The solitary voice of man

By Oleg Nekhaev

I happened to meet with hermits on various occasions during my travels, people who had chosen to live in the wilds of the Siberian taiga. These recluse had travelled voluntarily to the middle of nowhere, leaving their own world behind, sacrificing the benefits of the modern civilized world. Why? 

I must have read two dozen works by renowned psychologists on the problem of loneliness but failed to find an answer to the question. The scientists' conclusions just did not mesh with what I had seen in real life. Many researchers describe loneliness as an illness, a reflection of our inner flaws. Others take a slightly more patronizing stance describing loneliness as a condition in which the individual is incapable of adapting to life. They agree on one thing however: it is an affliction. And according to survey data, the majority of the world's population are familiar with it bitter taste.

I met the hermit Ivan Zhukov at Lake Agulskoe in the Sayan mountains. The areas in which he lives are incredibly beautiful, preserved, and very remote. So remote, that you can only get there by helicopter.

Ivan Zhukov explained his presence in the wilds very simply: "I am protecting all this from poachers." The "Mi-2" crew and I laughed, and pestered him with questions: "Who is there to protect it from if, as you say, there will not be another scheduled helicopter for the next six months, if it arrives at all?! Your flour is already running out. You should be worried you do not perish yourself”. But Ivan Zhukov did not seem to hear me: "The 'new Russians' have started hovering in the skies. And none of them are out here for the beauty."

Two gunshots rang out towards evening. One of the helicopter pilots had decided "to take a solitary wander" with a rifle. The lake was still covered in ice, despite the warmth of May, and lower down at the mouth of the river there was a thawing hole in the ice. There the helicopter pilot had taken a shot at two unsuspecting ducks, who Zhukov had been chatting to all winter in neighbourly fashion.

The guardian of the lake did not sermonize with us, he simply confiscated the gun to keep watch over it, and as an aside said, "and you wonder who all this needs to be protected from." The incident had awakened a life force from deep inside Zhukov and it made itself felt, one against the four of us. The next day we still could not look him in the eye. We all felt guilty about what had happened.

Prior to the incident one of us had referred to him as 'Vanka'. Afterwards, even when talking amongst ourselves he was always Ivan. Something shifted in all of us after that meeting with the Agulskoe hermit. In his case the psychologists' phrase "the loss of social relationships is the path to depression" should be flushed down the toilet. More fitting would be a quote from Robert Seidenberg: "The individual 'I' leaves drop by drop, and only the lucky few hear the warning bell."

I met Vasily Kolpakov on the Chadobets River in the taiga of the Angara region. I had been driven here previously when I was photographing the black stork, a remarkably rare and secretive bird. This time I had to ask permission to stay next door. The unknown hermit lived by an abandoned meander inhabited with snow-white lilies. Vasily greeted us and then rushed off to check a fish trap in the stream. He demonstrated his hospitality with freshly caught fish and his undisguised delight. There was no time for long conversation though. Everyone was busy with their own task. Vasily was preparing his wooden hut for the cold months to come. He repaired the roof, caulked the cracks with moss, collected bark for the interior and decisively turned down my offers of help.

We only began to talk once he had reached for a box of matches and taken a few draws on a much-needed “roll-up”.

At this moment I would have liked to look the psychologist in the eye who wrote that seclusion is a way of “running away from difficulties”. Instead of hands, Vasily Kolpakov had stumps. He was officially an invalid of the severest type. What made him choose solitude?

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Translated by Joanna Dobson

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