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.

You Might Also Like

Distorted Portrait of an Artist
  • July 01, 2014

Distorted Portrait of an Artist

Ilya Repin was one of Russia's most famous, prolific and talented artists. So why was he dismissed by some in the Soviet era?
Searching for St. Nicholas
  • January 01, 2021

Searching for St. Nicholas

A town on the Turkish coast preserves the memory of one of Russia’s most venerated saints.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
Russia Rules

Russia Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
The Best of Russian Life

The Best of Russian Life

We culled through 15 years of Russian Life to select readers’ and editors’ favorite stories and biographies for inclusion in a special two-volume collection. Totalling over 1100 pages, these two volumes encompass some of the best writing we have published over the last two decades, and include the most timeless stories and biographies – those that can be read again and again.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567

802-223-4955