GAVDOS — The island first appears as a dark line on the horizon, offshore land debris southeast from the coastal village of Paleochora. Once you utter the island's name, Gavdos, everyone around you starts to behave differently: the car-rental agent, the hotel clerk, the innkeeper who served you a dinner of barley crispbread and octopus tentacles. Their faces light up as soon as they hear you say you are actually heading towards this mole-shaped emerging island in the Libyan sea.
To Cretans, Gavdos is a true gem, a kind of treasure island that attracts philosophical tourists, people who love quiet locations, and hippies living in shabby wooden cabins. It is also the immortals' island.
The people who live here call themselves simply "the group." Island natives call them "the Russians," which is fairly accurate. Most of the group members are from Russia, and their story began some 30 years ago, in a village close to Stavropol. In Gavdos, everyone knows about the Russians: No mystery, no secrets surround them.
But having no secrets doesn't prevent rumors and legends from flourishing. "The latest one we heard was that we were building a tunnel under the water that would go to Libya," says Rachel, a former Swiss teacher from Zurich who joined the Russians a few years ago. Her role seems to be public relations, a kind of liaison with the outside world. The Russians have been living in Gavdos since 1997, and they have been working on the notion of immortality ever since.
First true local encounter
These so-called immortals are expecting me for dinner at 8 p.m. But my car breaks down while exploring the island before the meeting. I call for help and quickly realize that every time something goes wrong on the island, the Russians come to the rescue. After a while, a man driving a small tractor appears. His name is Aleksander. Back in Russia, he was a physicist. Here, he paints church frescoes, builds walls, and creates weird-looking sculptures of giant feet and hands all over the island.
Gavdos — Photo: Gavdos Yoga Retreat Facebook page
"We're going to build some more road," Aleksander says as he takes a jack out of his car. Eventually, the car sets off again. Besides discussing philosophical concepts, the Russians also build houses, grow their own gardens, invent devices to transform atmospheric humidity into drinking water or to create an entire column of light with one single light bulb. They also try to mend what's wrong with the local culture.
"Some families have drifted apart and don’t talk to each other because of some old arguments no one remembers anything about now," says Rachel. "This is one of the reasons I started an online newspaper, the Gavdos Newspaper, which tells everyone's stories. "People haven't patched things up yet, but at least they are reading about each other's lives."
The island is about 30 square kilometers and has a registered population of 152, mostly middle-aged people, about 50 of whom live here year-round. When driving, only goats tend to pass your way, eating everything except pine trees and thyme, the plant that gives the island its peculiar scent. In the mid-20th century, Gavdos was partly abandoned. Its inhabitants accepted to exchange their land for a place in the new housing projects on Crete. Before that, when the country was ruled by dictator General Metaxas, it was home to exiled communists. And going back in time, Gavdos was a well-known hideout for pirates, and was also a Venetian, Byzantine and Roman stronghold. In Greek mythology, Gavdos was even known as Ogygia, the island on which Calypso the nymph held Ulysses hostage by giving him momentary immortality and then married him.
In those times and in traditional myths, immortality was seen as a spell, a supernatural gift. Today, it's a perceived way of life. "Immortality as a way of life" was even the name of a September 2013 symposium organized by the Russians' "Pythagorean Institute of Philosophical Studies for the Immortality of Man" (PIFEAA). Essentially, the group wants to reach physical immortality through the mind's sheer will. They believe that immortality may be possible if we stop programming our minds about mortality and start rejecting all known truths and preconceived ideas about death.
But why here? "We were looking for a place," the Russians say. At dinner that night, Aleksander, Rachel, Alexei, Alla, Marek sit around the table along with Soulis, a retired truck driver for whom the Russians have built a small castle-shaped house, and tell their story. While looking for the birth of the Greek civilization, the Russians traveled to Crete in the late 1990s. One day, they went to Paleochora, where they met a Gavdos Orthodox priest who took them the Gavdos village of Vatsiana, the southernmost European settlement. Today, only a couple of houses and hens are left, as well as the huge silhouette of an unfinished building, the work of four German psychiatrists who had planned to settle there. The island has always inspired the weirdest projects.
The place where the group settled is peaceful and breathtaking. A path bordered by prickly pear cactus leads to the astonishing blue sea. At night, the Milky Way lights the clear sky. Dolphins live around the island, and Marek says he's seen a couple of turtles and a seal.
Swimming in Gavdos — Photo: weidegruen
The origins of the group
The group was about 10 years old when they moved to Gavdos. Its founder is Andrei, a nuclear physicist who had been exposed to radiation during a voluntary mission to Chernobyl. He was told to see a doctor in a clinic, and quickly realized that the facility was full of people who just like him had been exposed. The doctor gave him some pills and an address to visit in Moscow. Andrei knew perfectly well that no pill could help him fight the effects of radiation. So Instead of going to Moscow, he decided to settle in a small village. He became a farmer and met someone. He drank huge quantities of vodka and worked a lot. All of this, the alcohol and his work, made him sweat, which is how he says he cleaned his body.
"That’s how we save ourselves, every day," Andrei jokes. On the island, the long days of hard work and intellectual questioning always end with countless glasses of homemade raki, the famous anise-flavored alcoholic drink.
So basically, a man exposed to radiation escaped a foretold death and was joined by a bunch of young physicists who decided to leave their careers and move to the countryside. "We began to study the writings of old Russian philosophers," says one of the Russians. "We began to see some connection: You could not understand this kind of philosophy without experiencing what the real Russian life was like — a way of life no one knows about when living in Moscow and working in a university department."
When spending time with the villagers, the Russians noticed some "daily miracles." An example: "One day, someone from the neighboring village asked us to help them move a heavy tree trunk," a group member recalls. "Six of us tried to get the piece into his truck, in vain. Then, two really skinny men came. They just said, ‘OK, let's do this.' And they did."
The lesson they say is that, "Our mind alters the abilities of our body."
Living like the Russians
The Russians still have ties with their country. "We have three houses in all: one here, one on Margarita Island in Venezuela, and one in the forest southwest of Moscow," one says. These are all remote places where few people live. "We travel from one to the other if necessary — for example, if one of us is more needed in some place than another."
With about 20 members, the group has a strong collective identity and always uses "we" to speak with one voice. Yet its existence seems to be the result of its members' individual personalities: their talents, their stories and their ways of thinking. They are not a traditional scientific research team, and they can't be compared to a hippie or libertarian community.
After a long night of talking and drinking raki, a hangover somehow eludes me. Rachel and Marek are ready to take me to Tripiti beach, on the southern part of the island. There, on the cliffs, the Russians have built two sites. One is the unfinished temple of Apollo. "The Orthodox priest knew about this, and he was supporting us in building this sanctuary," Rachel explains. "But the bishop intervened, and threatened to throw us in jail, along with the priest! Our idea was to build this for everyone to enjoy. So, we'll resume our work here when everybody wants to come." The Russians often go visit the different church buildings on the island, even painting frescoes and carving pieces of wood for the churches. But they would also like to resurrect the spiritual bond between the people and the old immortals, the ancient gods.
The second site is past some entwined cedars and along a strangely soft stretch of sand covered in golden hair-like algae. At the end of the beach, at the top of a rock formation, the Russians have built a giant chair. Rachel says the four legs are symbolic, as is the location, since this is the extreme south of Europe. Down the cliff, you can take off your clothes and get into the water — with the feeling that this is not just a typical ocean swim, but something life-changing.
The sculpture of oversized chair overlooking Tripiti beach — Photo: NackteElfe
On the second night, the glasses of raki are again filled. Immortality. Now how does that work? "Our bodies present so many possibilities of change that we don't use," Rachel says. "Why? Because we create a lifestyle in which change isn't needed: a dead world that viciously influences us and turns us into dead people. We think that is the true fundamental reason for death, the starting point of what we call psychological destruction."
Aleksei explains that some people try to change their beliefs by, for example, studying Eastern religions. "We see them coming to Gavdos from all over Europe, Aleksie says. "They say, 'Let's go survive into the forest.' For a year they try to create their own survival conditions. And then, they don't know what to do next. Some of them go home to their families. Others start to fall apart. It's not the best way to promote ideas."
One definite priority for the Russians is new ideas. At the same time, they believe it can be a good thing not to completely achieve a goal. "If you do, it's like a slow death, the death of an idea."
Alla says that every day the group tries to go beyond the usual given ideas surrounding death. He then shares his own story. "I used to work in a research center, and I saw my whole future ahead of me. I realized it was controlling me and driving me towards a certain kind of death. So I decided to change course, to not follow that path and to create a different way of life for myself."
Leaving these people and this place somehow feels like being dragged away from something. People often say that being aware of our own mortality is precisely what makes our life more valuable. But the Russians living here think differently. They think that immortality as a way of life means living every minute of every day feeling at peace. If immortality ever becomes possible, it will probably be because these kind, bizarre people are worthy of it and will know how to use it properly.