalists that asked her to do [the drawings]. When we asked her about it, she was laughing. I realized that she’s got a really good sense of humor, which didn't really come across in anything I had seen before.
"She’s quite cheeky. She isn’t lonely. She has hard times — fear of the cold, fear of the bears, fear of the illness — but I would say that I really sensed that she just communicated with her world of the forest and the animals that she lives among. And she’s busy surviving every day.
"Her life is structured through her prayer, and she says she’s not lonely because she has her icons...on the walls. And she has her guardian angel. One thing she just said was that at the end of every day, she tells her thoughts to God, but that he already knows not only her thoughts, but also her intentions. So her life is about keeping even her intentions pure."
Lykova, now 71, has kept her family's pledge for the past three decades, living in near solitude since the death of her father in the late 1980s.
"They’re an Orthodox sect that split away [from the Russian Orthodox Church]. When I went to visit some of her extended family that live in an Old Believers’ village, one of the women I spoke to basically said that they really believe that what goes around comes around.
"They are self-sufficient as much as possible. They don’t deal with money — even though they sell some pine oil and they pay for some basics like flour — and they have a school now with electricity. But really, they grow their own food, they have their own water from the river, their own livestock, and have a certain dress code. I suppose you could keep in mind the Amish people…they really don’t like to use things from the modern world.
"Agafya is particularly strict about it. They aren’t allowed to use photographs or anything with bar codes, which is to them the sign of the devil. They don’t take anything that’s manufactured. When [Agafya] was first taking gifts, they took her some honey. She wouldn't accept it in a glass jar, but would accept it in a wooden box. I do think things have relaxed for her a little bit… She’s had the priests visit her, and I think they’ve probably blessed her use of some things like a head torch, so she has things from the world that have been given to her as gifts that help her survive. She would not survive without them now."
Lykova took a brief respite from her isolated world at the start of 2016, when she used a satellite phone given to her by a regional official to call for help with an injured leg.
"I took a map, thinking I could show her where we’d come from. But it did not seem relevant, and she wasn’t really interested. She knows certain things that she’s heard on the radio [that one of her visitors brought along] in the past. She’s heard certain things, but she just felt it was bad things in the news. She has seen TV — and she has been into the town a few times.
"But I think that was the one thing that struck me... Her family asks, ‘Please, if you come live with us, we can help you. You can have a hut a ways away from us.' The Old Believers really live quite purely to their religion. Still, when you go to Agafya’s homestead, it’s so pristine. I have never been anywhere like that. Even when you go to Yosemite or something that’s pretty pristine, there’s still the traces of people. There are pathways, there are still things around, you’re aware of other folk in the vicinity.
"But when you really have gotten that far to her homestead, you're into the forest and your mind almost plays tricks on you. You see a flash of red, and you think it’s some litter or something, but it’s just berries. There’s nothing there. It’s just pristine nature, and it’s so clean and the air and everything is so vibrant. I could really see that if she went from that situation, to even the Old Believers' village, it just feels dirtier. And it feels full of things from the world. I can understand why she chooses to stay, knowing that she’s facing death alone there."
"While we were there in October, we were helping her pick carrots; huge, great, beautiful vegetables because the ground is so fertile there. There were cabbages growing. She has chickens that lay eggs. She was catching fish, which she was smoking. She was cutting them, gutting them, splaying them out, and putting them on a divide above the fire and smoking and drying them. That’s what I saw firsthand.
"She eats pine nuts. It’s seasonal, so she has to be very careful about storing the food because if she stores it badly, then it jeopardizes her for the months to come — particularly, of course, in the winter when food will be scarce and she’ll be reliant on her stores. Her mother died of starvation. The crops failed, and basically the mother gave her share of the food to her kids."
She’s quite cheeky. She isn’t lonely... She's busy surviving every day.
"They used to grow hemp and they were weaving, so she’s got a big weaving system. It is like 400 years old or something crazy, this type of system that they’re using to weave this clothing from the hemp seeds. When you start going into what they managed to do to live, we could talk about it for days. They were making felt shoes, felt boots, and just so much. They were making spades.
"Her teeth are all kind of worn down from grinding on pine nuts. Of course, she’s never cleaned them but they look really strong. I know when they’d have a toothache, they’d hold a hot potato near the mouth. From the pine trees, they’ve got the sap, which is medicinal. She has an ancient-looking book of herbal remedies; I don't know where she got that from, but the remedies are specific to the plant life of that specific area."
When you go to Agafya’s homestead, it’s so pristine. I have never been anywhere like that.
"In the past, before her father died, he was wanting to find a man who would take her as a [wife]. One man did come to the house, but it didn’t work out. I think because he wasn’t as strict as her with his religion. I think he smoked, which is really frowned upon, and he just didn’t want to stay in the forest. I think Yerofei [Sedov, one of the geologists who discovered the family, who ended up moving to the forest and becoming Lykova's closest neighbor] maybe would have wished to have been a man in her life, but she rejected that. They were just friends. Now she’s become a nun. I don't know when she actually became a nun, but again, she is just so strict. No one can match her."
Lykova made headlines this month when she sought help for leg injuries. Were you surprised that she reached out for assistance?
"I wasn’t surprised. People in the local town are very supportive of her. She’s very strong, and she’s very physical. Everything she does, she needs to move around, of course. She’s so spritely. It’s incredible. I was struggling wading in the river, and she was mincing along — almost prancing along — carrying heavy sacks. So I can see how if she had an issue with her foot, she probably didn't have much choice other than to call for help. I think it's the first time she’s ever used that satellite phone."
"At the moment we’ve got a couple of sequences, which we’re using to fundraise for perhaps another trip there. I realized that in the forests around her, there’s all this discarded space junk from rockets going overhead from the space station. It looks extraordinary. It throws [in] this kind of feeling that the environment is futuristic, almost post-technology.
"It made me realize that with her sense of time being very much seasonal, and being not marked by social senses of time, I think it’s a very good opportunity for us to reflect on our sense of time as well. Time is the most precious thing in our life, and we use it in increasingly frenetic ways. Personally, my days are hectic, hectic, hectic. When I was there, it was like: 'Wow, this feels different; how can I communicate this in the film?'"
What's the most important thing young women can learn from Agafya?
"The one thing I hadn’t really seen was just this childlike spirit that she has. And I think that just felt very special in that environment that I thought was going to be oppressive. It didn't feel oppressive, and...I would love for everyone to experience that kind of freedom."
Marshall's film, The Forest In Me, is being produced in conjunction with Cassiopeia Pictures, Plays2Place, and Executive Producer Nicole Stott's Passion Pictures. For more on the film, visit Marshall's website here. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.