I remembered the days of old, and I meditated on all Your works; I meditated on the works of Your hands (Psalm 142:5), – once said the holy prophet king David. Therefore, an understanding of where we need to go arises from whether we have faith in God and how we learn from the achievements and mistakes of our ancestors.
In Rus’, the Orthodox faith was and remains the pivot that unites the country. And therefore, in order to be reborn after spiritual chaos, the Russian people must return to those values, traditions and customs of the Orthodox faith and culture, which give meaning to life, strength in the struggle against the enemies of Orthodoxy and support in defending the Homeland.
The Old Belief is not just some kind of different view on Orthodox Christianity, as some try to present on occasion, but it is Christianity in its purest and most unalterable form – our historical experience today can help the Russian people on the path of rebirth.
This experience consists of: relying on God’s help; in self-organisation; upholding the national Russian way of life, customs and culture; a strong large family, and; pious religious upbringing of the younger generation in honourable, conscientious work. Also, in good-neighbourly relations with the surrounding non-Orthodox and secular society, and in unity in all matters for the good of our Motherland, if, of course, this unity does not contradict religious convictions.
I would like to consider the theme of the unity of our history with only one, but, as I deem, convincing example.
In April of this year, I had the opportunity to visit a well-known Old-believer woman who lives a reclusive life in the Siberian taiga. Her name is Agafia Lykova. I am sure that this is not an empty sound for many of those present in this room: in the 1980s, the story of a family of hermits who had not been in contact with civilization for more than 40 years had the strongest resonance in the Soviet press.
As is well known, the newspaper “Komsomolskaya Pravda” first spoke of the Lykov family; its special correspondent Vasily Peskov published a series of essays under the general title “The Taiga’s Dead End” devoted to the family of Old-believers who lived along the Yerinat River in the Sayan Mountains. Everything was interesting to readers: the local environment which fed the “taiga’s Robinsons”, the history of the Lykov family, the ways of survival that they had developed over the years of their solitary life in the taiga, and, of course, the everyday and cultural traditions that served as support for them. The Lykov’s religious convictions in Peskov’s essays were given little room. The Soviet journalist was biased towards any religion and did not hide his atheistic views. Despite the fact that he came to a taiga zaimka (a settlement occupied by the first arriving occupant) for four years in a row and spent many days visiting the Lykovs, he could not understand their spiritual world.
Nevertheless, his essays, which were later published as a separate book, revealed to the world the story of the lives of one family of Old-believers and aroused general interest in the topic of the Old Belief. Several films were made about the zaimka used by the Lykovs and other Siberian sketes, which, as it turned out later, were still preserved in the forests of the Urals, Siberia and Altai, appearing as an exotic phenomenon of modernity; I must say, they helped to create in the minds of an atheistic society a positive image of the Old-believers.
But for that part of the populace composed of Old-believers, there was nothing particularly exotic in the fate of Lykovs. Since the 17th century, many thousands of families of Old-believers, as well as the Lykov family, moved to remote areas of the country, mainly because of the unprecedented severe and prolonged persecution. These persecutions persisted with small, by historical standards, interruptions until the early 90s of the twentieth century. Christians who refused to accept the church reforms of patriarch Nikon and the cruel transformations of Peter the Great were in a situation of extreme religious oppression. They were subjected to the most severe executions, civil disfranchisement and fiscal oppression. For the outward manifestation of faith, for the so-called “rendering of the Raskol”, they were exiled and thrown into prison. Periodically, the persecutions subsided and resumed with renewed vigour, but they never completely stopped. Hundreds of thousands of Old-believers fled beyond the borders of the Russian state and, today, their descendants form Russian communities in many countries around the world. Others tried to escape via internal emigration, where they settled in inaccessible and remote areas of the Urals, Siberia and Altai.
These include the Lykov family. Their ancestors fled from central Russia shortly after the church’s Raskol to find refuge in the deserted lands of the Urals and Siberia. The ancestors of the head of the family, Karp Osipovich Lykov, lived in the village of Tishi near the city of Abakan. When, after the 1917 revolution, detachments of the CH.O.N (a special task service instigating terror against “elements hostile to Soviet power”) began to appear in the vicinity of the village, Karp Osipovich and his brothers decided to move to a more remote place and moved deeper into the taiga. Nobody bothered them for many years. However, in the autumn of 1945, an armed group of militia stumbled upon the shelter of the Old-believers. It was then that Karp Lykov decided to go to the distant tracts of the Yerinat River, where the last, the most remote, zaimka of the Lykov family was founded.
Here their abilities to live in extreme conditions were fully manifested. Academics who subsequently investigated the life of the Lykovs, found that the agricultural technologies that they used on their site were advanced (given the limited opportunities for secluded subsistence farming).
Contact with civilization occurred for the Lykovs in 1978, and three years later, family members began to die. At the end of 1981, Agafia’s brothers Dmitry and Savin passed away and soon after, her sister Natalia. In February 1988, the head of the family, Karp Osipovich, died. Only Agafia Karpovna was left alive. Academics are inclined to believe that the cause of the Lykovs’ deaths could be the pathogenic microbes brought to the zaimka by city dwellers.
After the death of her father, Agafia remained the sole inhabitant of the taiga zaimka. At this time, the theme of the exotic “taiga’s Robinsons”, promoted by Vasily Peskov, began to recede into the background. Freedom of conscience, surreptitiously announced in the USSR after the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’, finally allowed us to talk about the spiritual life of our people. Publications appeared (by the writer Leo Cherepanov and our Old-believer essayist A. S. Lebedev), in which were revealed those cornerstone religious reasons that forced the Lykovs, like many other Old-believers, to flee from the oppression and temptations of this world. It became clear that the family of Agafia Lykova belonged to the Old-believers originally of the Chasovenni denomination, who joined the Belokrinitskaya hierarchy. Agafia’s grandfather served as an Old-believers’ priest and suffered from the Soviet rule, being tortured to death by atheists.
After the death of her relatives, Agafia Lykova moved to an Old-believers’ female monastery located in Khakassia, but she did not stay there for long and returned to her zaimka. Subsequently, she had her own novice, a girl from Moscow, who spent five years in the Lykov’s skete. The novice saw the strict, ascetic life of Agafia and her spiritual exploits, including sincere, audacious prayer. There were cases when terrible thunderclouds were approaching during gardening or field work. The novice suggested to Agafia to stop work and take shelter from the approaching thunderstorm, to which Agafia answered: “Go, mow; do I pray in vain, or what?” And indeed, the clouds retreated. One time the women were in the taiga, gathering pine cones away from home. Suddenly, near the place where they stopped there was a loud crunch – a bear walked in the forest near them. The beast walked around the whole day, despite the campfire and strikes on metal utensils. Agafia prayed, reading the canons of the Mother of God and Nicholas the Wonderworker, then said to the bear: “Well, can’t you hear the Lord, or what? It’s time for you to leave already!” After that, the bear left.
Agafia has no fear of the taiga, forest beasts and demons typical of city dwellers. When she is asked, isn’t it scary to live alone in such a wilderness, she replies: “I’m not alone,” and she reaches for the Icon of the Mother of God from her bosom, “I have the Three-Hand Helper.”
In recent years, via journalists who visited Agafia, the metropolitanate of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church began to receive letters in which Agafia Karpovna asks people close to her in spirit, who have the opportunity and desire to leave the world for a while, to come to help her in prayer and household works. Since then, Agafia periodically has Old-believers from Moscow, Siberia and the Urals.
Agafia Lykova also wrote to me and invited me to visit. In April of this year, I had the opportunity to visit her taiga retreat. Our small delegation arrived in Gorno-Altaisk and early in the morning of April 9, we flew by helicopter to the bank of the Yerinat River, where Agafia Karpovna’s zaimka was located. Our visit coincided with her birthday; on this day she turned 69 years old. For our arrival, the hostess had laid homemade multi-coloured rugs on the floor, baked bread in a Russian oven and treated us to compote and jam made from taiga berries. Agafia herself eats very little and mostly plant-based food; she has never tried wine. She is childishly trusting, open and sociable, with a kind smile on her face. She cares little about her appearance and clothes, her hands have turned dark and hardened from constant work with the earth and the stoking of the oven. Labour, combined with prayer, became a source of vigour and longevity for her. Agafia has goats and recently three goatlings, chickens, dogs, cats and she cultivates a vegetable garden where she plants potatoes, carrots, radishes, beets and other vegetables. She spins and knits from linen and wool, reading psalms from memory.
Although Agafia does not have monastic tonsure, she diligently follows the instructions for monks, fulfilling the monastic prayer rule; she commits the full liturgical cycle on feast days according to old books, which are carefully kept. In their family, it was decided when everyone went off to work, to leave one person to pray to God, and they usually left Agafia.
In a conversation with her, I asked about her future plans. In response, Agafia Karpovna informed me of her intention to fulfil her father’s testament not to leave their forest shelter – “tyatyen’ka blessed (me)” (an affectionate name for father). Despite some difficult moments she experienced last winter, including running out of food, firewood and hay by the end of winter, being very sick at one time, and on occasion worrying about bears who, in search of food called on her zaimka and even climbed into her barn – Agafia is not discouraged, laying her trust in the Lord and the Mother of God.
Seeing us to the helicopter and giving us willow twigs, Agafia thanked us for the visit, asked us to pray for her and invited us to the anniversary names day next year, on the second day of Pascha.
It is these people, their destinies, in my mind, that contribute to strengthening the unity of our history and our people. They give everyone who associates with them a sense of the deep connection with the Creator, instil faith into our own strength and provide an example of solid self-standing and success in the struggle for independence.