Novgorod Region

The four lives of Viktor Stepanov: forester, poet and ex-Soviet entrepreneur.

Viktor is 70 years old. He has been living in dense forest for 22 years now, five kilometers away from the nearest village. It’s difficult to reach him: you have to walk to the river, cross it by boat and walk a long way through the forest. In winter the hermit will end up completely cut off from civilization, until river freezes over.

Once, these areas looked different: there were plowed fields all around and people lived in villages. After World War II, the region gradually became deserted and nature reclaimed it. Now there is a thick forest with ferns where you often come across bears. 

“I feel better when I’m away from people.”

Viktor was born far from these parts in 1946. When he was 10 years old,  his family moved to the village in the Novgorod region, from which his father hails. Viktor remembers being educated by intellectuals from Soviet Baltic countries, which at the time enjoyed more freedom compared to the rest of the USSR: “I received books from them and heard their arguments. My mind was all over the place – unable to unite idealism and the facts of life.” 

On May 1, while his schoolmates were gathering for the demonstration to celebrate International Workers’ Day, the future hermit attempted suicide in the nearby forest. Thus, his first life ended. Having graduated from high school in 1965, Viktor commenced his intense quest for purpose, which lasted six years. From those times he retained a strong case of telephonophobia, passion and disgust for literary fiction as well as an aversion for cinema and television.

In 1971 Viktor began studying nature. After graduating from a forestry college, he bid farewell to his father and started exploring the country, joining geological and biological expeditions to its furthest corners. There was also family life with a wife and children of his own – between the trips. 

Photography by Anna Amatuni

His third life commenced in 1992. After surviving two plane and three automobile crashes, Viktor finally settled at the Far East and started working at the Ussuriysk Nature Reserve of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He finally got access to all kinds of literature – from academic philosophical journals to pulp-fiction – and realized the necessity of studying human nature. At that time, his wife, who had left her job as director of a munitions factory in order to live in the forest, was by his side. They lived in a beautiful house, which had been built for the reserve by a famous architect, and raised two sons.

Viktor started a ginseng-farming enterprise in the reserve. He became the first private entrepreneur in the Soviet Union, receiving a license for it and producing more ginseng than the rest of the country combined. Being an energetic person, he established connections with Chinese importers and set up huge contracts with them. The business developed well: Viktor even rented helicopters to transport his products and hired Chinese workers to help tend to his plot of land.

“I actually talk to myself. To the trees, the bushes, the grasses, the birds, the earth – to everything. And especially to my dog. You haven’t yet heard how I bawl out songs.”

Wanting to do everything according to the law, he tried to make an agreement with the local authorities. As a result of a big meeting with the heads of local administrative bodies, he was offered 2 percent of the profits. He signed the document, but already knew that it was the end for his enterprise. And then one day, when he arrived home after traveling for several days, Viktor found a note from his wife: “Sorry, I can’t live like this anymore.”

His family stayed in the Far East but he moved back to the place where his father was born. In 1995 his fourth life started. Viktor spent two months wandering through the forest looking for the perfect place, and found it on top of a forest hill next to a stream. According to Viktor, he stayed here because he found a unique combination of soil quality and hills sloping in the cardinal directions.

Working by himself, he cleared several hectares of woodland and began growing wheat, rye, corn, beans, potatoes, watermelons, melons, grapes, fruit trees and medicinal herbs. On the outskirts of the forest, Viktor plants barberries, Siberian cedars, ginseng, and manchu filbert. He measures global warming by the plants which, before his eyes, have moved from the south to the north.

He has four cats who force out all the rodents on his plot and a dog, so that animals keep their distance. Seven years ago, in the middle of the night the dog started getting nervous but Viktor didn’t understand what the problem was and went back to sleep. When he woke up, he saw a huge dead wolf lying at his feet. It turned out that rangers had been hunting predators in the surrounding villages, and this wild animal had come to Viktor for help when he felt weak.

“You begin to understand the true nature of things when you’re alone.”

Viktor has a small pension which he uses to buy stale bread to make into croutons, sunflower oil, salt, cheap cigarettes and pork rinds for his animals. He has to stock up for late autumn and early spring, when it’s impossible to cross the river. At first, the people from the local villages admired the hermit – they helped him with his stove. Then they lost interest in him. Viktor says that it’s hard to find a companion – there’s no one to talk to. The people there are mostly ignorant, and the most important thing for him now is that they don’t cause problems for him.

For a long time, the authorities didn’t know what to do with him. But later the local land committee proposed that Viktor draw his plot of land onto a map, and they granted him unlimited use of it. He can’t sell it, but he can pass it on in his will. Now, two decades later, Viktor is gradually losing interest in his crops, and the plot of land is becoming overgrown. He still has the same energy, and regrets that he has nobody to pass his experience onto. He’d like to find a successor. But for now, he’s planning on moving deeper into the forest.

Viktor recites one of the poems that he has written in his spare time.

Once, Viktor was part of an underground philosophical group and was committed to a psychiatric hospital for criticizing the Soviet regime. Thoughts about nature and the place of humans in the biosphere have been following him his whole life. His worldview is in harmony with the world which he’s built for himself. Viktor says that after nine months in the forest, you’re left as if naked – alone with yourself. Sometimes there’s no way of avoiding melancholy, but the hermit writes poems and takes pleasure in his unbreakable bond with the natural world.