Translation by Jennifer Castner.
Forty-eight-year-old Andrei Rasputin has been living alone deep in Siberia’s taiga forest for four years. He lives in Russia’s Republic of Buryatia, north of Mongolia and near Lake Baikal. Twice a year, he emerges from the forest to restock his supplies and visit relatives. Otherwise, he has no interest in events of the wider world. Once a lawyer, he now claims that he is happy with his life in the taiga despite the solitude and almost complete lack of civilization’s benefits.
The taiga, comprised mostly of pine, spruce and other coniferous trees, stretches across Eurasia from the Pacific coast, throughout Siberia, to Scandinavia. This extensive biome picks up again in North America, where it’s known as the boreal forest, and continues west through Canada to Alaska, separating the tundra to the north from the continents’ temperate regions to the south.
Rasputin first discovered the taiga as a 10-year-old boy. He was born in a village in Buryatia called Karaftit, which means “crane place” in the language of the Evenks, an Indigenous people of the Russian north. Rasputin was the oldest of seven children. His father was a miner, and his mother an elementary school teacher. He often ventured into the forest with his father and younger brother and was stunned by the world he found: forest landscapes, wild animals, and the sounds and smells of the woods. But in those years, he could not imagine that someday he would stay in these woods forever.
In this interview, Rasputin traces his childhood experiences in the taiga to his choice to enter the woods permanently, and the purpose he’s discovered in a life of isolation.
This article is part of a collaborative, journalism initiative between Earth Island Journal and Ecology and Business, an environmental journal based in Vladivostok, Russia that covers environmental issues in Eurasia. Translations from Russian are being provided courtesy of Earth Island’s The Altai Project.
What were your first experiences in the taiga?
Our father often took us hiking in the taiga. In the summer, he cut firewood for a geological prospecting camp and took me and my brother with him. My first trip to the forest was when I was 10 and my brother 7. After that we went all the time. We would hike as many as 40 kilometers, camping along the banks of streams and waking to the sound of the wind. I saw these beautiful landscapes, smelled the scents, and heard the sounds. I had the sense that this was where real life happened. All of this had a big impact on me. I never lost that connection to those childhood impressions.
Was it then that you decided to live in the forest?
No, I did not have time to even think about it then. I had to help my mother raise my sisters and brothers, so I went to work right after graduating from high school. I worked as a driver, builder, hunter, lumberjack, and gold prospector. The 1990s were especially hard. Unemployment was high. There was never enough money for anything.
I took my first solo multi-day trip in 2007. First, it was a few days, then a week, then I began staying for months. I built a winter hut and got settled in the wild forest. I took an interest in photography. I took pictures of wild animals, nature, everything I saw. I found medicinal plants and sold them later in the village. I hunted sable and gathered mushrooms and berries. I loved to fish. In other words, I wasn’t going to starve in the taiga.
But you kept coming back to the wider world?
It seemed to me like I was wasting my life [in the woods], that I could be doing something useful for society. I moved to Ulan-Ude [the capital of Buryatia] and went to law school. I wanted to be a lawyer. But by my third year, I knew this wasn’t what I needed.
Why? What happened?
Well, to start with, we are too often deceived. It’s said that Russia is a country of laws and a lot is said about rights, democracy. As students we were taught that the police will protect us, but I saw how they beat peaceful citizens. Sometimes in the news they showed police torturing evidence out of suspects. I watched all of this and understood that everything around me was just not right. I was especially outraged by the corruption: when the powers that be stole money again and again, millions and even billions of rubles, during construction. And really, bureaucrats steal any time it is convenient. It troubles me that China has strict anticorruption laws but we don’t. Bureaucrats in China cannot openly thieve, buy themselves second homes, cars, or build entire mansions. And dual citizenship is forbidden there. There are many other countries and examples of how government bureaucrats must work in the system, but here, they are permitted to do anything.
I don’t like the politics of our state overall. There’s no order. This country has the richest resources, yet our standard of living is so poor. Dairy farmers and bakers earn 15,000 rubles per year, but bureaucrats and athletes earn millions monthly. Where is the justice?
I finished my degree, but I went to work in the forest, felling trees for firewood and selling it.
What made you decide to go live in the forest for good? What was the last straw?
I am not a fan of technology, and, to a certain degree, I’m even opposed to technological progress. In the technocratic world, everyone is always busy, earning money for a place to live, utilities, debt, insurance, having a car. For poor quality groceries that cost three times more. Why should I want that? That’s not life, it’s torment.
Tell us how you live now. How have you arranged your life?
I’ve made a home in the forest, about 200 kilometers from Bagdarin village. I’ve built two buildings, a banya [sauna] bathhouse, summer kitchen, hayloft, and stalls for livestock. I brought in a milk cow and a calf to make my own natural foods: milk, sour cream, cheese.
I try to eat simply: oats, rice, dried fruits, and milk from my own farm. I also eat fish that I catch in the river. Regarding alcohol, Avicenna once said, “Everything is evil, everything is medicine.” Sometimes I drink, sometimes I don’t.
I set up solar panels and now I have lighting and battery storage. The solar panel is inexpensive and low-power — 100 watts — just enough to light the room and charge my phone. I don’t need more than that. I cook on the woodstove and over a fire in the summer. I bathe and do laundry in the banya. I generate minimal trash. Some of that I burn in the stove, other things I bury in a pit, covering it up and starting a new one once it fills.
For money, I gather and dry medicinal plants for sale. I hunt for sable because it’s important to keep their population under control. I think it is wrong to hunt other animals. It is only okay to kill animals if you are starving. I’ve made many paths in the wild forest, and I know the most beautiful places and take lots of photographs.
You have photos of many wild animals taken from a fairly close range. How did you achieve this?
I have a good camera, but that’s not why. And it’s not that the animals don’t fear me either. It is just that when you spend a lot of time in the forest, you gather experience. I study and already know how animals behave. It’s a whole science. You need knowledge, experience, and a feel for nature. I’ve also had unexpected and dangerous face-to-face encounters with bears, but thankfully they have ended well. For animals, the scariest smell in the world is that of humans; they can’t stand it.
Aren’t you curious about the world and what’s going on out here?
No hermit can exist outside the state. For example, we can’t grow wheat or make flour, so bread must be bought in the store, as well as other necessary things. So, of course, once or twice a year I go to the village to restock my supplies. I’ve never needed medical care. I’m almost never sick, and when I am, decoctions of medicinal herbs help. I exercise, don’t smoke, and don’t abuse alcohol, so I expect to live a long time. But, who knows, I may also need the help of doctors or the police.
What do you see as your purpose?
A person comes to Earth with only one purpose: to develop their soul. Money and all things material come from evil. Humans exist to help and give back. To create love and good.
I’ve already published two photography books and am preparing a third. The books are sold in book stores in Ulan Ude. I’m also writing a collection of stories and parables. It’s possible that my life’s mission is to have at least one person look at my photographs of nature or read the stories I have written and come to understand that life on Earth is not finite — and that we need to engage in the development of our souls and not spend our lives on the race for material goods.
How does it feel to be alone for so many months at a time?
I do just fine without interaction. I can pick up a book to read or go for a walk in the forest – no boredom. I think that it is only worth socializing with an intelligent person, someone that can I can learn from. And generally speaking, even in solitude, a person can’t feel flawed or bored. Solitude is a gift, a blessing. It is a chance to think about the meaning of life, to see omens, to feel the existence of higher forces. After all, nature is an intermediary between God and man. And I have a unique opportunity to see these signs everywhere. Confirmation that God is near and exists. In nature, these signs are everywhere. They are visible in everything: in smells, patterned cobwebs, dew drops, leaves of trees, deer, even in the buzz of a lone mosquito in the night.
Some might see your reclusive choice as an eccentric escape from responsibility, from the worries of life in the world.
I have plenty of cares too. Starting early in the morning, I take care of my livestock, take care of a large farm, prepare feed for the livestock, cook food for myself, and more. By the way, recently I’ve been tracking wolves that have been after my calves and cows. My brave dogs have stopped a few attacks on the cattle. So, there is plenty going on here, believe me. It’s not a question of escape. It just that my current way of life is more to my liking, but I don’t impose my views on other people. Everyone lives however they prefer.
You say you don’t need interaction with others, but would you like to find like-minded people who would like to live nearby?
I’d be glad to find people who also dream of living in the forest, making a life and working. If such people turned up, it could even be possible to create a little village here. It’s possible there are other people like me in our country, people who want to live this way. I’m ready to help them, give shelter, and share my knowledge with them. I’d be happy to get a letter from them – maybe we can find each other.
This article is part of a collaborative, environmental justice and indigenous rights journalism initiative between Earth Island Journal and Ecology and Business, an environmental journal based in Vladivostok, Russia that covers environmental issues in Eurasia. Translations from Russian are being provided courtesy of Earth Island’s The Altai Project.
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