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Belmont Club

Escape from Shangri-la

February 1st, 2013 - 11:36 am

The Smithsonian Magazine relates how of a “lost” tribe of Christians was found in the Siberian taiga in the late ’70s. It’s true the tribe consisted of only a single family who had cut themselves off from human contact for 40 years but their attempt, though small was grand. They had not even been aware that World War 2 had been fought.  It was led by a patriarch who consciously decided to live away atheist bolshevism by retreating into the deepest corner of Siberia.

They did not resist or offer unpleasantness when a team of Russian geologists found them who were astounded by the story

Slowly, over several visits, the full story of the family emerged. The old man’s name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer—a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday; for him, Peter was a personal enemy and “the anti-Christ in human form”—a point he insisted had been amply proved by Tsar’s campaign to modernize Russia by forcibly “chopping off the beards of Christians.” But these centuries-old hatreds were conflated with more recent grievances; Karp was prone to complain in the same breath about a merchant who had refused to make a gift of 26 poods [940 pounds] of potatoes to the Old Believers sometime around 1900.

Things had only got worse for the Lykov family when the atheist Bolsheviks took power. Under the Soviets, isolated Old Believer communities that had fled to Siberia to escape persecution began to retreat ever further from civilization. During the purges of the 1930s, with Christianity itself under assault, a Communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother on the outskirts of their village while Lykov knelt working beside him. He had responded by scooping up his family and bolting into forest.

Once Soviet modernity found them it’s appeals were hard to resist. The family lived in a hut whose appurtenances were maintained by ingenuity which would have put Robinson Crusoe to shame, but it was very poor. The geologists began dismantling the family’s world unintentionally almost at once — with modern gifts, each an unimaginable treasure. ” By dint of thoughtless generosity, first one then another and over time, yet more, their world was melted down. Yet within them remained a core of indissoluble resistance to assimilation.

Karp held grimly to his status as head of the family, though he was well into his 80s … Karp Lykov fought a long and losing battle with himself to keep all this modernity at bay. When they first got to know the geologists, the family would accept only a single gift—salt. (Living without it for four decades, Karp said, had been “true torture.”)

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the Lykovs’ strange story was the rapidity with which the family went into decline after they re-established contact with the outside world. In the fall of 1981, three of the four children followed their mother to the grave within a few days of one another. According to Peskov, their deaths were not, as might have been expected, the result of exposure to diseases to which they had no immunity. Both Savin and Natalia suffered from kidney failure, most likely a result of their harsh diet. But Dmitry died of pneumonia, which might have begun as an infection he acquired from his new friends.

His death shook the geologists, who tried desperately to save him. They offered to call in a helicopter and have him evacuated to a hospital. But Dmitry, in extremis, would abandon neither his family nor the religion he had practiced all his life. “We are not allowed that,” he whispered just before he died. “A man lives for howsoever God grants.” …

Karp Lykov died in his sleep on February 16, 1988, 27 years to the day after his wife, Akulina. Agafia buried him on the mountain slopes with the help of the geologists, then turned and headed back to her home. The Lord would provide, and she would stay, she said—as indeed she has. A quarter of a century later, now in her seventies herself, this child of the taiga lives on alone, high above the Abakan.

She will not leave. But we must leave her, seen through the eyes of Yerofei on the day of her father’s funeral: I looked back to wave at Agafia. She was standing by the river break like a statue. She wasn’t crying. She nodded: ‘Go on, go on.’ We went another kilometer and I looked back. She was still standing there.

The Lykovs had attempted on a small scale what Brigham Young had tried to do and what the residents of the fictional Village had also essayed in vain. To create a world of their own; to live according to their lights, neither seeking to amend the lives of others nor to let others amend theirs.

It’s an old yet curiously persistent human aspiration.

President Roosevelt who did more than any modern president, save one, to promote the collective was strangely and ironically attracted to the vision of a community existing apart from the troubles of the world, as if the best place to be was out of reach of London, Washington or Moscow.

Had FDR heard of the Lykovs he would immediately have recognized the patriarch, the descent of the sky machine into the lost valley and the death of its sheltered inhabitants once in contact with the outside world as archetypes from one of his favorite books. He would have recognized them as characters from Shangri-la.

United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, being considerably fond of Hilton’s novel, named the presidential retreat, now known as Camp David, “Shangri-La” in 1942. After the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942, when asked where the bombers came from, he quipped “Shangri-La”. Later in the war, the United States Navy would launch an Essex-class aircraft carrier named the Shangri-La (CV-38), as a result of this reference.

One of history’s curiosities is that attraction of “the strange ultimate dream of the Valley of Blue Moon for men of the world” should be so strong in Roosevelt. Perhaps he knew what Lykov believed; and which we ordinary people only guess in the end: that it is paradise which we seek though we seldom find it.

In fiction those who leave Shangri-la can regain it if they try hard enough. We must certainly doubt it “Do you think he will ever find it?”, one of Conway’s friends asks at the end when he struggles to regain what he once had but lost. The James Hilton book gives no answer, but Frank Capra did. “Shangri-la. My Shangri-la!”

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The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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