A casual search of some of the most physical demanding jobs in history led me strangely to artist impressions of workers hauling stone blocks during the construction of the pyramids in Egypt. A more refined search in a modern context resulted in finding images of burlaks hauling barges upstream on the Volga River in the early 20th century in the Russian Empire. On first impression I was stunned by the sight of men (and women) hauling freight and other vessels and wondered if this was a uniquely Russian experience of the poor looking for work. A closer examination of this type of work revealed that it was quite widespread throughout Europe where it was necessary to help navigate ships with cargo along rivers and canals.
A story history of burlaks and their importance to trade along the Volga can be traced back to the end of 16th and early 17th century. These burlaks were hardworking individual whose main job, seasonally – in the fall and spring – was to heave cargo ships against the flow of the Volga. It is believed that their numbers swelled to over half a million by the 19th century before their importance as ship haulers declined and all but disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century thanks to industrial age innovations.
Fortunately our fascination with burlaks has been immortalised in a traditional Russian song and maybe more importantly on canvas by Ukrainian-born Russian realist painter, Ilya Repin, in his painting Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73). It is noteworthy to mention that Repin wasn’t the only Russian to have been inspired by the sheer hardship burlaks faced on the the banks of the Volga River. Russian painters such as, Alexey Savrosov and Vasily Vereshchagin, both created seminal works of their own. Interestingly, the latter painted his genre painting of burlaks in 1866, seven years earlier than Repin’s painting.
Anyone with a keen interest in art history will tell you that Ilya Repin was one of the most famous Russian painters of the 19th century. It is no accident that this is my second history painting series feature, the first being Ivan the Terrible and His Son (1885), by this illustrious artist. What I really like about Repin is his uncanny ability of capturing an important moment in time, especially a snapshot of Russian life that was important to him. That said, the idea of painting barge haulers along a riverbank first dawned on Repin during a summer holiday in Samara on Volga in 1870. During that time he met a team of burlaks who became the inspiration for his first drawings and sketches. Some of these men he would eventually befriend and learn that they weren’t always haulers. With an array of backgrounds from former soldiers to even a defrocked priest, Repin took inspiration in their inhuman hardship turning what he witnessed into a masterpiece on canvas.
Repin composition is interesting on many levels and moreover a fine example of social realist and genre painting. Importantly the work is not just a tragic representation of the suffering of barge haulers by those wishing to gain profit, but a testament to their herculean efforts to persevere in the face of adversity.
Dressed in tatters clothing and collectively bound with leather harnesses, eleven heroic individuals struggle to haul a barge along the riverbank of the Volga in Repin’s history painting. Four features in particular intrigue me in how Repin has portrayed the barge haulers. The first is the fair-headed hauler, who stands upright in defiance as if he ready to release himself from the shackles of his leather harness. Next is the hauler at the end of the line who has resigned himself to the fact that he can pull no longer. Thirdly, the hauler who seemingly stares directly at the viewer paints a picture of a man almost on the verge of defeat. He leans so hard forward in his leather bounds that you feel his desperate efforts. Finally, you can’t escape the exhausted expression of the lead hauler wearing a bandana, whose looks deep in thought as if wondering how he came to find himself in this predicament. According to Repin, this intriguing individual is the defrocked priest, Kanin, whom he met while preparing his work in Samara. In his empathy for the priest, Repin once wrote, “There was something eastern about it, the face of a Scyth…and what eyes! What depth of vision!…And his brow, so large and wise…He seemed to me a colossal mystery, and for that reason I loved him. Kanin, with a rag around his head, his head in patches made by himself and then worn out, appeared none the less as a man of dignity; he was like a saint.”
This painting appears in the public domain.