3 Truth and fiction in Barge Haulers on the Volga: what actually was work of barge haulers

Truth and fiction in Barge Haulers on the Volga: what actually was work of barge haulers

The painting “Barge Haulers on the Volga”, that made Ilya Repin famous, since its introduction caused mixed reviews. Someone admired the skill of the artist, someone accused him in deviating from the truth of life. Why does the famous painting provoke a scandal at the state level, and how Repin actually sinned against reality?

These are images of poor ragamuffins, earning a living by overwork, known by everyone from school textbooks. Barge haulers in the XVI-XIX centuries were wage workers, who with the help of string pulled riverboats upstream. Barge haulers united in cooperatives of 10-45 people, there were even women cooperatives. Despite the hard work, during the season (spring or fall) haulers could earn so much that they could live comfortably within half a year. Because of poverty and poor harvests peasants often became haulers, but mostly such work was done by bums and homeless.

Shubin argues that in the XIX century haulers work was like this: on a barge, there was installed a large drum with a rope wound on it. People sat in the boat, took a cable end with three anchors and sailed upstream. There they threw anchors into the water one by one. Haulers on the barge pulled the rope from bow to stern, winding it on a drum. Thus they “pulled up” barge upriver: they walked back and the deck beneath their feet moved forward. As they winded the rope, they again went to the bow of the ship and did the same thing. On the shore, they had to pull only when the ship was sinking stranded. That is reflected in the episode of Repin – an isolated case.


3 Responses to “Truth and fiction in Barge Haulers on the Volga: what actually was work of barge haulers”

  1. Papa Karlo says:

    The real life of Burlaki was described pretty well in “My roamings” by Gilyarovsky. He himself worked as a burlak. And according to him, hauling barges like on Repin’s picture, was not an isolated case, but a usual deal, in 1870s.

  2. Martin Barlow says:

    By placing a steam vessel downstream on the right of the painting, Repin himslef was indicating that the barge hauers’ way of life was coming to an end. Unfortunately and unforgivably, it is cut out of your reproduction of the painting.
    Of course the old guard would criticise Repin, they wanted everything shown as hunky dory, with no criticism of life in Russia under the regime they were a part of. It was the same everyewhere (e.g. Constable in England) when artists started depicted actual lived experience. But the photographs of actual barge haulers and Repin’s depiction have a remarkably similar overall feel.

  3. L R Tuggle says:

    Excellent article -thank you. A piece of art that many have seen but knew little about. There is always more to the story than appears on the surface. (I can’t look at that picture with hearing the Re Army Chorus singing “Song of the Volga Boatmen” in my head -YO HO HEEEAVE HO)

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