At home with a hermit

South of Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk

Ilya Naymushin

By Ilya Naymushin

Viktor is a hermit who, for the last ten years, has lived all alone in the wild Siberian forest by the banks of the Yenisei River.

I first heard about him in September, when I went out sailing with some yachting buddies of mine, looking for beautiful autumn scenes to photograph. One of my yachtsmen friends suddenly asked: “Do you know that there’s a hermit who lives near here, completely alone? Do you want to visit him and take his picture?” “I don’t know. Yeah, sure, I’d like to,” I replied.

After that conversation, the day eventually came when I went out with my brother Alexey in his boat to meet the hermit. In a distant corner of a deep cove, hidden from view, we spotted a shabby wooden hut. We were in luck, the hermit was at home.

I left the yacht and there I found myself – just him and me.

Viktor seemed quite chatty and kind. I gave him some packets of Kent cigarettes and he lit up at once. My friends, who had met Viktor earlier, had told me that he liked to smoke and they were right. He didn’t stop the entire time I was there.

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I told Viktor that I was interested in people who fit into the category “one in a million” and he seemed to be just that type of person. He was happy for me to photograph elements of his daily life, but he didn’t want to give a direct answer to the question of why he had left civilization behind. He also wouldn’t tell me his surname. He did tell me, however, that he used to work as a bargeman on the Yenisei River and that he can operate different kinds of riverboats.

Viktor is 57 and lives alone in a small hut that he made himself. He doesn’t only live there over the summer, but during the harsh Siberian winter too. He told me that he feels weak in the winter because the forest doesn’t give him energy then; he says the forest is resting. Therefore, Viktor rests too during the winter. He eats fish, mushrooms, and berries that he saves up during the warm season. If he’s ill, he treats himself with wild medicinal grasses, which he collects in the woods.

Viktor told me that he is protected by Jesus and he showed me a huge tattoo of Christ on his back. He seemed extremely religious; he keeps a Bible under his mattress, and reads it frequently. He has even made a special religious hat, which he wears during Bible readings.

Despite being a hermit, Viktor is by no means unsociable. He does not mind kind visitors, and local fishermen and tourists come to see him every once in a while. He also crosses the wide Yenisei River from time to time to sell fish and buy essentials, like flour, salt, matches, and gasoline for his boat’s motor.

On the western bank of the Yenisei River there is a road and people come and go. On the eastern bank, where Viktor lives, there is nothing. No signs of civilization: no roads, no electricity lines, no buildings. Only steep, rocky banks and untouched forest.

Sometimes a bear comes down from the hill to where Viktor lives. “I drive it away,” he told me, “otherwise, what would happen if he starts liking it here?” Viktor didn’t explain how he chases the animal away. He doesn’t have a gun, only the hunting knife on his belt. “A bear is like a human. He understands everything. The bear knows that this is my house, and that I’m the one who owns the place.”

Several years ago, Viktor had a run-in with state inspectors along the river. They saw that his boat had no registration number, and they demanded that he register it. But for Viktor that was out of the question. Instead, he made a polyfoam raft, because rafts don’t need to be registered. All through the summer, he used oars to paddle it across the river.

Eventually, the head of the river inspection unit was replaced and the hermit was left in peace. Now Viktor crosses the river on a small motorboat.

His staple food is fish, which he catches with nets. He fishes all year long, even through the winter, when he has to make holes in the ice. When I gave the signal to the yacht to take me home, Viktor told me that I had probably been sent to him by God that day. He smiled and showed me the cigarettes I had brought him. That’s how much he loves to smoke!