By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
Jaw-dropping is a term ripe for overstatement. I mean, how often has your jaw literally dropped from awe or surprise? Recently though, I stumbled upon a 40 year old story retold at Smithsonian.com that made my mouth physically gape open. The article’s title was amazing enough: “For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of WWII.” “Well”, I said to myself, “this sounds intriguing.” Within three paragraphs, my jaw was touching my chest.
The Smithsonian.com piece retells the tale of the Lykov family. (For the full story, I highly recommend the whole article; but I will simply relay some the major details here.) The Lykovs had been living in the Siberian steppe, totally isolated from other people for forty years when they were discovered by a Soviet geological team in the mid-1970s. There were six family members living an amazingly hardscrabble existence in a small wood cabin deep within Russia’s expansive wilderness. The family was composed of a husband, wife, and their four children, the youngest two having been born in the Siberian wild. They literally had not seen another human since 1938.
The Lykovs were ‘Old Believers’, a conservative, traditional Eastern Orthodox Christian sect that had slowly been disappearing in Russia since the time of Peter the Great’s reign in the early 18th century. By the beginning of the twentieth century, and with the Russian Revolution of 1917, there were hardly any ‘Old Believers’ left. Joseph Stalin harshly persecuted the few remaining ‘Old Believers’ during the 1930’s. During 1937-38, Stalin was in the midst of one of his many ‘purges’ of state enemies, and the ‘Old Believers’ were not copacetic with Stalinist ideology. Like many other Russians, religious or secular, the ‘Old Believers’ were violently repressed. As one of the few professing Old Believers left, father Lykov moved farther and farther away from Stalinist ‘civilization’. After his brother was killed by Soviet agents, daddy Lykov packed up his family and moved into the Siberian wilderness. They would stay there for 40 years, ignorant of the horrors of the Twentieth Century. The family knew nothing of WWII, oblivious to the death of 20 million of their fellow Russians.
The family was living the life of ultra-ascetics. A primitive, asocial, and yet, devout lifestyle. My first thought was that these people were living like extreme monks. But, for the two youngest children, monastic life does not even describe the extremes of their existence. Whereas the parents and two older Lykov children had memories of the old world, of cities, communities, and a larger society, the two younger children had no knowledge of this lost world. Monks choose to live away from others after experiencing the social world. These two youngest girls had no choice in their absolute life of solitude. Their only connection to the outside world were stories of their parents; and the family Bible. Evidently, when the Soviet geologists found the family, and walked into their ‘hut’, they found rags for clothes; homemade furniture; etc. However, the Lykovs did have the prominent family Bible as one remnant of the civilization they left behind According to the article, “their only reading matter was prayer books and an ancient family Bible. Akulina (the mother) had used the gospels to teach her children to read and write, using sharpened birch sticks dipped into honeysuckle juice as pen and ink.”
So, how did these two youngest children, who never came into contact with strangers or the outside world, interpret the Bible? Would the stories, the prophecies, the parables make sense? Could these girls empathize with the tales of pain and glory. There is no doubt that the book of Genesis’ descriptions of man’s relation with nature would be understandable. But, what about the ethics espoused within the four gospels? What did ethics mean to two girls who had never seen another person? If you live completely asocially, do ethics even exist since you have no one to be ethical with?
“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The Lykov girls must ask, “What is a treasury? What is a crowd? What is money?” These things would mean nothing to them. More importantly though, these girls wouldn’t understand concepts such as inequality. They would not understand giving, poverty or social class. They would not understand hypocrisy. So, what would they get out of this story? I really wonder.
I need to make it clear that this has nothing to do with Christian ethical priniciples per se. Without ever coming into contact with others and partaking in a larger society, I believe no ethical code would make sense. Immanuel Kant’s ethics would be even harder to understand than usual. Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian ethics would be useless.
Perhaps this is why Aristotle stated:
“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”