Agafya Lykova

Agafya Lykova


The Phenomenon of Agafya Lykova and the Old Faith. Symbols of the Old Faith

Since the tragic schism of the Russian Church the Old Believers demonstrated the brightest examples of faith, confession and ascetism. In the middle of the 17th century the most vivid example of standing for faith was the feat of the brothers of the holy Solovetsky monastery. They refused to accept the church reform of Patriarch Nikon and were eventually killed by the Tsar’s troops. The monastery was under a siege for many years and became the symbol for monks’ and people’s resistance to the “undertakings out of love for the new things” by the Patriarch and Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich. After the devastation of the monastery the survived elders spread across the whole Orthodox Russia. They carried the message of the invincible confessors who commanded to hold on to the Old Faith.

Miloradovich, Sergey Dmitrievich. “The Black Council. The Uprising of the Solovetsky Monastery against the newly printed books in 1666”

As the works of Old Believers’ literature were created and spread, the apologists of the Old belief and their writings, in which they defended ancient church customs and traditions, become more and more important. In the beginning of the 18th century the name of archpriest Avvakum and his writings become one of the most significant symbols of the Old Faith. His works, including his autobiographical Life, his letters to Christians and to the Tsar and his theological treatises were rewritten in tens of thousands copies. Later, when during the reign of Empress Catherine II the chains of the state pressure were weakened, new examples and symbols of the Old Faith appear in Russia. A simple mention of Rogozhskoe, Preobrazhenskoe, Gromovskoe cemeteries, Irgiz monasteries and Kerzhenets hermitages was enough to make a Russian heart resound to the dear old tunes of ancient church tradition and true faith.

When in the 1830-ies the persecution of the old believers was resumed, its ideologists wanted to destroy or shake the symbols of the Russian ancient orthodoxy. The Irgiz and Kerzhenets monasteries were ruined, the altars of the churches of Rogozhskoe were sealed, the almshouses of the Preobrazhenskoe cemetery were closed as well as the other Old Believers’ centers. A hundred years later during the years of the Soviet power the new regime unleashed a total attack on the remaining cultural and spiritual heritage of the old believers. The atheists sought not only to physically intimidate Christians but to erase memory itself which had been almost accomplished by 1970-80-ies. Some people forgot about the faith of their ancestors completely. Others remembered about their roots, but could not find a way to the churches. Still others thought that it was long since the Old Faith disappeared. But then suddenly in 1982 the whole country started to discuss the Old believers. Why?

The Lykov Family. The Taiga Dead End?

“Komsomolskaya Pravda” newspaper was the first to tell about the Lykov family in 1982. Its special correspondent, author of the column “Window into NatureVasiliy Mikhailovich Peskov published a series of essays under the common title “Taiga Dead End”, devoted to the Old believers-“Chapelites” Lykovs, who lived near the river Yerinat in the mountains of the Abakan Range of the Western Sayan, Khakassia. The story of the family of hermits who haв not contacted the civilization for more than 40 years resonated provoked a strong resonance in the Soviet press. Everything was interesting for the readers: the local nature which fed the “taiga Robinsons”, the story of the Lykovs themselves, the ways of survival, elaborated during the years of solitary living in taiga andof course, the everyday-life, cultural and religious traditions which were the foundation of life of the mysterious hermits.

Later Peskov told that it was not easy for him to arrange for the publication of the materials about the Lykovs. For a long time he hesitated to approach that subject, for it was difficult to tell about hermits-Old believers in a youth newspaper without falling into “anti-religious exposure”. Then Peskov decided to show the human drama, to admire their resilience and to evoke the feeling of compassion and mercy in the readers. The book into which his reportages turned mostly told the story of the family, described the characters of its members and the specific of their everyday life. Very little space is devoted to the religious convictions of the Lykovs. The journalist did not conceal his atheistic views. He was prejudiced against any religion. According to the writer’s opinion, it was religion which brought the family into the “taiga dead end”. It was easy to notice the ironical intonation in regard to the Lykovs’ “darkness”, “ritualism” and “fanaticism”.

Peskov came to the hermitage in the woods for four years in a row and spent many days and hours as the Lykovs’ guest. But he could not correctly identify their religious affiliation. In his essays he mistakenly wrote that they belonged to the denomination[1] of stranniki (wanderers) while in fact they belonged to the denomination of chapelites. Nevertheless Peskov’s essays which grew into a book opened the story of life of an Old Believers’ family of Lykovs to the world. Psekov’s publications notonly helped the society to learn about the life of an Old Believers’ family, but in general awakened the interest to the subject of Old faith. During the same period the Academy of Sciences and other research institutions organized many expeditions to Siberia and Altay. Many scholarly and journalist publications devoted to the history and culture of the Old Believers of the Eastern part of Russia were their result. 

The Lykov family

A series of films was made about the Lykov’s hermitage and other Siberian desert-dwellers, who still remain in some amounts in the forests of Urals, Siberia and Altay. These films helped to create a positive image of the Old believers on the mass media. The Lykov family and especially Agafya Lykova are today an important media phenomenon. A phenomenon which have played the most important role in the Russian media-space. 

Journalists and film crews continue to visit the Lykovs’ refuge which was once secret and the footage shot there spread around through various TV-channels. Runet search emgines routinely show the high level of interest to the person of Agafya Lykova and the number of search queries on her name exceeds the ratings of any contemporary public figure of Old believers.

Uneasy life journey of the Lykovs

The Lykov family as many other families of Old believers moved to the remote areas of the country mainly due to the unprecedentedly prolonged persecution from the side of state and the official church. This persecution started in the second half og the 17th century and continued until the beginning of the 1990-ies. Christians who refused to recognize the church reform of Patriarch Nikon and the cultural reform of Peter I found them in the atmosphere of extreme religious intolerance. They suffered brutal executions, deprivation of civil rights, fiscal oppression. They were exiled and imprisoned for the external manifestation of their faith which was called “demonstration of schism”. The persecution sometimes calmed down, then resumed with renewed vigor, but never stopped completely.

Hundreds of thousands of old believers fled abroad. Today their descendants form Russian communities on all the continents of the world. Others tried to escape into an inner emigration; they settled in the poorly accessible and far remote places of the Ural, Siberia and Altay. The Lykov family belongs to this group. Their ancestors fled from the central Russia soon after the church schism to find refuge on the desert lands of the Ural and Siberia. According to the words of Agafya herself her grandmother Raisa was a nun at one of the old believers’ convents of the Ural situated at the village of Yalutorskoe, which had been founded on the place of “martyrdom” according to the tradition. Agafya Lykova remembers the old family tradition about a terrible tragedy which happened there in the 18th century. The government soldiers seized the old believers’ priests who tried to hide in those places. They could not make them to renounce their faith and executed them with a horrible execution: the priests were put into a barrel with nails and the barrel was let downhill. At the place where the barrel stopped a spring gushed out from the ground.

Karp Lykov and his family

The ancestors of the Lykov family lived in the village of Tishi, not far from the town of Abakan, Khakassia. After the revolution the “troops of special purpose” the aim of which was to terrorize the “hostile elements” started to appear near the village. Karp Osipovich Lykov and his brothers decided to move to a more solitary place. In the beginning of the 1930-ies karp osipovich brought himself a bride from Altay – Akulina Karpovna. Soon their children were born. A tragedy happened when the special services agents shot Karp’s brother Yevdokim in front of his eyes. After that event the Lykov family moved even further to taiga. In the end of 1930-ies Karp Lykov took his wife and children and left the community. They lived on their own for a few years and nobody disturbed them. However in autumn, 1945, an armed police detachment which searched for fugitive prisoners and deserters suddenly came across their refuge. 

Although the policemen did not suspect the Lykovs of any crimes, the latter still decided to move to another, even more secret place. Karp Lykov decided to move to a place where it was possible to live in complete isolation from state and civilization. The last and the remotest colony of thу Lykov family was founded on the Yerinat river. There their skills to live in the most extreme conditions were fully manifested. The scholars who later studies the everyday life of the Lykovs found out that the agricultural technologies employed by them were advanced, if we take into account the limited possibilities of the solitary natural economy. The plants were grown on the slope with an inclination of 45 degrees. The separation of garden beds took into account the specifics of the vegetation. The seeds of potato which was the major food crop for the Lykovs were dried and warmed in a special way and then checked for germination.

It is interesting that the example of the Lykovs who ate potatoes disproves the myths of the prohibition of certain foods by the old believers. The Lykovs managed to grow barley starting from one piece of a barley ear. Thanks to the meticulous care for those grains they managed to eat their first porridge there after a four years. It is interesting that there were no plant diseases or pests in their garden. When the scholars discovered their hermitage the Lykov family consisted of six people: Karp Osipovich (born around 1899), Akulina Karpovna and their children: Savin (born around 1926), Natalia (born around 1936), Dimitry (born around 1940) and Agafya (born 1944). Akulina Karpovna, the wife of Karp Osipovich was the first to die. Her death was connected to the bad harvest and hunger which stroke those regions in 1961. But the death of the wife and mother did not shake the economy of the hermitage. The Lykovs still provided everything necessary for themselves.

In addition to economic activity they were very thorough in keeping the calendar and difficult schedule of the divine services conducted at home. Savin Karpovich Lykov who was responsible for the church calendar calculated the calendar and the Paschalia precisely (probably according to the vrutseleto system — using the fingers of his hands). Thanks to this the Lykovs did not lose the count of timу and could follow the directions of the church typicon about the feasts and the fasting. The prayer rule was kept strictly according to the old printed books owned by the family. The contact with the civilization happened in 1978 and three years later the family started to die out. Dmitry Karpovich died in October 1981, Savin Karpovich in December and ten days later Agafya’s sister, Natalia. 7 years later on February 16, 1988, the head of the family Karp Osipovich passed away. Agafya karpovna was alone to stay alive. Scholars are inclined to think that the reason for the Lykovs’ death were the decease microorganisms brought by the city dwellers visiting their refuge. There is also an opinion that the reason for their death was the contact with the people from the world — zamirschenie.

Agafya Lykova and the Old Believers’ Church

After her father’s death in 1988 Agafya Lykova became the last inhabitant of the taiga hermitage. Since that moment the tу subject “taiga Robinsons” promoted by Vasily Peskov started to give place to the issues of historical and religious character. The freedom of conscience was unofficially proclaimed in the USSR since the celebration of the 1000 years of Baptism of Russia. Now it was allowed to tell about the spiritual life of our people. In 1990 the envoys of the Old Believers’ Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia Alimpy (Gusev) visited Agafya. Writer Lev Cherepanov, photographer Nikolay Proletsky and an Old Believer from Nizhny Novgorod Alexandr Lebedev took part in that expedition. The guests handed the epistle of metropolitan Alimpy, the candles made of the best beeswax, spiritual literature and lestovkas (Old believers’ rosaries) to Agafya.

Later, in Cherepanov’s articles and Lebedev’s essay “Taiga Clearance” published in Old Believers’ magazine “Church” important information about the spiritual life of the Lykovs surfaced. The readers finally learned not only about the handmade clothes of the Lykovs, and particularly of Agafya but about the cardinal reasons pertaining to the essence of faith which made not only the Lykovs but many other Old believers as well to flee from the oppression of the state and the temptations of this world. It was found out that Agafya inherited the faith of her parents who belonged to the so called “chapelites”. This part of the Old believers received priests who “fled” from the dominating Synodal Church. The priests who joined the “chapelites”, received a “correction” (isprava) and started to minister and perform the sacraments according to the pre-Schism Church tradition. This situation lasted till the beginning of the 19th century. However during the persecution raised by Nicolas II the number of priests dropped low. Many of them were seized by the police and died in prisons. Others died from natural reasons. After the death of the last priests whose baptism and Apostolic succession were indisputable for the “chapelites” they got used to perform services without priests and gradually became priestless.

Many chapelites kept the so called Spare Gifts — the bread and wine sanctified by a priest during the Liturgy. Such Spare Gifts were usually hidden in hiding places made inside books and icons. The amount of the Holy Gifts was very limited and not replenished since the chapelites’ priests disappeared — so the Old Believers took communion very rarelyб one or two times in their lifetime, usually before their death. According to Agafya in her family such Spare Gifts were preserved from her grandmother Raisa who lived at the Yalutorskoe khutor in the Urals. However Agafya found out that her grandmother belonged not to the chapelites’ but to the Belokrinitsa denomination of the Old believers (who accepted priests ordained by the Greek metropolitan Ambrose Popovich — note by the editor). The holy water which Agafya had was also from grandmother Raisa. (According to the custom of the chapelites this water is diluted with the new water during the service of the evening service of the Theophany feast).

Agafya Lykova. The way of searches

Having remained alone Agafya Lykova started to think about her further life. She did not manage to marry and started to think about becoming a nun. In 1990 she moved to an old believers’ convent situated in the region of Cheduralyg headed by hegumenia Maximilla. The nun’s prayer rule was not difficult for Agafya. When other members of the Lykov family were still alive Agafya performed the home prayer getting up at 6 in the morning. Later she mastered the everyday reading of the “12 Psalms” as well as the canons for the repose of the soul (“12 Psalms” is a prayer compilation including 12 selected psalms and special additional prayers. It appeared in the 9th century and was later spread in the monasteries of the East, including the Russian ones, where it was brought by the kievo-Pechersky archimandrite Dositheos in the 12th century — note by the editor). Agafya did not stay in the convent for a long time. However during her stay there the rite of “covering” (this is how tonsuring is called among the chapelites) was performed. Later Agafya had her own novices, for instance a Muscovite Nadezhda Usik, who spent 5 years in the Lykovs’ refuge.

Nadezhda UsikNadezhda Usik was an eye-witness to the strict ascetic life of Agafya Lykova, her spiritual exploits, including frequent, sometimes daring prayer. In some cases when black thunderclouds approached their hermitage during the periods of summer garden and field works, the novice suggested Agafya to stop work and shelter from the impending bad weather. Agafya answered: “Go and mow. Am I praying in vain?” And indeed the thundercloud moved away from the hermitage’s land.

Once the women were planning to go to taiga for a long time to gather cones. Suddenly there was a loud crunch: a bear was walking in the forest nearby. The beast was going around for the whole day although the women made the fire and struck the metal utensils. Agafya prayed the canons to the Mother of god and to Saint Nicolas which she knew by heart and then said to the bear: “Don’t you hear the Lord? It is time for you to leave”. As a result the danger has passed. Once a wolf came to the hermitage. It lived for a few months in the garden and fed himself with potatoes and other food given by the desert-dweller to him. Agafya does not have a fear before taiga, forest animals or solitude which is usual for the city-dwellers. If she is asked if it is not scary for her to live in such a wild and distant place, she answers:

I am not alone — and takes an icon of the Mother of God from her bosom. — I have the Three-handed Mother of God as my helper”.

In the 2000-ies someone gave Agafya Lykova the books by old believers’ bishop Arseny of Urals (Shvetsov), devoted to the apology of the old believers’ Church and hierarchy. She read the books carefully and made notes and underlining, according to the eye-witnesses. During those years Agafya continued the correspondence with the Metropolia of the Russian Orthodox Old-rite Church. In one of her letters to the primate of the Church Metropolitan Kornily (Titov) she wrote that her ancestors recognized the church hierarchy and prayed with the priests, who were later tortured to death during the persecution of the ancient Christianity. She also studied the life and exploits of the old believers’ metropolitan Ambrose of Belaya Krinitsa and became exactly sure in the truth and Orthodoxy of the Belokrinitsa hierarchy. She asked to complete her Baptism, to confess and communicate her with the Holy Christ’s Mysteries of Christ.

Agafya Lykova and the Russian Orthodox Old-rite Church

In November 2011 upon the blessing by metropolitan Kornily the dean of the Old believers’ church in Orenburg priest Vladimir Goshkoderya arrived at Agafya Lykova. Many priests, including the new believers, had visited Lykova before, but not an old believers’ priest. During a few days of his visit priest Vladimir performed the mystery of confession, completed the baptism according to the order of accepting from the priestless and gave Agafya the Holy Communion. In April 2014 agafya was visited by the primate of the ROOC metropolitan Kornily (Titov). On April 8, 2014 the Metropolitan arrived at Gorno-Altaysk, where he visited the local old believers’ community of the church of the icon of the Mother of God of Smolensk. On April 9 together with Agafya’s spiritual father priest Vladimir Goshkoderya and priest-monk Evagry (Podmazov) the Metropolitan arrived at the shore of the Yerinat river, where the hermitage is situated, by helicopter.

Photographs of Agafya Lykova

It is interesting that priest-monk Evagry who accompanied the Metropolitan was the native of those places and had joined the ROOC about ten years ago from the chapelites. The Metropolitan gave Agafya a copper icon of saint Nicolas cast according to the old pattern, facsimile editions of such favorite old believers’ books as “The Vision of Gregory” and “The Passions of Christ” as well as a lot of clothing and other necessary things. Waiting for the guests the owner of the forest refuge spread out the coloured rags on the floor, baked bread in the Russian oven and made a compote from taiga berries. Saying goodbyes at the helicopter Agafya gave a willow twig and invited him to visit the Lykov hermitage the next year.

Having learned about Agafya’s joining the ROOC the instructors of priestless attempted to change her mind and to frighten her. A famous instructor of the chapelites Zaytsev even came to the Yerinat to convince her that her choice had been a mistake: “Why did you join that church? What have you done? Whom did you accept?” The same was the tone of the letter by abbess Maximilla: “Why did you accept anybody? You are finished now, leave that place and come to us!” However Agafya did not succumb to the entreaties and became even more convinced that she was right. These are the Lykovs: once they have decided something they do not go back. Telling about heк arguments with the priestless, Agafya says:

If the priesthood terminated the world would also terminate. There would be thunder and we would not be in this world anymore. The priesthood will exist until the very last Second coming of Christ.



Today Agafya Lykova is the most popular media figure among the old believers. She is well known beyond the old believers’ world. Surprisingly, no contemporary old believers’ hierarch, scholar, theologian or essayist could influence the information space as strongly as the lonely hermit Agafya from the shores of the Yerinat. The image of Lykova is already inextricably bound with the old faith itself. We can say that Lykova in the eyes of our compatriots has unwillingly become the symbol for the Old believers’ oikoumene and her bright characteristic features are connected with the Old faith as a whole. On the one hand it is the infinite fortitude of spirit, astounding endurance, patience, skill to survive in the most difficult, even extreme circumstances. It is the unconditional standing for Faith, readiness to suffer for your convictions. We see in her inquisitive mind, inventiveness, lively interest to the destiny of the world, a skill to cope with nature and traditional Russian hospitality.

On the other side there are people who say that certain features of the life of Agafya Lykova have spoiled the image of the Old faith in the eyes of contemporaries. They mean isolationism, wildliness, spiritual conservatism, following the outdated primitive technologies and customs. “We live in the forest and pray to a wheel” — this is how some authors from the capital characterize the old believers pointing at Lykova. The others object: the history knows not only the fleeing and hiding old believers but also active, enlightened and passionary. This is the Old Faith of industrialists and philanthropists, writers, art collectors and discoverers. It is undoubtedly true!

But to prove it it is not enough to quote the example of ancestors who lived in the 19th–20th centuries which become ever more distant. The Old faith must generate new ideas and give example of live faith and participation in the life of the country today. As for the unique experience of Agafya Lykova and other old believers, who hide from the temptations of this world in the forests and clefts of the land, it will never be unnecessary. The achievements of civilization are ephemeral and Christians know better than all others that history is not only very changeable but is finite as well.


[1] A group of Old Believers unified by common doctrine is called “soglasie” — “agreement”.