InRussia

Arkhangelsk Region

Vitaly Kolchikov lives on the northern edge of Russia, isolated from the rest of the world by the mountain rivers and dense forests.

Vitaly was born in a village. Later, he moved to a city and trained to be a painter. He looks at the world around him with great attention – it has to answer to his high artistic demands. From the 60-meter cliff where he now lives, there are stunning views of a winding river and endless forests.

The future hermit ended up here for a reason: eight years ago he became interested in his genealogy. Vitaly lived in Arkhangelsk at the time and started going to his local archive on weekends, and studying the church record books. There, following the lineage of the males in his family, he read about the places where his remote ancestors came from. 

“My forefathers came from somewhere around here, and my great-grandfather actually lived as a hermit nearby. So four years ago, I decided to go back to these parts.”

According to Vitaly, this place is good for living in every way: “Rapids are rougher further north and you can’t get there in the spring, when the snow melts and the water level rises. First of all, I like the cliffs here – it’s a beautiful place. Secondly, there’s a lot of dry wood which was left behind after a fire, and can be used as building material and as firewood. There’s a gap in the ground where I dug a well, a clearing where I can plant and farm, and a spring where I collect delicious drinking water. There’s a lot of food: bilberries as well as black and redcurrants. Cloudberry is growing in the marsh nearby, and there are plenty of mushrooms.” The hermit doesn’t eat meat and fish, or drink alcohol. 

Vitaly looks nothing like the glum recluse you might expect to meet at the edge of the world.

All around there are kilometers of impenetrable thickets, and forest everywhere. Not far from the house there’s a river which connects the hermit with the outside world. To reach to the nearest village with its shops requires a 120-kilometer boat trip; even then it’s necessary to cross dozens of rapids. For this purpose, he has a long thin boat that he built himself and which looks like an Indian canoe. In spring, he takes it and drifts along with the spring waters to stock up for a whole year. He collects his pension which has accumulated, and buys only the most necessary things. 

“Sometimes you find yourself in rapids against the current, and you wonder whether or not you’ll get out of them alive.”

The trip to the village, traveling with the current, takes a day, but the return trip is longer and more arduous. The river is full of rapids and, if the current is favorable on the first leg of the journey then on the way back, Vitaly has to get around some of the difficult stretches of river by traversing on dry land; he drags the loaded boat by hand. He only buys the most simple and non-perishable products: cereals, flour, sugar and tea. On foot, the village is 90 kilometers away, or two days’ walk: “There aren’t any roads, so I have to walk through the forest and along the river bank. There are these bumpy spots where you’re edging along, and you have to grab onto trees so that you don’t fall. Recently I hewed out a clearing, about 25 kilometers along the cliff edge, but after that I still have to make my way through dense forest.”

Vitaly lived in the village where he gets his groceries for two years before he decided to settle in the forest. He worked there, although without pay. He had set up an art workshop for the village children near the school, and helped them get to grips with the basics of academic painting. Vitaly spent all his money on materials – paper and paints – and didn’t take any money for his efforts. But he gradually came to realize that even this village had too many people for him. 

Vitaly lives off berries and mushrooms as well as groceries, which he buys in the nearest village.

In his previous life the recluse had a family, but his children have grown up and there was a rift between him and his wife. In those days he worked for a development company designing buildings. Vitaly then put together his own team, procured areas of forest and did the construction himself, until his business was wiped out by a neighboring developer who had friends in high places. 

The hermit built his current home only for himself. The bright, two-story studio is situated just by the river amidst the ancient forest highlands. This is a place he built for his creative and intellectual work, to which he dedicates all of his time. In the future, Vitaly plans to bring an element of comfort to his home by adding a workshop, veranda and bathhouse to the building. He built the house alone, according to his own plans, and brought all the tools and materials he needed, except wood, from the nearest village: glass for the windows, metal and bricks for the stove. 

“What’s the point of explaining to everyone why I came here? After all, most people won’t understand.”

The villagers gave different explanations for Vitaly’s retreat into the woods. Someone speculated that he was hiding. Others thought that he’d simply gone mad. There are also those who judge him; they think that a person living in the woods will have a negative effect on the animals, and scare them away. He doesn’t judge the villagers, but doesn’t understand them; the hermit finds the distrust between people strange. 

He believes that many problems in life can be solved through cooperation but, in his view, the ability to cooperate was lost from village life in the 1990s. It was this lack of understanding and the resentment he felt towards other people’s lifestyles that pushed him in the direction of hermitry. Vitaly admits that he still needs human interaction and that he sometimes misses people, but he can no longer constantly live with, near or like them. 

Vitaly continues to paint and uses his art to visualize his dreams and future plans.

The recluse buys a lot of books. He orders them online during his expedition to the village, and then collects them on his next trip to the outside world. He worked out this way of collecting books a long time ago, before he became a hermit. He’s picky in his literary taste and ordinary bookshops can’t always satisfy his printed needs. The hermit has a special relationship with books and talks at length about reading. In his former, “normal” life, his family library held 4,000 books. He even visited his old home especially to collect some of them.

Vitaly’s life, like that of anyone who doesn’t live in a city, is strongly dictated by the seasons. Summer is dedicated to building, as well as collecting berries and mushrooms, which he stores in large quantities. In winter, there’s more time for reading.

“What else do I do here? I sit by the stove and I think. I go out to chop firewood and I think. If you think about it, I do intellectual work.”

Sometimes Vitaly is visited by particularly tenacious tourists who have reached his space by river and discovered his house. Last year, he was visited by a small group, one of whom knew Dmitri Vasyukov, director of the film “Happy People.” The tourists compared the hermit with the film’s protagonists: hunters in the taiga. He himself didn’t agree with such a comparison, and it’s easy to see why. For him, hermitry is a chance for reflection. While he is doing physical work, he doesn’t allow his internal, intellectual work to stop. Hunters in the taiga are deeply rooted in their activities but, in Vitaly’s view, they’re unhappy: “They don’t develop; they live by hunting, they don’t read books. They just sit in their huts and make traps. It’s as if they themselves turn into animals – the same predators, just cleverer.”

In winter, when there isn't much work around the household, Vitaly mainly reads books and complains about the lack of daylight.

In contrast, the recluse’s life is dedicated to reading and thinking, for the sake of which he moved away from people. He believes that “the more information each person collects and the more intellectual work he does, the closer he’ll be to the truth.” Vitaly has now reached a stage of comprehension; he doesn’t deny the importance and value of family, of meeting and talking to people, but he thinks that now, in his later years, it’s time for him to understand and finally internalize what he has learned over his lifetime.