October 16, 2021

A New Spin on an Old Painting


A New Spin on an Old Painting
Yes, they even made it a postage stamp in 1969! (Note the missing ship cut out of the image to emphasize the downtrodden workers.) Wouldn't a letter with this stamp in your mailbox just brighten your day? Wikimedia Commons user Kroton

Ilya Repin's famous Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-1873; Russian Museum) was used as a convenient Soviet tool to show how the tsars had exploited the people. The desperate looks on the faces of downtrodden men literally dragging a ship with their bodies are haunting.

But the internet is awash with stories of the barge haulers having a much better life than Repin depicted. Think of it as a twenty-first-century effort to prove the Soviets wrong. These internet posts allege that nineteenth-century barge haulers earned a salary equal to that of a middle class doctor or teacher at a gimnaziya (advanced university-bound school). The haulers replaced their regular clothes with rags so as not to ruin their nice outfits. Their meals were provided, including black caviar, and many could buy land with their earnings quicker than men in many other industries could.

It is a nice story – of the kind the internet loves – but it does not add up. It turns out that "boatmen," as in the "Song of the Volga Boatmen," is too generous of a translation; "barge haulers" more accurately depicts what they really had to do.

A journalist correcting the internet myths explains that barge hauling was common, necessary, and not at all a unique form of exploitation invented by the tsars: "From time immemorial, up to the mass appearance of steamships in Europe, Russia, America, Asia, and Africa, loaded ships were pulled by people with ropes against the current. Less commonly, horses." In Russia, these haulers were peasants, mostly illiterate, and were fed something closer to rancid bread than black caviar. They surely were not buying their own land after hauling for a few years.

In Soviet schools, pupils repeated this verse: "Go out to the Volga, whose moan is heard / Over the great Russian river? / This moan is called a song / So the barge haulers are on the line!" That moan really was justified.

It turns out that a picture is worth a thousand words, and no further explanation is needed for Repin's masterpiece. The internet may dislike the extent to which Repin's giant painting was used as a propaganda instrument, but the Soviets were right about the grueling life of the unfortunate barge haulers. They were wrong, however, in citing it as a uniquely Imperial Russian problem.

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