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
Get a FREE audiobook by joining our mailing list today! Plus, receive recommendations for your next Book Club read.
Set in Soviet Russia in the 1970s, Lost Believers
explores 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?