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Lost Believers

A Novel

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About The Book

“A beautiful, mournful novel about faith gravely tempered by grief and the brutal iron of modernity bringing the greatest of losses. Zhorov’s voice is fresh and appealing.” —Joy Williams, author of The Visiting Privilege and Harrow

A rich, immersive debut novel, inspired by true events, about a meeting between two women in 1970s Soviet Russia—a deeply religious homesteader living in isolation with her family on the Siberian taiga and an ambitious scientist—that irrevocably alters the course of both of their lives.

Galina, a promising young geologist from Moscow, is falling in love with her pilot, Snow Crane, on an expedition for minerals in Siberia. As their helicopter hovers over what should be a stretch of uninhabited forest, they see a small hut and a garden—and, the following day, when they hike from their field camp to the hut, they find a family.

Agafia was born in Siberia into a family of Old Believers, a small sect of Christians who rejected the reforms that shaped the modern Russian Orthodox church. Her parents, fleeing religious persecution four decades earlier, journeyed deep into the snowy wilderness, eventually building a home far away from the dangerous and sinful world. Galina and Snow Crane are the first people she has ever met outside of her immediate household. As the two women develop a friendship, each becomes conflicted about futures that once seemed certain and find themselves straining against their past: Galina can’t shake the confines of her Soviet upbringing, and Agafia’s focus drifts from her faith to the beauty of the relentlessly harsh taiga. Underneath it all, Galina begins to see how her work opening mines threatens both Agafia and her home, and mirrors the exploitation of the natural world happening across the Soviet Union.

A vivid and illuminating novel about faith, fate, and freedom against the backdrop of 1970s Soviet life, Lost Believers is an unforgettable journey.

Excerpt

Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1 Г∧ава 1
Agafia was walking along the rows of susurrating wheat and potato stalks when the valley exhaled a peal of thunder. Booming in the near distance, it brought to mind the rumbling rains that had put out the most recent grass fire. She pushed a finger into the soil to feel for moisture and squinted at the incongruously clear skies.

It had been a hard winter and the spring had brought wildfires and unpredictable weather. Summer had rolled in slowly. A sheet of thin wispy cloud had blocked out the long gray season before itself dissolving into blue skies. Work came easy when the sun shone the family’s way, without the heavy blanket of snow to burden their movements. They had spent those early warm days rushing around the homestead, every atom in their bodies sped up by the thawing air. What they accomplished early—the planting, the cleaning, the preparations—would determine the whole year ahead, and the weeks had filled with organized chaos.

Dima had chopped wood, Hugo and Natalia had hacked at the still-cold ground to prepare it for planting, and Agafia had walked the dug rows inserting seeds into the dirt one by one. She was the one they trusted to make things grow, to eke out something from the unwilling ground. Sometimes Agafia had become distracted, her concentration blurred by the emerging greenness just beyond the field. It’s that when the seasons changed, her feet and fingers extended beyond her gloves and shoes, unfurling like ostrich fern fiddleheads. Her siblings also changed, turned their broad faces to the sun to warm like smooth river stones and tucked wisps of hair behind their ears to open them to the sound of rushing water. Natalia wasn’t prone to let Agafia dream long—she had shoved her in the side, urging her progress. Agafia had resumed her rounds, murmuring to each seedling under her breath as she covered it with soil. She hadn’t been sure the seeds were still good.

But sprouts had pushed up in green lines and Agafia had crossed herself, her pointer and middle fingers extending out to touch her forehead, just above her belly, then one shoulder and the other. Amen. Here they were with a garden in full bloom, their fortunes tenuously reversed.

The thunder worried her.

The helicopter was a hulking metal box painted olive green and stripped inside except for two seats and instrumentation. Its lumpy chairs gave off a mild animal smell, unwashed camel hair or squirrel fur. The mission was classified as highly important, and Galina, its leader, had no trouble convincing the military to hand over the helicopter for the entire summer. She told the general that the work would ultimately benefit him anyway. The general hadn’t argued, just signed over the machine, like he didn’t think it capable of flying far anyway.

“Find your own pilot,” he told her.

Blue eyes pinched into slits of concentration, her pilot maneuvered out of the valley. Snow still sat in the shadowy crevices of the north-facing slopes. White strips of it on the dark rock transformed the mountain face into a zebra haunch. She almost expected the noise from the helicopter to scare the animal, for the giant mountain equid to take off running below her. Instead, a freakish stillness. The helicopter’s sharp blades cut through the valley’s silence, each rotation slicing the air into ribbons.

The pilot steered to an opening where the land stepped up from the water more gently, and scanned for breaks in the birch and cypress. On the horizon, the river meandered toward flatter land, the stream splitting around pebbled banks and reuniting in wide stretches etched with rapids. Galina clicked a small Zenit camera pressed against the helicopter’s window glass. She squinted at the ground, looking for outcrops visible from the air and signs of faults. She creased her brows, progressed the film, and refocused the lens on the ground below.

“Should we look for a landing pad?” the pilot asked. He looked like he belonged in the navy. He wore Breton stripes and a silk scarf tied jauntily around his neck. He jabbed a thick finger at the radio buttons and Galina adjusted her headphones.

She pointed to flatter land, to note it, but said, “Not yet.”

The pilot drew on the stick, sending them forward. Galina lofted the camera to the glass and scanned the horizon with the lens out of focus. In the viewfinder, the river and forest dissolved into painterly splotches. She picked up the intercom but didn’t say anything.

The pilot started to draw a grid with the helicopter, running long lines north-south, each lap ticking its way east. The magnetometer trailed behind the helicopter, pinging. The machine penetrated till and forest to measure the magnetic field below them, uncovering the blob of metal ore hiding in plain sight.

Moscow probably vibrated with unbearable heat by now, but here the valley’s tendershoot vermilion signaled the early start of summer. That morning she’d loaded black-and-white film into the Zenit, to capture the contrasts in terrain, simplify the aerial maps to their basic hues. But in her mind, she recorded the oversaturated colors. Remember it, she told herself. Remember it.

In her hands, the lens bumped the window, glass clinking glass.

Used to be, when Agafia worked or strolled or slipped into bed at nighttime her mind raced, tripping over itself. Now, unless she made herself sit and think about something, her mind settled into a cool still lake, unmoving. As she toiled in the garden, this lake stretched in front of her for miles, a well of serenity and boredom. She was thinking about how she didn’t think about much anymore when the thunder interrupted her thoughts. It came from the mountains.

The men were gone somewhere, but her sister worked by her side. Natalia tugged at weeds in the potato bed, pulling them out one by one. In the summer the family worked so much that there wasn’t as much time for prayer, and Natalia used each uprooted weed as a notch on her lestovka, counting off recitations as she cleared the beds.

“Don’t you hear that?”

Natalia had a way of shutting out the world.

Agafia sat down on the ground and gazed toward the noise.

“It’s like the rain is running toward us.”

Natalia rarely said much, but she stopped weeding and looked in the same direction as Agafia. They watched a dark speck emerge in the valley. A small object approached from a distance, carrying a large noise.

“It’s for our sins,” Agafia told her sister. They trained their eyes on the horizon, following the object as it receded then returned, like a fly, back and forth, its hum expanding and contracting in the air.

“We were so lazy this winter!” Agafia said, panicked. “I barely moved from my cot.”

Natalia hushed her. “Let’s go inside,” she said.

The sisters crept through the greenery, keeping to shadows until they reached their house. The one-room hut stood in a small clearing, watching like a sentry over the river, the garden, the mountains and forest. Inside, an audience of four beds stood around a masonry stove. A nest of blankets lay on the stove, the prized sleeping place in winter. In every corner clutter climbed toward the eaves except the east-facing side, where icons and a large metal cross, all eight points dulled by age and groping fingers, occupied a clean three-legged table. A shelf wedged into the log walls protruded at waist level. Agafia retrieved a prayer book from the shelf and the sisters squeezed in front of their makeshift sanctorium. Natalia started. O Angel of God, my holy guardian, preserve my life in the fear of Christ our God. Her voice spilled from her mouth, a vomit of noise, a barely controlled scream. Agafia joined in. Glory: now and ever.

Inside the hut, the women’s prayers shape-shifted like swallows’ murmurations. Prayer a physical presence, growing and shrinking and changing form as its keepers ululated and hummed. There was the blocky Russian stove, the small mantel of books, the birch boxes, and there was their prayer. It took up more room than the furnishings.

Galina was the boss of the whole operation. She signed off on the budget, on the summer camp preparations, on the employee roster, on the canisters of helicopter fuel and boxes of canned meat stacked in neat rows at camp. On the 5 a.m. wakeup call. She stalked the rows of tents in the morning fog with a flyswatter, hitting each tent wall twice to rouse the team. From inside, the men—and all five were men—would plead with her.

“Galockha, two more minutes, sweetheart.”

It was her first time truly in charge, leading a team surveying the land for a new iron mine. She’d run two field seasons, the first to examine a large area and make rough maps of the deposit, the second to gather rock samples and figure out where, exactly, a mine should be located. She had not asked for these responsibilities and assumed them reluctantly. She wanted to be woken, to be told what to do, for someone else to give the journalists quotes and count the canned meat portions. To be a piece of a solution, not its architect.

The helicopter turned around to run another line on the grid, still no flat, stable land in sight for the machine to land. She considered clicking on the headset and issuing an order for the pilot to return to camp, but instead she sat back. If she didn’t say anything, maybe he’d run the grid back and forth and back and forth until they ran out of fuel.

Galina imagined the helicopter a Trojan horse soaring over the mountains, and she Odysseus, preparing to unleash destruction on the kingdom below. Tasked with evaluating the iron deposits, she’d be the one to order the charging of the rock. Drill rigs and front loaders groaning, the mountains would submit like the Trojans. She pressed the button on the transmitter.

“You ever feel bad telling them where to dig?” she asked the pilot.

“It’s not God’s work, is it?” his voice crackled back.

They veered off the grid, toward a mirage of flatness.

Galina had decided to study geology after her mother took her to the Orlov Paleontological Museum. She was young, and for nearly a decade her father held to the hope she’d change her mind and enter the university’s economics department, like he had, so she could eventually work on some government planning committee, like him. He revered geologists for making progress possible, but he despised their bohemian bent. They had a reputation for beards, liberal politics, and drinking, and he didn’t want his daughter in their milieu. But when Moscow State University sent her an acceptance letter in the mail, she rode the metro to campus the same day and filled out the paperwork in the run-down geology building. Her first act of rebellion.

Classes started soon after. She left the house at sunrise and didn’t return until dinnertime.

She made friends whose parents didn’t work for the state and got a whole new education. Everybody she met understood more about the world than she did. When she ate with her parents in the evening she stayed quiet, as she’d been taught, while they discussed politics. But inside she was a desert bloom, a vastness suddenly quenched and turned radiant.

An old lecturer with hair growing out of his nose and a jewel thief’s air led the introductory class. He dimmed the lights and clicked through colorful slides of kaleidoscopic minerals. Garnet, calcite, pyrite, hematite. Oolitic limestone. Tennantite. He laid out small white boxes, nests full of rocks, for the class to identify. She’d scratch their surfaces with her teeth to test for grittiness, and drip acid to see if they’d reveal their properties. At night, lying in bed, she replayed the day’s slideshows in her head. Geology all wizardry and divination.

Her favorite class was stratigraphy, taught by a short woman with a squeaky voice. On field trips, the professor brought along the pointer she used in class and poked it at the striped road cuts. She teased out the rock’s history from the tan lines she found on its surface, painting old landscapes for the students on the sides of roadways. She found time tucked into thin black stone layers and led them through years of drought to desiccated river bottoms millennia old. A magic trick. The rock faces spoke along with the professor, and when she moved on they closed back up, a book slammed shut.

Galina took applied geology classes too, with patriotic guest speakers and field trips to big open-pit mines and terrifying underground ones. Galina liked to suit up, clipping the headlamp battery on a wide leather belt and wrapping a kerchief around her nose and mouth to keep out the dust. She’d heard that dissidents were forced to labor in the nation’s mines, and though her father denied the rumors—“Not since Stalin’s death!” he’d say, as if offended by the notion—she looked for them during mine visits. At a distance she spied men scratching ore into piles. She searched for their faces with her headlamp, catching skittish eyes and framing sweat-slicked brows in yellow light. Always a foreman made them turn away.

Galina obsessed over the mines. Civilizations, she knew, rose from rock. The newspapers printed mineral production figures that ran for pages, incomprehensible rows of numbers that in their sheer overwhelming quantity implied a steel-hardened future. The dust-covered men underground translated into rows of data, and that translated into tractors and bridges and munitions, and that was progress. Galina ran her finger along the rows of numbers, smearing ink, until the pages became greasy and unreadable.

The economic geology professor noticed her enthusiasm for the mines and began to groom her. On trips, she directed questions directly at Galina, pulling her to the front through the scrum of students as they examined gleaming veins of ore. On exams, she received an abundance of notes for her efforts. And when she finished the class, the teacher, a reserved woman so tall that she entered the mines folded low like a leggy heron, gave her an orange hard hat.

“Make use of it,” she had said, and slapped her on the back.

Before she’d even graduated she received a letter in the mail inviting her to work as a mine geologist for the state’s Moscow office. You’ll train under senior geologists on some of the biggest, most exciting projects in the Union, the letter read. We hope you’ll use your knowledge to divine the rocks, decipher what the raw landscape can offer to our people. The bureaucrat tasked with typing it grew, at times, poetic in his acknowledgment of the exciting opportunities that awaited the recipient of the form letter.

At dinner that evening, Galina had gushed to her parents about her news, taking the letter out of her purse and reading passages aloud. Her mother had placed a hand on her father’s arm.

“Your father called an old friend in the geological division,” she’d said. “The man owed him a favor.”

Her father had barely put down his fork, a speared cutlet midway to his mouth. He’d looked up at Galina and nodded, to accept her thanks, though she had stayed quiet.

It had been a good education. Years of work helped open mines across the vast Union, and aerial photographs of blasted horizons decorated her new office, each a medal for her labor. But since her promotion, since she’d come to Siberia, all she desired to do was walk, play hide-and-seek with outcrops of gunmetal-gray mountains, and sketch along riverbanks. Camera tightening noose-like around her neck, she snapped several photos in a row, to stitch into a fresh panorama.

Agafia’s ma, Nadia, had given birth four times. The first three came into the world in their old home, in a village where the smell of hay drifted on neighbors’ voices. When she first bent over with pain in the church, women carried her to the town’s wooden bath and brought stacks of towels and metal bowls to the banya. They boiled water on the banya’s heater and wiped her with warm cloths, heaping heavy mantles of prayer on her small, laboring body. The first birth broke her body in half, followed by her heart; the child died in her arms before she could memorize his face.

Before baptism. They buried him in the cemetery’s pagan section, alongside the old souls struck down by unholy deaths, those who had lived unholy lives, and Nadia’s brother, killed by a lightning strike. Whenever Nadia pondered the child, all she had to conjure him was the small, nameless wooden cross her husband erected over the creature’s body as she lay recovering.

The second came quick and painless. The boy emerged with lungfuls of air, wet and perfect and curious. She named him Dima and swaddled him in yards of white cloth, singing to him every waking hour of every day. Curls cupped a heart-shaped face and his alabaster skin glowed like the icons’ in the town church.

When Dima was five, she made Natalia. She slid out of Nadia without anyone’s assistance, independent from her mother the moment a neighbor pinched off the black-eyed girl’s umbilical cord. Nadia admired and feared her first daughter. The girl’s quiet stilled her surroundings and slowed time. If Nadia weren’t so sure of her offspring’s holiness, she might have thought her a devil instead. Natalia straddled that fine line.

Things were getting bad by then. Beardless men with rifles slung against their backs showed up regularly in the village demanding that the children go to schools outside the community and the adults to factories to work. Nadia and Hugo thumbed through their handwritten books, two-hundred-year-old tomes Nadia’s mother had given the couple on their wedding day, for guidance. These changes all around them, they concluded, were signs of the Antichrist’s nearing. To preserve their old ways, they’d have to go to the mountains, far from temptation and worldly sins.

Only then could they be saved.

The family didn’t wait long—their books described in great detail what happened to people who didn’t heed the call to flee. Hugo and Nadia packed what they could.

For generations, the Kols’ people had traded tales about a utopia, somewhere east, where people like them lived safe from the Antichrist. It was a place called Belovod’e, where the trees grew as tall and straight as their faith, the winter frosts were thick, and real priests, serving barefoot, still swept the ground with their robes. One hundred forty churches rose from Belovod’e’s fertile soil. Upon arrival, refugees underwent three baptisms in the river to wash away the impurities they had carried. Travelers from all over had searched for this refuge, but it had been hard to find. As the Kols prepared to flee, Nadia’s mother gave them a pamphlet she’d long kept in one of her books. It had directions, landmarks, distances, promising deliverance to Belovod’e. Maps with detailed topographical markers, town names, and friendly shelters along the way folded out of the leaflet.

Nadia’s family had always spoken about Belovod’e—White Waters—as if of heaven, a place as fantastical and as true. But the directions were a revelation. Why hadn’t they gone? Nadia’s mother couldn’t say. Nadia and Hugo traced the map’s faded lines east, calculating the journey’s toll. The names and landmarks rang vaguely familiar, though neither had ever gone far from their village. They set off on a gray morning in the summer of 1934, on foot, dragging along a cart packed with their belongings and their two living children.

Hugo lost count of their steps when he counted to eternity. They stopped when they reached a clearing by the river, a thick carpet of grass ringed with dense forest. In some ways it was as the brochure promised: they’d traveled a long, long time and found tall trees, clear water, the land free and rolling, no sign of the Antichrist. They prayed without hindrance. But no priests greeted them, no one welcomed them from their long journey. There was not a single person within screaming range. Hugo jabbed his pointer finger at the map, which had run out months ago.

“A little farther,” he said.

But Nadia shook her head, so they unpacked, without reaching Belovod’e. She slipped the leaflet back into a book. With no priest present, they didn’t dare call it baptism, but they entered the water reverently and dipped each other in the current, tired hands cupping their heads, floating, letting go of past lives and future ones. The frost here, Nadia thought, will indeed be thick.

Agafia was born there. Only five-year-old Natalia and Nadia’s own husband, Hugo, attended her in this last birthing. They hadn’t built a bathhouse, so she crouched on the tundra-grass mattress by the hut’s stove. Nadia thought she would die pushing life out in such empty vastness, staining the white winter with her labor pain. But Natalia placed a cool small hand on her mother’s forehead. The pain in Nadia’s belly melted away and Agafia’s tiny squawks joined the taiga chorus.

The newborn’s wail announced her to the wolves. Wildness must have seeped into Nadia, who pumped it through her umbilical cord and her thin blood to this second daughter. The girl internalized the feral world outside, half human, half mossy wood. Chest full of woodpecker thumps, pine knots in her calves. The others tolerated the taiga’s harshness and learned to ask it for forgiveness. To survive. But Agafia, having known nothing else, thrived in the secluded brutality of her home. In this way, Agafia stood apart from the rest of the family, building a home in a nook of Siberia far from any settlements.

Years had sped by since Nadia had passed away, but whenever Agafia prayed she still appeared by her side. Nadia had passed down her books to her daughter, the travel guide to Belovod’e still tucked like a bookmark between pages covered in Church Slavonic script. When Agafia was alone she studied it, imagining herself moving along the map’s twisted routes. If anyone else was around, she kept it hidden in the thick leather tomes, which contained their community’s history and their prayers, one bolstering the other.

“You’ll memorize the prayers soon enough,” Nadia had told her young daughter. And she had.

Agafia held on to these devotions as if to buoys, bobbing with them in the open waters of her isolation. They were company, compass, structure. They were a home, however cramped. In times of uncertainty, she felt the bigness of the books’ promises crash against the smallness of the world they contained, like great blocks of melting ice on a river eager to flow free.

The pilot turned on his headset and let it sputter before addressing Galina.

“Look,” he said, pointing below them. A jute rug, woven neat and tight and straight, lay below them.

“What is it?” she asked.

He hovered over the carved hole in the forest, waiting for it to reveal itself.

“Are there any settlements in the area?” he asked.

Galina had pored over the government maps at camp before they set out that morning. They detailed where oil and gas deposits might be, but the thorough geologists who drew them had marked just about everything else on the maps too. Mineral deposits, roads, railroads, rivers, villages. Down to the individual warming shacks hunters built atop the tundra to shelter them as they gathered ermine and fox furs. On the map for the section they were flying, nothingness reigned. It was as if they’d drawn the map in winter, and the drafter had transferred the unblemished whiteness of the plain onto his page.

“Nothing,” she said.

The pilot hovered, then looped around and approached from the other side.

“Looks like a garden,” he said.

“That’s impossible.”

Galina unscrewed the lens from the camera and switched to a longer one. The new lens swooped out of the helicopter into the immensity below. She clicked off several frames, wound, zoomed, clicked again.

“Let’s go,” she said.

Thundering, the machine bored through the landscape back to camp.

“A bear couldn’t claw his way out of this valley,” the pilot mused as they reentered the mountains.

At camp, Galina grabbed a piece of bread from the communal table and shut herself in the photo tent she’d brought along. She wound the film onto metal cages and let them fall into the chemical-filled canisters to develop. In the still dark, she could almost hear the silver salt falling from the film, settling like snow at the bottoms of the cylinders. The timer showed two more minutes. She thought about her old roommate, who’d taught her to develop film and photographs. He’d used the same lens on his camera and his homemade enlarger, switching it out as needed. He’d set up the darkroom in their tiny bathroom and spent his waking hours in there in a chemical daze, happily printing. Galina had to use the neighbor’s bathroom. Now she understood why he locked himself in there for so many hours; the small, confining tent and its warm smell of chemicals in the midst of the open, unsettled taiga restored a sense of reality, something controllable and self-made. The tent fit around her and cradled her with its smallness, protection from the bigness of what lay just beyond it. The timer clicked off in her hand.

She rinsed the film, yanked it from the holder, strung it garland-like across the tent to dry, and crawled out. The pilot brought sandwiches and they sat down on a hammock to eat. Around them, the men lounged about like a colony of cats. They didn’t exactly know the extent of the deposit, so their exploration area was vast; surveying such a large tract took long days of tedious work. Galina had drawn a grid on her map that she and the pilot traced in the air with the aerial magnetometer while the rest of the team walked the same north-south tracks on the ground, measuring the strength of the magnetic field at close range. To stay the course on the ground the men had to break trail. With saws and hatchets, they downed trees and cleared debris, leaving behind shorn lanes. Pointed poles hung with red flags protruded every hundred meters, marking plot points.

“Maybe it’s an undiscovered tribe, like in the Amazon, that no one’s ever made contact with that’s been living in that valley for millennia,” the pilot said. Crumbs flew out of his mouth as he laughed. His thigh pressed against hers.

She took a bite of the sandwich. The cheese had melted and solidified so many times that the chemical structure of the block had altered. It crumbled out and landed in her lap.

“It means they haven’t tasted the delicacy our dear leaders call cheese,” he said, and brushed the brittle crumbs from her knees.

“We must immediately bring them Russian bread!” Galina said. “These poor people have not lived until they’ve tasted it!”

“You know, first contact is never good for the contacted,” he said, suddenly serious. Too serious, like he was actually being funny again.

“Human contact in general rarely works out too well.”

Galina leaned back in the hammock. Clouds gathered in great massifs above the trees.

When she awoke the pilot was gone, tinkering with the helicopter.

She fired up the generator, plugged in the enlarger, and stuck one of the dried negatives in a tray. For a moment light illuminated the tent, then extinguished. She slid the paper into a tub and rocked it back and forth. Grays solidified into blacks. An image floated up, conjured from emptiness. Galina transferred the print into the fixer solution, turning it picture-side down. When the timer sounded, she pinched the photo with a pair of rubber tongs, and carried it out of the tent to the pilot. She pointed.

He put down his tools.

“It’s got to be a garden,” he said.

“Let’s fly over it again.”

The taiga made living such a project, its endeavor invited introspection. How had she got here? Agafia contemplated it constantly. The way some people ponder their existential purpose in the world, she wondered about her physical presence in the taiga. She knew her family had walked there. She knew it was Peter’s fault.

The long past came in snippets, in stories. Of long-haired cousins dancing with full-bearded men, fields with night-black soil, the yeasty yolk of community warm and rising.

Impressions rather than details shaped the past. Her people had worked the land and venerated it. Their priests wore finely embroidered robes and led them to the Lord and the river. Even in the midst of chaos and war, her people relied on the monastery’s guidance and lived simply, in ways godly and independent.

Change came in the 1600s, when the czar Aleksey Mikhaylovich and Patriarch Nikon started to reform the church. That time defined Agafia’s fate so much that its retelling was a birthright, her own terrifying heritage. Nikon issued new books, new orders for prayer, new routines. Frantic councils met to discuss the altered church rules—three fingers instead of two to make the sign of the cross, standardized prayer books, a four-pointed cross instead of the usual eight points, processions to flow against the sun rather than toward it, three alleluias instead of two after the Psalms and the Cherubic Hymn. All of it all wrong. The bureaucratic pivots tentative steps closer to Christian statehood, on the one hand. A smidge toward eternal damnation, on the other.

Her people, steady as the seasons, refused to change. They’d gained their Lord through routine; the particulars of their liturgy were the essence of their being. To change the symbols in their worship was to alter the nature of their God, to write His name in a new way was to rewrite their understanding of Him. There was a break between her people and the reformers—the schism. The czar made her people into pariahs, and they gained a new name: Old Believers.

The next czar, Peter, brought new trouble, new pressures to change their long-rooted ways. His ultimatums drove them farther north, east. Peter and the Old Believers were the Russian continuum personified. He looked toward the future. Agafia’s people’s job was to preserve the past. They were bound to clash.

Some Old Believers met the conflict with fire. It was after the schism. Armed sentries terrorized the countryside with orders from Peter, to shave beards, farm differently. Signs of the end times seeped into daily life. In village after village the elders decided Peter was too close. They chose to cleanse themselves with fire before the Last Judgment rather than continue to live in Peter’s sin. The elders lit kindling in oil-soaked churches full of congregants. Flames climbed the wooden pillars, lapped at the ceiling, spilled outward toward the walls where the flocks huddled.

Agafia’s ancestral village suffered this fate. But her people had resisted the sin of immolation. They watched their church burn with their neighbors inside, and then they pushed, each body a lowered plow on the ground, through the tundra, stubbornly pointed north. They carried small icons they’d rescued from the church and brought them to new villages, to bald settled bowls of land cultivated by distant kin. But the epidemic of mass suicides followed them; always in a church, always the whip-loud crack of the flames out-thundering the screams of the people burning inside. The family stayed only briefly in each village. It was the start of their long wandering.

For generations—even after Czar Peter died—the Kols’ line led peripatetic lives. Each new ascendant Russian leader found something to punish in the Old Believers. By the mid-1800s, though, Hugo’s grandfather landed in a village called H. The settlement was full of refugees who’d once fled burning churches and unchristian mandates from local overlords. He stayed, helped build a new house of prayer, settled.

Hugo was born in that village. He met his Nadia, started a family. But bad luck found them again, in new form, when Stalin came to power. The Kols, like so many others, decided to flee. They sought escape in Belovod’e but had only made it to this empty valley.

The hut, this piece of land. The second origin tale.

Agafia knew she came into the world on the right side, the righteous side. Her people came from the earth itself, molded by God’s hands from black soil, limbs carved from whole birch stands, hair poured from melted amber, hearts hardened in the icy water of the Baikal. But until the schism, until Nikon and Czars Aleksey and Peter came along, her people were ether. The conflict gave them blood, body, history. Loneliness.

It’s strange where one finds company in the solitariness of one’s convictions. She was a girl the first time she saw Peter. Natalia was tying a fine shawl she’d managed to keep from the bugs around Agafia’s head, tucking witchy wisps of hair under the fabric and smoothing it down with clammy hands.

“Hold still,” Natalia said.

“Is this Mother’s shawl?” Agafia asked. Nadia already dead a child’s lifetime long.

The fabric constricted Agafia. It dulled sound and squeezed her head. The man came up behind Natalia, to inspect the knot she was tightening under Agafia’s chin. He didn’t say anything, just stared, and Agafia startled.

“What are you looking at?” Natalia asked.

Agafia jutted her chin at the man standing behind her sister. He was thin, tall. Brown hair lay in waves on his head and he focused on her with intense, bugged eyes. He sat down across from Agafia, picking his teeth. From his pocket he took out little wooden men and began to line them up in battle formation, a boy at play. Natalia gazed across the room, then turned back to her sister to finish the knot.

“I don’t see anything,” she said.

Agafia never mentioned him again, but soon he started appearing more frequently, talking. He told her stories about old Russia and foreign women and horses he’d loved.

Sometimes he seemed to speak in a different language and Agafia did not understand him. At the riverbank, washing clothes, she heard the raspy breath of someone planing wood and woodpecker-sure hammering. He was building something. When she went to investigate, she found nothing.

She figured out, of course, his name: Peter Alekseevich. Some called him Peter the Great, though not her people. He was the reason for the family’s first fleeing, and every one after that. The desolation. He’d found her. She came to understand his appearances as warnings, the physical manifestation of her own dark history strolling in the forest beside her, his body full of blood and ghosts. Peter both present and invisible, like history itself. After each visit, she doubled down on her piety, trying to shape it into something tangible from the muddiness of her heart, fire it into something durable with the heat of her wanting.

She believed. She really believed. She didn’t even know that not believing was an option. The faith taught to her from the womb on, the ritual that sustained her tether to the Lord, it was air and she knew she had to have it. But when she shaped her bowl of devotion lovingly with her prayers, its walls came out uneven as a braided shoal, porous as the sand on her tongue. Sometimes, when Peter appeared, Agafia worried her prayers were devoid of inspiration, lacking the vividness that true faith required.

The morning of the great noise she was preoccupied about this very thing. The thundering from earlier had trailed off in the distance, overpowered by the mosquitos’ buzzing. So early in the summer and they already gathered in great masses. Still Natalia stood praying, head down. Peter hunched in the corner, the length of him bent under the hut’s low ceiling. Agafia tried to quiet her mind, to focus on the recitations. But Peter distracted her, took her mind off the supplications so they rolled off her tongue without substance.

“What was that?” she whispered to him, cutting her eyes at Natalia.

“I guess the world has come to you, all this way,” he said.

He fingered the books on the shelf. His name peppered the tomes’ pages, cursed in the Old Believer chronicles. Agafia feared he’d harm the books, but they stood undisturbed under his hands. Next time she glanced up from her prayer, he was gone.

Hugo and Dima returned soon after from their chores. As the thundering passed overhead, father and son had crouched on the ground and uncovered their heads. When it retreated, they hurried back, to see if the world still beat on.

The sisters put on potatoes to boil. Most of last season’s crop had already disintegrated and bloomed with mold in the pantry. They filled a pot of threadbare metal, blackened from years on flint-coaxed fires. Agafia lifted the pot and emptied the water outside, then dumped the small, disfigured crop in the middle of the table. Hugo pulled sheets of freckled skin off the tubers and wiped his fingers against the table. All that history, Agafia thought, to get here.

After the war, steel production in the Soviet Union grew, surpassing European nations in its output. Railways connected ore to distant coal mines and processing facilities sprouted tumorous add-ons with the signing of each five-year plan. By the time Galina entered the university in the early 1960s, most industry had slowed, but iron mines kept opening.

She had a professor who took her senior class to Vyksa to show his students how steel was made. The professor had advertised the visit as a history lesson, and said they’d get to see ancient processes they had learned about in class. Instead, he brought them to a working steel mill.

In a locker room, the air so full of metal she tasted it on her teeth, Galina and her classmates put on heavy coats, dark glasses, and protective leather gloves. A worker led them out on the floor, where patriotic posters hung from rafters. The furnaces looked like the cold chambers in a morgue, except tongues of fire leapt out and licked at the huddled students when the compartment doors opened. The professor tried to explain what they were looking at over the machinery’s banshee screams. It wasn’t necessary. The students who had paid any attention in class could see that the workers manned ancient open-hearth furnaces from the previous century. So many things were like that in this country, history and present all at once. History and future.

The workers allowed them to bang on freshly pulled steel with hammers, to show their visitors the product was strong, not brittle. When the class left, each student received a metal pin, a tiny cauldron filled with red acrylic, shiny and bright as the molten metal.

They rode a chartered bus back to Moscow. Students kissed in the darkness, the bus filling with private hushed noises. The driver refused to stop for bathroom breaks on the seven-hour drive. Galina had sat up front and watched the man piss in a bottle as he drove, swerving just slightly as he readjusted his pants and tossed the urine out the window. It had made her jealous, that adaptability that only men and cats seemed to possess. The old professor sat next to her on the drive back. He smelled of hooch and beets, earthy, as if ready to be buried.

“I’ve been taking students there for three decades!” he said. “Nothing ever changes.”

“Must make your job easier,” she said.

He dug around in his bag, then shoved his hand toward Galina, opening it. Identical cauldron pins spilled out of his fist, and they both laughed.

After that trip, she’d concentrated on iron, in rapture to its strength, its possibilities. She apprenticed with geologists who worked in iron and read unassigned books on the mineral’s development. By the time she graduated, she was a fledgling expert.

Still, it was her father who’d gotten her that first work assignment. Her expertise a bonus to her connections. She wore the cauldron pin on her first job to remind her of her passion, her worth. But her father kept meddling, pulling strings that outpaced even her ambition. She knew, of course, but didn’t say anything. Instead, with each new job, each mine, she transferred the pin to a new uniform to keep herself focused.

Then came the latest promotion. Another unsolicited favor from her father, secured without her knowledge, had put her in charge of this mission. Her assignment in the taiga was to find the iron in the mountains, to trace on maps the deposit’s reach, give it shape and life and narrative. She’d have to calculate its size, translate its worth to tons. She had to do her part to send this rock to the Union’s ancient furnaces, so it could be turned into steel. Something about her rise, though, soured her dedication. When she started in the position, she transferred the pin to a new jacket out of habit, the power from the talisman fading.

Out of professionalism, she continued to fill her field journal with her efforts: notes on surface deposits and crooked traces of the mountains’ uplift. Sketches from the helicopter showing geological unconformities and lines of bent strata. The journal a daily diary that linked her fate with the mountains’.

The day they first spotted the garden in the taiga, she turned to a clean page and dated the top, July 11, 1973, signaling a new entry. She labeled it HOMESTEAD and boxed in the word with a heavy hand. Maybe they’re miners just like me, she thought. She wrote: Performing an aerial magnetometer survey, we spotted what looks like a settlement. Then she stuffed the notebook into her bag and motioned to the pilot that she was ready to go.

The blades of the helicopter waltzed into a frenzy, their rotation quickening until they turned into a solid mass that lifted them off the ground, and they headed back into the valley. The pilot clicked on the headset but didn’t say anything, just held his finger on the relay button, the mouthpiece hovering in front of his lips. She made him nervous. Galina saw his pupils, tiny rosebuds, loosening with anticipation. She turned away.

The homestead lay some twenty kilometers from the camp, Galina estimated. A quick trip in the helicopter. They needed to continue the survey, but she instructed the pilot to fly back to the section they’d completed that morning. The silence between them stretched the minutes. She clicked on the headset but couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Have you ever been to Siberia before?” she mustered.

The pilot choked into the headpiece, a barky exhale, as if she’d caught him off guard. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve spent a little time here.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t expected that.

The pilot pushed the helicopter forward, until he came to hang above the spot Galina had captured on film. Low green stalks pushed from the crenellated soil, dancing in the helicopter’s wash. A stack of chopped wood lay piled on the roof of a dwelling. By the hut, another garden, enclosed by a crude wooden fence. No people in sight.

The thunder returned, booming. The family huddled together, hands clasped into knots, eyes upturned to the web-filled corner of the hut. They’d grown accustomed to living with the specter of the Antichrist, yet they hadn’t heard him bellow so close. So viscerally. Hugo squeezed so hard Agafia imagined her fingers breaking, bones splintering like twigs in wolves’ teeth.

Peter, seated beside her, chuckled. If Peter is by my side, what is out there? Agafia marveled.

“Why don’t you go see?” Peter said.

She stole a glance at the others.

“You don’t even know what you’re scared of,” he taunted.

He stood up in the hunched way he had in their low hut and opened the door. A gust of debris blew in, swirling. Agafia watched him fold to fit through the door and unfold on the other side. He stood within view, back to her.

Natalia jumped to close the door and crossed herself.

“Maybe it’s not Peter!” Agafia shouted over the thunder and the prayers.

Natalia silenced her with a hand.

The thunder pulsed in Agafia’s ears. The appeal of their life here, specks in the nothingness of unwanted lands, depended on the homestead’s unapproachability. She had never strayed far, but believed Hugo when he told them that for unimaginable distances in every direction they were alone. He made it seem like even the Antichrist would not attempt to scramble into this corner of the world. But this wasn’t the first time something from the outside had encroached on them. In her youth, she’d seen the spring melt carry tree trunks, stripped of their canopies and lashed together into great big wood rafts. Hugo told her then that it was worldly industry, men cutting wood to bring to the cities. Some of the wood sank, muddying their stretch of river and killing off fish for years.

Maybe this, too, was something worldly. From out there, beyond her valley, beyond the ascetic gifts of her faith. Agafia was the only one in the family who’d never experienced worldly things. Not up close, not firsthand. In the pure cradle Hugo had carved out of Siberia, the worldly remained mostly theoretical. Distant. Having never touched it, Agafia feared it only in the abstract, and the abstract can be hard to fear.

She unlinked her fingers from her father’s grasp and ran out of the hut before Natalia could stop her. She ran into the sun and stood under a great big bird. An enormous body hovered above her, bobbing slightly up and down, kicking up a gray cloud of dust around her. Peter had his hands on his hips and his head thrown back, studying it.

“There are people inside it!” he yelled to Agafia. “Flying people!”

She gazed up, past the thing, into the sun, the light blinding her. She couldn’t make herself look for the people. Instead, she searched the foreign object’s perimeters, taking in its angles and curves, its green coloration as if attempting to blend in with the trees. It looked hard and heavy, and she pondered how it managed to stay in the air and feared it would fall and flatten her. Peter grinned at her; spit flew from his moving mouth, but she couldn’t make out his words. In the machine’s roar, the world had gone terrifyingly silent. The wind from the machine whipped at her shawl and tore at its knots until her hair loosened and floated around her. Long, honey-brown locks tangled about her, wild, dancing. Warm urine ran down her leg, soaked into the long gown she wore. She was heavy and flushed. She didn’t know how long she stood there, neck craned and eyes upturned. Eventually the thing receded above her, as if she’d won a face-off. It rose above the surrounding tree tips and pitched toward the mountains, taking with it the noise it had brought.

When quiet returned, Agafia washed herself in the river, rubbing her legs with smooth pebbles. Pills of skin rolled up on her thigh and she splashed at them. Fish appeared, O-shaped mouths searching for the debris of her body in the water. She grabbed the net she kept on the bank and scooped a lenok, sunset-orange spots flashing as she lifted it out of the water and walked back to the hut cradling it in her arms. Had she conjured the visitor with her sins? Her body powerful and out of control. Nausea tightened her throat. She spit.

She chopped off the fish head with an axe and set it in water to boil. Its eyes turned milky in the warming pot. Natalia dumped the guts outside, packed the flesh in birch bark, and set it in the oven to bake. The pantry was practically empty, and while they waited for the fish to cook Agafia swept out the small shed, carpeting the mud outside with scraps of rotten potato and wheat chaff. How routine the end days now appeared. Peter sat inside the pantry, watching her. “It was just a worldly visitor,” he said.

The hinges of the door had deteriorated years ago, the metal rusting and flaking until it broke, and the door leaned against the wall. When she finished, she lifted it into position, and returned to the hut. Dima had made mint tea, and they sat in silence sipping it.

“What could it be?” she asked her brother. “Maybe it’s something worldly?”

He shrugged. The siblings looked at their father, who had spent the most time around worldly things. Hugo shook his head.

“I’ve been gone so long,” he said.

As a child, instead of a dollhouse Galina had a ceramic hut on chicken legs. Sculpted from clay, it was one of the few things her mother brought to the new apartment when she married. Before bed, Lida recited stories about Baba Yaga, the old witch who chased children who strayed into her woods. A cape of white hair trailed behind the witch when she flew, bony legs tucked into a mortar, gnarly hands steering with a pestle. The screechy calls of a trapped fox echoed in her wake. In Lida’s telling, desperate to get her daughter to sleep, Baba Yaga was more eccentric than dangerous, an unconventional aunt. Galina, sheltered and perpetually attended, asked, “But how did the children get there?” She wanted to go too. The doors on the ceramic house did not move and the openings were too small for Galina’s dolls. But she lay for hours in front of the empty sculpture, peering into the small windows and wishing the chicken legs would stretch and turn the hut just the slightest bit. In Lida’s stories, Baba Yaga’s house rotated round and round like a spinning dervish, shedding wooden roof tiles and hay. Galina would look away, pretending not to see, only to whip her head around, as if to catch the hut in action. Sometimes in the mornings, Galina found the hut turned, the door to the wall, her mother grinning from the kitchen.

That afternoon, leaning into the helicopter window until her force about tipped it, she finally glimpsed the old witch. Her untamed hair blowing around her in the helicopter’s wash, skirt rags spread out on the air so that she seemed to float, eyes trained on other dimensions. Galina had made the pilot hover and hover because the image of the woman undone by the helicopter’s gusts was hocus-pocus, a fable in flesh and bone. What was she? Had it been real?

“Do you see her?” she kept radioing, hand clasped on the pilot’s arm. “Do you see her?”

There she stood, Baba Yaga protecting her hut from Galina, who had finally managed to find her in the wood.

That evening the pilot came to her after dinner, by the river. Galina had lit a small fire from driftwood, and it made a warm porthole for their faces in the cold blue of the latitude’s summer night light.

“I was just thinking about Baba Yaga,” Galina told him.

He smiled, teeth showing. “I thought she was supposed to embody nature, the forest, its creatures. But in stories she was so ugly.”

“I thought she was just a lonely old witch.”

“Not all witches are bad,” he said, and shrugged. He passed her a military water canteen. “From my personal stash. A friend makes it.”

Alcohol wasn’t allowed in camp, but she sipped the moonshine.

“Floral notes on turpentine,” she said. “Excellent.”

They passed it back and forth without talking. When the fire died, she faced him.

“Should we go visit the hut?” she asked. “We have to go survey that area anyway.”

“You’re the boss,” the pilot said, and nodded.

The next morning, Galina packed camping gear, food, cameras. She folded triangular hats out of newspapers to shield their heads from the sun. Afraid of who the homesteaders might be, she packed gifts: a small transistor radio, a bagful of honey cookies, a sack of their best tea.

The pilot loaded the helicopter. He followed his internal map and the greasy red arrows on Galina’s aerial photographs, retracing the way to the settlement. He found the flat spot Galina had pointed out and landed on loose rock, still several kilometers away from their destination. They loaded each other down with backpacks full of supplies, then headed toward the red flags the line cutters had hung. Pretending still, to themselves, they’d come to perform the ground survey.

They sang songs as they walked, gathering bilberries. Galina led, breaking trail through forest padded with still-soggy grassland, the suction of the ground adding percussion to their voices. They looked like state-sponsored Pioneers on an outing for fresh air and adventure, cheeks pinched pink by the outdoors. Animals scattered in the wood as they approached, their fleeing a swish of shrub leaves and creaking fir trunks. Fox paths led them to the edge of the forest and into open fields. Stands of Siberian iris the color of deep northern dusk hushed and intoxicated them under the beating sun. The pilot pulled up irises as he walked. With a knife, he cut off the roots, filling a pillowcase with soil-covered bulbs.

At lunchtime, they stopped at the water’s edge and ate bread with cheese sweating from the afternoon heat. Spring snowmelt still fattened the river, pushing it into the forest edge. Tree trunks emerged from the black mirror of standing water. Pale-green grass peeked out of the shallows. Over their sandwiches, the geologists speculated about who they’d encounter. Rogue fur trappers, Tolstoy disciples, diamond miners, lost souls, Baba Yaga.

They found the first flags after lunch. Galina unpacked the hand magnetometer, aimed it at the ground, recorded diligently the gammas it measured. She pictured the octahedral crystals of magnetite suddenly aware of her presence, perking up. In her notebook, Galina noted the regolith that hid the rock below, concealing what her instruments discerned. They packed and proceeded toward the next flag, in the direction of the settlement. From there, they’d have to veer off the grid.

A warm aimlessness dissolved inside Galina. She hadn’t spent much time in this part of the taiga. Other field expeditions had taken her to more industrialized land tracts. Even when she’d had opportunities to walk fields and switchbacks and valley floors, her gaze had been peculiarly strategic. The mountain there for her taking. She’d spent so much energy trying to prove herself, that she belonged there; the work had consumed her like a strange vortex, swallowing her. Now she focused on the vistas. The ground beneath her sank slightly as the permafrost softened under the sun’s warmth. Each footfall released a spore cloud. The mountains razored up to the edge of the sky. It all looked untouchable, too breathtaking to take, to tarnish.

They walked slowly, detouring and exploring, until the light turned the dusky color of Arctic nighttime, and pitched camp in a field. Wolves howled very far off, their song muffled by a foggy veil wrapped around the meadow’s rim. The pilot threw iris roots into the fire to perfume the air. Galina watched him through the campfire smoke. Eyes beholden to distances, fingers roughed by metal, one gold chain slung around his tanned neck.

That night, Agafia looked for guidance from a ghost. She slept on a pyre of stones in the meadow where her mother stopped trying. That was in the winter of 1950, when Agafia was ten years old, before her sister tied the dead woman’s scarf around her head.

It had been an especially hard season; when Nadia retrieved food from the pantry little puffs of mold exploded at her fingertips. She told the children to stay in the hut and tend the fire, but they stuck their faces to the window and put their ears to the walls. She dragged the burlap bags of spoiled potatoes out into the snow and spread them onto the clean white surface, staining it with the rot. They heard her wailing in the snowy meadow where Agafia now lay amid wildflowers. Nadia crouched there for a long time. New snow began to fall, covering the moldy potatoes with a layer of cleanliness, hiding the hunger spelled out on the snow. Then she walked back to the hut and gathered everyone around her.

Agafia had tuned in and out as her mother spoke. Nadia didn’t have too many lessons to impart. She sucked air through her teeth and gazed at her children, marveling at the strong bodies she’d succored with her own small one. Hugo stood in the corner, disapproving.

“If not fire, then hunger,” he’d told his wife when she shared her decision to forfeit her food portions to the children. “It’s the same thing.”

But Agafia’s mother ignored him; she lay down and she did not get up again. The blankets around her shrank, vacuum-sealing her body as she wasted away. Hugo rose earlier than normal and returned to the hut later, though the winter presented few opportunities for activity outside the house. Each night he dragged a sled filled with river-smoothed boulders. He piled them around the perimeter of the hut, encasing it.

Nadia’s breath grew quieter, but she lay in bed an entire forty days, holding on despite everything. Her last exhale was a gale-force wind that blew through the house, leaving her children chilled and disheveled. Even as an adult, Agafia feared the wind more than she did the cold, the snow. But she also spoke to it affectionately, as if to her mother.

Nadia died in the last days of that February. She ceased to whistle, and both inside and outside the wind calmed. Hugo combed her hair, braided it. He wrapped her in a single blanket and placed a prayer scroll in her hand. She lay like that among them in the one-room hut for two days. On the third, each of her children delivered a last kiss and Hugo carried her out feet first from the hut.

There was no procession to accompany him and nowhere far to go to reach the burial place, so he made one lap around the house before carrying her to the meadow. Without a casket, he let her body sink into the field’s winter cover. The ground was too frozen to dig; with the others’ help he hauled the stones that lined the outside walls of the hut and piled them higher and higher over Nadia’s body. They moved slowly, to conserve calories. They unsheathed the house and covered her, building a short mound atop her body until they could no longer roll the stones.

He questioned whether the cairn was sinful even as he worked.

Summers the stones drank up the sun hungrily and the family sat around the heap, leaning on the heat of Nadia’s tomb. The warmth held into the night; it pulsed against Agafia as she draped her body around the rocks.

She tried speaking with her mother. She wanted to know if it had been worth it, to leave them. She needed to know what loomed beyond their nest, the beauty that awaited her. To know if magic existed beyond their valley. Instead, Peter strolled up, stretched out on the grass below her, and fell asleep. Agafia tossed and turned that night, waiting.

She woke to trilling birds. No thunder, nothing out of the ordinary. The stone bed where she’d slept made all her joints hurt, and she stretched in the lush grass at the tomb’s base. She didn’t return to the hut for prayers but recited them from memory, sitting on the ground. She directed them at the treetops, the sappy trunks that held them up, the sun.

The family hadn’t built a church, perhaps fearing they’d have to burn it down, or hoping they wouldn’t have to stay long enough to need it. Its conspicuous absence an ode to the unsettled nature of their quarantine. Instead, Agafia imagined twisted spires rising over the meadow, flowers’ balm in place of incense’s fog, the priest’s drone drowned out by the seesaw crane call. Here was a church of sorts. Didn’t her people say the forest grew all the way to heaven?

She went to the garden and ran her fingers through the bolting potato plants. In the winters, the family ate potatoes nonstop. Tubers in the summer, when fish and berries and edible leaves of all sorts abounded, churned her stomach. She was a bear, fattening for the sparse cold winter, which came, an onslaught, each year. Try as she did, though, she couldn’t sleep through the long winter, so she got down on her knees and began to weed.

The hut faced Galina and the pilot as they approached, its small, dingy window openings unblinking, heavyset hips bulging. The roof was thatched with debris, hanging over the structure like a mushroom cap. The worn wood of the walls softened the rough construction, and the garden that buffered it from the forest lent it the air of just another house on the outskirts of town, a stretch of dirt road away from the neighbors.

The pilot knocked. He hadn’t realized how strongly his knuckles would land on the dry wood and stepped back, startled. The door, aslant against its frame, creaked open. Galina held her breath for Baba Yaga. Instead, an old man stepped out. His clothes matched the wood of the hut, a flat gray-blue that made his teal eyes pop in a face full of beard and brow. He stood silent under the roof’s lip, looking out at the sky and trees as if seeing them for the first time. Inside the hut, other voices rose and fell, but he didn’t pay them or the pair of newcomers any mind. Hugo absorbed the surroundings, inhaled deeply, grasped the doorframe as if seeking balance on a precipice. A fugitive taking a moment before he’s caught.

“We’re geologists,” Galina said. “We’re doing some field work in the area.”

Hugo raked his beard with a thick-fingered hand.

“We’ve brought some gifts,” Galina went on, and held up a satchel filled with offerings.

The man made a noise of acknowledgment in his throat, then ducked behind the door. At the geologists’ feet, drying fish scales shone pearly in the sun. Potato peels and small animal guts twisted together in the grass in front of the homestead’s door. All around the house, refuse in different states of decomposition littered the ground. A woman’s voice rose inside, a cry or exclamation. Other voices gathered around it, a flock of birds. Galina slid a backpack from her shoulders and let it fall on the ground amid the food scraps. She rolled down her sleeves against the mosquitos and flies and waved her hands at the bugs making for her face. She looked for the long-haired woman in the dark of the hut’s opening.

The old man emerged again a few minutes later. A younger man and two women followed him out and lined up, as if for inspection. Each had broad shoulders and slack, weathered skin. Galina recognized the woman with the hair, now hidden. She smiled slightly.

“What do you want?” the old man asked.

“We didn’t know anyone was out here,” Galina said. “We’re camped nearby. Spotted your homestead when we flew over.”

“Sorry if it scared you,” the pilot added.

The younger people muttered behind the man.

“How far did you come from?” he asked.

“About eighteen kilometers,” Galina said. “Just a straight path, that way.” She pointed toward the canyon. The witchy woman turned to follow her finger.

“There’s a settlement?” the man asked.

“It’s just us. We’re geologists, here for the summer. Working.”

“Working.” The man nodded and looked at them. “Leave now,” he said. “Don’t return, please.”

Galina protested, offering the gifts they’d carried, but the man was already ushering the others back into the hut. Before he shut the door, he crossed himself. From inside the house came cries and something like song.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Lost Believers includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Set in Soviet Russia in the 1970s, Lost Believers chronicles a chance encounter between two young women that forever alters the course of their lives. Galina is an ambitious young geologist with an influential father, leading a state scouting mission for iron deposits in a remote stretch of Siberian wilderness. Agafia is the youngest daughter of a family of Old Believers, a persecuted sect of Christians, who have been living in total isolation for decades. Galina and her pilot, Snow Crane, are the first people outside of her family Agafia has ever met. The growing friendship between the two women begins to challenge the beliefs and futures they had previously thought unshakable. As Agafia learns more about the world beyond her homestead and suffers several grievous losses, Galina begins to question her own role in the construction of a mine that threatens to displace her new friend’s family. Against the backdrop of the icy taiga and Soviet-era Moscow, this powerful novel explores faith and politics, family and friendship, and the relentless march of “progress” as it threatens the natural world.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. “You know, first contact is never good for the contacted,” Snow Crane tells Galina after they spot the Kols’s homestead from the helicopter (page 19). Discuss the first meeting between the family and the geologists. If you were the Kols, what would you have been feeling? How do you think the experience was different for Hugo, Agafia, and her older siblings?

2. Agafia is often visited by the ghost of Peter the Great (1672–1725), the Russian tsar who, though a great statesman and reformer, furthered persecution of the Old Believers. Why do you think her imaginary friend took this form? What did his presence do to, and for, Agafia?

3. The Kols’s faith is rooted in preservation of the past; the “god [Galina] was taught to love,” however, “was progress” (82). How does this tension between old and new ways of doing things play out in the story? In what ways are Galina’s political allegiances a kind of faith?

4. When Galina begins studying geology, she thinks of it as “wizardry and divination” (10), and later, after introducing herself as a geologist, someone calls her “a mystic” (244). Why does Galina’s relationship with the land take on a spiritual quality? How does nonreligious spirituality manifest in the novel for other characters?

5. Galina and Snow Crane had vastly different experiences with the Soviet state when they were growing up. How do these differences affect their lives, their relationship, and ultimately their futures?

6. Of her father, Galina says, “He’d never pass as a believable villain in a book . . . because he was too flat” (140). What did you think of his character and the actions he took to steer the events of the novel?

7. Discuss Agafia’s awakening to the outside world over the course of the novel. How does meeting the geologists set off a chain of events that alters the course of her life? What moments have the biggest impact on her internal journey and understanding of her place in the world?

8. Agafia’s brother Dima had confided in her his desire to start a family and build a life beyond their homestead. Why do you think he never did? When she herself is finally given the opportunity to leave, why do you think Agafia makes the decision she does?

9. What role does Agafia play in Galina’s awakening to the impact that her job for the state might have on the environment? Do you recall a moment of awakening in your own life about the global environmental crisis? What environmental issues today remind you of the ones Galina is forced to contend with in the novel?

10. “Do something real,” David implores Galina in a letter. “What are we destroying in order to build? Look closely. You can do more. I can too” (219). What did you think of the actions Galina ultimately takes? Could she have done more?

11. Discuss the role of loss and absence in the story. How do characters like the Kols, Snow Crane, Pavel, and Marat handle their grief over those they have lost?

12. If Galina and Agafia had never crossed paths, how might their futures have turned out differently? Do you think they would have been happier if they had remained ignorant of what they learned from each other?

13. Discuss the ending of the book. What do you imagine becomes of each of the characters after the final page?

14. What do you think is the meaning of the title Lost Believers?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Watch a 2013 documentary from Vice about the true story that served as the inspiration for Lost Believers, in which the producers visit the real-life Agafia in the taiga: https://youtu.be/tt2AYafET68

2. Read this article from UCLA’s National Heritage Language Resource Center to learn more about Old Believers and the lives of those who immigrated to the United States: https://nhlrc.ucla.edu/nhlrc/article/166943

3. Research the geology of the region where you live. Do you find yourself relating to Galina and her fascination with geology and the mysterious properties of the earth and minerals?

About The Author

Photograph by Sam Brown

Irina Zhorov was born in Uzbekistan, in the Soviet Union, and moved to Philadelphia on the eve of its dissolution. After failing to make use of a geology degree, she received an MFA from the University of Wyoming. She’s worked as a journalist for more than a decade, reporting primarily on environmental issues.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (August 1, 2023)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668011539

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Raves and Reviews

"Zhorov deftly explores the landscape of the two women's lives and the choices they must make as their worlds converge, mapping the forces of faith and fate, progress and preservation onto the backdrop of 1970s Soviet life."
—Scientific American

"A beautiful, mournful novel about faith gravely tempered by grief and the brutal iron of modernity bringing the greatest of losses. Zhorov's voice is fresh and appealing."
—Joy Williams, author of The Visiting Privilege and Harrow

Lost Believers reads like a journey into the heart of a dark Siberian fairytale—Irina Zhorov is a guide I trusted and believed in completely, and admired for the compassion she has for her characters, and for the earth itself.”
—Carys Davies, author of West and The Mission House

“This hard, beautiful, highly moving novel seems carved straight out of the Siberian landscape it so vividly describes. Whether she is evoking the mountains and woods of the legendary taiga or Moscow in the 1970s, Zhorov writes with vision and clarity. Galina and Agafia and the whole lost world they inhabit come wonderfully alive.”
—Laird Hunt, author of Zorrie and This Wide Terraqueous World

“Like the wilds of Siberia—wondrous, ruthless, and full of surprises. A novel about survival, about carving out space for joy in the face of brutality, about staying and about leaving, about choosing between freedom and the people you love.”
—Ash Davidson, author of Damnation Spring

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