InRussia

Sverdlovsk Region

Documentary investigation into the disappearance of Leonid Shainov.

Leonid Shayinov’s house is located in the forest of the South Urals, seven kilometers from the village Sabik. Our guide, having stumbled upon the house of the hermit several years ago during a hunt, took us directly through the forest in knee-deep snow, to see him. When we arrived, we found that the house and the whole property had been destroyed, and that Leonid himself was nowhere to be found. There were holes in the walls and the roof, the floor and ceiling had been taken to pieces, the second house had been flattened down to its timbers, and the metal constructions had been knocked down. It would have taken at least three men, working for several days, to destroy everything so systematically. 

After spending several hours at the destroyed house, surrounded by the majestic wintry forest, we happened to find the frame of an old bus nearby, which had a wooden roof built on top – clearly the work of the hermit himself. We then set out to understand what had happened to Leonid. In order to do this, we decided to talk to people from the neighboring villages, who might know something about his fate. Below is the story we collected from these pieces of information.

VLADIMIR NIKITIN
hunter and guide

What were they looking for – treasure? They raised the entire floor. It couldn’t have happened just like that. You see, guys, bad luck, tough break. So what happened here? Wasn’t there a note left behind? I spoke to him once. He used to work for a logging company. Then he retired, but was left in charge of guarding this big house. Later they came and told him that the business had closed down and that there was nothing for him to wait for: he wouldn’t be receiving his wages. But he stayed and lived here from 1992.

Something doesn’t add up. If he’d left the place, he wouldn’t have destroyed anything, of course. Someone moved him out of here – he was in someone’s way. Maybe he fell afoul of someone? There are some abandoned houses near the central station where lots of homeless people live. Maybe they came here, kicked him out, and destroyed everything. He was an easygoing man. After living in the forest for so long, with whom was he going to clash? Hunters were fine with him. The guys who would talk to him as they passed through told me that he was still here in September.

According to those who had visited Leonid's home, it was kept in good working order before being ransacked by unknown trespassers.

Here are his newspapers, “Zhizn” (Life), do you see? There’s medical literature lying around. And here are some seeds – he had a vegetable patch. And generally his house was in good, manly working order. Here’s his axe, his saw – everything’s still here. He would move wood and collect water with this sled. I was also surprised that we passed the place where he usually collected water and there were no traces left.  He had a store there and kept food in this container so that mice wouldn’t get into it. But now it’s a complete ruin.

Here’s proof that he was living here recently. There’s some packaged meat, do you see? Alright, let’s leave it for the animals. But I still don’t understand the logic behind destroying everything. Okay, I could understand if the house was destroyed and someone took the windows and doors for their dacha. But why demolish the bathhouse? You can’t do that by hand; you need to have some kind of heavy equipment. He also had a generator attached to a bicycle – he would turn the pedals and charge batteries for reading. Someone has taken it apart and removed all the brass wiring to sell. Only homeless people or escaped convicts do that, and there are enough labor camps around. And here are some chopped up logs – he was planning to spend the winter here. So what happened? It’s beyond me.

TATYANA TEBENKOVA & NADEZHDA MANUYLOVA
shop assistants

We haven’t seen him for a long time – several months. He was a cheerful old man. He’d come to us to stock up on groceries: tomato paste, bacon, condensed milk. He didn’t drink, you see. He only bought things that would keep for a long time – he would stock up.

Maybe he just moved away somewhere and someone got into his house and destroyed it. We thought that his relatives had taken him to the town. He has a daughter… I think. He didn’t really say much about it, but he let slip that some relatives or friends were coming to visit him. He said that they wanted him to come with them to the town. He was generally an easygoing person and everyone thought well of him. Although he didn’t really talk to anyone – he’d just come and go.

FAUZIA IDIYATULLINA
librarian

He died. We were told by the police department that his body was found somewhere in Primorsky Krai. It’s unclear what he was doing there, but that’s what we were told. He was registered here – that’s why we were told by the area office. People from the investigative committee went to his house but everything was already destroyed and only the walls were left. He lived here for a long time but we never heard about him being burgled or anything. Everyone knew him – he went to the library and the shop. He was a nice old man: calm, quiet, likeable, well-read. He took out a lot of books from the library.

NATALIA SCHERBAKOVA
postal worker

We didn’t really know him as such. He came to the post office, ordered lots of books, subscribed to newspapers and magazines and always collected them himself. He clearly loved to read. The last time he came here was in May and we asked him whether he was going to renew his subscription for the next six months. He said that, for the time being, he wouldn’t. We said “you’re probably thinking of moving away?” He didn’t say anything, but he generally wasn’t very talkative. He told me recently that some local guys went to his place and stole something. But apart from that he never said anything. He didn’t tell me about any relatives. He once received a letter from somewhere near Samara, and that’s it. I myself never went to his place. People from the regional newspaper went to his house and wrote an article about him. We saw the photo in it of him pedaling his bike so that he’d have light.

Little evidence was found in the house by the authorities as to what had happened to Leonid in the Far East.

His newspapers have stayed here since June because he didn’t come to collect them. We lost him and we even wanted to tell our boss that he’d disappeared. Maybe he was eaten by bears, who knows? He himself told us that wolves walk around and howl at night. How he ended up in the Far East is a mystery to everyone. Where was he going? People say that he might have gone there for herbs. He worked with herbs and there are some in the Far East that we don’t have here. They told us that they found him murdered there. You couldn’t say that he was ill – he was a very hardy guy. I don’t know why it happened. They say that money was found on him. If he’d been killed, the money would have been taken. How it happened is a mystery.

SERGEY MEZENIN
head of the village

We visited him once and talked about life for 10 or 15 minutes. But he was generally a withdrawn person – I don’t know why he didn’t talk to us. He told us that he arrived in Sabik in the early 1990s. There they got dry lumber and made planks at the sawmill. At first he worked on a tractor, then he worked as a driver. He stayed behind when the group of workers left and lived in this house, not disturbing anyone.

In the summer they said that they’d found him murdered in Primorsky Krai. We were shocked: he wasn’t planning on going anywhere and he received his pension in Shalyu. He himself said that he had enough money.  He didn’t plant anything and didn’t say what he did with his time. He went for water, heated the bathhouse, and had his own radio set on which he used to listen to the news. The last time we spoke he didn’t even let us into the house. We stood and talked, and then we left and he stayed. After 20 years, he was used to being alone. I asked him why he didn’t have any animals and he said that he used to have a dog but it died and he didn’t need anything else.

A recipe for raspberry wine that was found in the hermit's cabin – with a drawing on the back.

DMITRY SIVKOV
editor-in-chief of the local newspaper

Сlick here for the 2013 account by Dmitry Sivkov for “Shalinskiy Vestnik” (Shalya Bulletin).
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A Robinson Crusoe of his own free will
Text by Dmitry Sivkov

For a decade and a half, this former city dweller has been living the life of a hermit in the Shalinsky Forest.

“I can’t remember who said: ‘The more I got to know people, the more I liked animals.’” This is the aphoristic answer Leonid gave when he was asked what made him exchange his life in Yekaterinburg for a life far away from society and the rewards of civilization.

However, the man doesn’t produce the impression of a misanthrope, and he doesn’t warrant the characterization of a loner which was given by those who spoke to him before.

The inquiries I made about this person, who settled in the forest somewhere between Sabik and Staroutkinsk, before visiting him led mainly to the finding that the elderly man is not particularly welcoming to guests and even refuses to be photographed. He’s also not averse, on a fine day, to watching the sunflowers turning their golden tops toward the sun, and he doesn’t shell the seeds himself but watches in delight as the forest birds pick at them. Nevertheless, this didn’t scare me off from visiting the hermit’s cloister – quite the reverse.

It was just getting to the place that didn’t work out straight away: bad weather, urgent business either of the man himself or the Staroutkinsk resident who had agreed to be our guide. In the end, it was decided not to wait until all the stars aligned. The Head Forester of the Eastern Forestry Division Yevgeny Aksentyev marked a route in red ink on a printed satellite photo of an area of the region and wished us luck. We needed it, as it turned out. We failed, as we realized later, to find the path leading from the Sagra-Sabik road to the house. It’s true, the chosen route did take us in the right direction – heading due east, it was impossible to miss the high-voltage power line, near which the destination of our journey was marked (only again in the wrong place). In the end, after considerable wandering in the surrounding countryside, we saw the pointy slope of a roof in the open woodland.

But, as it turned out, it was too early to breathe a sigh of relief – the owner wasn’t there. After wandering around the buildings and calling out in the direction of the forest, our small expedition was already preparing for the walk back. And then, for the first time, fortune smiled on us with a big toothy smile – there, on the path leading from the thicket, appeared Leonid. With an axe in his hands (another one, placed in a holster made from an old felt boot, hung from his shoulder), he was preparing firewood. After exchanging greetings he never stopped examining his uninvited guests, and the reason behind this curiosity became clear after the question: “So where are your weapons?” We had been taken for huntsmen. No one else walks in these parts. And, actually, why refute it? That’s what we were – huntsmen, but for a different kind of game: the Bluebird of Luck.

Against all expectations, the man didn’t mind having his photograph taken and didn’t object to telling us about his life. However, this was only true about his present life – when the conversation turned to the past, he grew quiet. All we learned was that he had a family, which now lives a completely independent life. Details of the family drama remained beyond the scope of the conversation. And the same can generally be said about his past life as a whole.

“The only thing that has been useful to me here,” says Leonid, “is what I, at some time, learned to do with my hands. All scientific knowledge, forgotten by my brain, turned out to be void and useless. How does the fact that the Earth is round help me?! After all, to this day there are tribes living in Africa and South America who couldn’t care less about this knowledge, since it doesn’t make their lives any easier.”

You understand that the person is being sincere, but at the same time you notice that he has rebuilt his life with the help of, among other things, what his “brain has forgotten.” Take, for example, his home’s electricity supply. It’s provided by a recharging unit which is powered by foot. The construction looks like an exercise bike, put together around the basic structure of a bicycle frame (which was clearly found in a junkyard). A belt leads from the back wheel to a rotating generator, which feeds a car battery. You get the feeling that the plastic bottles and other containers which clutter a good part of the house are not symptoms of a hoarder, but are also being accumulated for some specific purpose.

“For five minutes a day, I spin the pedals and everything’s sorted: it’s good for your heart, there’s light in the house, and I can listen to the news on the radio,” says the creator introducing his retro-gadget (a switch clicks and a Chinese tape recorder without a back panel starts to broadcast). “That’s all I need. I don’t watch television – it uses up a lot of electric energy, you’ll wear yourself out cycling. So you have to use the energy sparingly.”

Having a go at spinning the pedals is too much to resist. It’s not easy exercise – it’s as if you’re cycling uphill. After five minutes your back will definitely be covered in sweat.

Sweating is something to which, with his lifestyle, Leonid is no stranger. The firewood alone, which he chops by hand, takes so much effort! At the same time, there are also economy measures taken here: the big brick stove in the middle of the house has become part of the interior because it uses up too much firewood. Instead, the house is heated by a small cast-iron stove. The bath house is out of action for the same reason. There is a small cubicle for washing which is half the size of the vestibule in a passenger train – set it up once and the job is done.

Judging by appearances, the forest dweller bathes regularly. He’s well-groomed and generally looks great for his 74 years. However, it’s unlikely that he set himself this goal when, in 1999, after retiring, he moved here permanently. Before that he also came here regularly, when he worked at the lumber mill here. Now, the only reminders of those times are a few decrepit outbuildings and the house itself, which the new occupant had to finish building and insulate.

The garlands of dried mushrooms and bunches of some kind of plant hanging from the ceiling move us onto the topic of food and health. As it turns out, Leonid didn’t plan on becoming a herbalist (apart from adding a few herbs to tea which, when seasoned with salt and pepper, he considers to be the most important medicine), just as he didn’t turn out a gardener, as evidenced by the rotting cucumber plot underneath his window. Two or three times a month he walks ten kilometers to Sabik for groceries, and he also needs to collect his pension, magazines and newspapers at the post office. The elderly man admits that he stopped reading books a long time ago, but he subscribes to the printed press. To get to the road in winter he has to stamp out a path in the show. He used to use skis, which he’d leave not far from the road, but once, when returning from the village, he found that they weren’t there. Someone had taken a fancy to the old hunting skis.

And that’s his whole relationship with the world of people. People had offered to set up a mobile phone for him (mine caught a signal near the power line and went off) for emergencies, but the hermit declined:

“If something serious happens, they won’t get here in time anyway. As for small matters – I can deal with those myself.”

Nearby, against a backdrop of withering grass, a young pine forest blooms brightly, laid out exactly geometrically. It turns out this isn’t an accident. This is the way in which Leonid is trying to realize his idea of a “living house.” The pine trees are planted around the perimeter of the future rooms and, when the trees have grown, the trunks, in theory, should join together and form walls. All that will be left to do is make openings for windows and doors (there are no trees planted in these places). All this is unlikely to happen sooner than 25-30 years. The innovator himself doesn’t expect to live to see it, but he hopes that after his passing, the habitable space won’t only be lived in by wild animals.

Bears and wolves do walk around nearby, and in winter the latter sometimes drop in as guests, but a face-to-face encounter hasn’t happened so far – they use different paths. Moreover, Leonid always carries an axe with him – you never know. As for a gun, the forest dweller hasn’t picked one up for a long time. He takes pity on game and wild animals, and their adversarial positions aren’t equal: a person is armed, whereas the animals simply play the role of doomed prey.

Finally, I ask Leonid why he doesn’t keep a dog.
“I had dogs, but they don’t live long. You get used to them, grow attached to them, and then they die. It’s very distressing.”

But having a dog is great, of course! After all, it was Heinrich Heine who said: “the more I get to know people, the more I like dogs.” And only later did that aphorism serve as a subject for the poet Fedotov, whose poem “The Hunt” (“Okhota”) ends with the words: “The more I get to know people, the more I learn about life, the more I love animals.” That’s more like it – it’s much broader. And here, everyone has their own perspective, which has little to do with where you live and more to do with how and by which principles.

P.S. Already late in the evening, when I was looking over the photographs in the editorial office and making notes, the phone rang.

“So, how’s everything going? Okay?” asked the Head Forester Yevgeny Aksentyev. “I was getting worried that you’d gotten lost in the forest.”

I had to reassure him: we’d found the place and found our way back. But I didn’t start to tell him that another question was now bothering me: “Who has lost their way more in life: me, or a person who has chosen to base his existence on the principle of unity with nature?”

I saw him several times on the train – he had a kind of profound appearance and his eyes were clear and blue. In general, all our village dwellers are open, but even compared to them his unusual look stood out. I saw him a couple of times, and when I came across him in the forest, I immediately remembered this character. I don’t know what his past was like, but, all the same, he drew attention to himself.

We followed some kind of markers to get there: they told us where to turn, where to walk, but we still wandered around for a long time. That was in the autumn and I could only imagine what winter there would be like. You have to prepare wood, and move it by hand. Such a lifestyle takes a lot of strength – not just physical but emotional. It’s madness! I immediately thought of Robinson Crusoe. I could feel a great strength in him, but I could also sense that he was living on the edge of his physical capabilities. To be honest, I was scared for him. There was a sense that he had slightly overestimated himself and that he was aiming for something but didn’t have enough strength for it.

He had this crazy idea about his house. He planted pine trees very close to each other like a wall. He had made a plan for the space: here was the living room, here was the guest room, here was the kitchen. He was constantly waiting for the pines to grow, interlock, and then he’d have a house. Even a layman knows that pines can’t grow like that, but in his fantasy they had already grown into a two-story house.

Click on the picture for translations of poems from the notebook found in the hermit's home.
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Look at the people close by – how many sad faces!
And how dark and mournful are the faces of those far away…
Don’t be downhearted, brother, don’t renounce
Your original intentions.
You have one road, my brother,
Hurry, don’t turn back,
Do your own thing and don’t listen to others,
Don’t fear judgement or obstruction.

Who will you fill with strength
If you yourself are weak?
Wake up from your somber sleep,
Be persistent and brave.
Master yourself, do not fear
To do battle with yourself.
The universe will respond
Like a brother to your voice.
Go forth, brave and firm.
On the road, misfortunes will threaten you,
But do not fear. It’s not worth
Looking back.
Fear is not a worldly evil.
It is within your breast.
But with your own will
Defeat it by yourself.

It was like he was fueled by these wild and beautiful ideas, but you couldn’t say that he had lost his mind. He didn’t just have his head in the clouds – his feet were also firmly on the ground and he was able to run his house. The saying “he’s not of this world” refers to people like him. He clearly lived a spiritual life, but he also, it seemed to me, entertained himself with this new-age stuff. He wasn’t a Christian hermit, though he did have a cross hanging in his house. But without your own special philosophy it’s impossible to withstand that kind of lifestyle.