The Bane of Russian Intellectuals. Part II.

It is important that you read Part I. I want this post to scare you a bit and you won’t be properly frightened unless you are prepared by the first installment in the series.

Ilya Repin. The Barge Haulers on the Volga (1873)

Eleven men are tugging a barge upstream. They are sun-burned, dirty, ragged fellows whom we, representatives of the educated urban classes, love to avoid. Especially when we see such men clustered in a large group. God knows what they may want from us, nicely dressed folks, returning home from a fine Michelin-recommended restaurant. It is usually best to cross the street or choose another route altogether.

Yet in this painting the viewer does not feel immediately threatened. These men are passing the viewer, slowly and in measured steps, like harnessed animals.  No one is scared of bulls or horses when they are tethered to something heavy. And the barge is quite reassuring in this respect.

If the comparison of these men to tethered animals makes you a bit sick, you need to remind yourself they’ve chosen to haul a 40-ton barge themselves, and they are paid for it 30 kopecks a day (which, in today’s dollars would be equivalent to about $120).

Now that we quenched the initial desire to run away from this group, let’s watch them to understand who they are and what we can expect of them, the Russian Men of Labour.

Usually, a painter would want viewers to get locked onto some point, or line, or area in the painting, and then roam their eyes up and down, according to a certain rhythm. Here, each face is a focus in its own right.

burlak-2-1870Repin spent days doing portraits of these men, paying them 20 kopecks per sitting (almost their daily wage, but earned in a much easier way than usual).  They had to pose standing and leaning forward as if they were hauling a barge, like in the preparatory painting on the left.

The less educated of them believed Repin was stealing their souls. One of them even asked Repin to pay him 20 Rubles (= 2000 kopecks) because he was certain he was selling his soul to the devil and wanted a proper compensation for his eternal damnation.

It is not a trivial representation of barge haulers. In the real life you’d see something like this:


And yes, there were female teams as well then:


So, Repin’s painting doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It does something very different.

We will go through the painting, studying it fragment by fragment (I’ve numbered them for easier reference) and then we will decide what this painting is all about, and what was the fatal error of Russian intellectuals.


Fragment 1. The Leader


He is broad-shouldered, with strong hands, a high forehead and faded grey eyes that remind modern viewers of the autofocus mode in their cameras, when the camera takes in the landscape in front of it but does not focus on anything in particular.

What does he stand for, as a man? Why is he the leader? What is so special about him?

He is not clothed any better than his team (though we may notice his shirt is neatly mended, unlike those of his comrades), he doesn’t have a proper hat (like some of his mates) and the rag that he uses for a headscarf is not of a leadership-associated colour (it could be red, for instance). He doesn’t want to look different, and yet Repin – when he first saw him – instantly identified him as a charismatic leader. Of course it is his posture (he is not excessively pushing forward, he is not squirming in his harness like some of the others, he is just trudging forward, step after step, doing the job, that needs to be done, and leading others by example).

But perhaps, it is also something in his eyes? Fortunately, the web offers a hi-res pic for us to get closer.


This is the face of a sage. A man to whom you’d turn with questions like, “I think I’ve seen it all, and now – this!”. Well, that’s not exactly a question by its form, but it implies a whole series of questions (“What shall I do now?”, “How was that possible?”, etc.)

Somehow, such men are expected to have answers. Simple ones, like, “Sit down, mate. Here’s my pipe. Good tobacco. Look at the other bank of the river. D’you see life there? Same thing with you, mate, the same shit. Always look at the other bank.”

Such men are also expected to wink a lot. In a sagely way. But they rarely do. This man would just watch you with his grey eyes for a bit, and remind you to return the pipe.

You won’t be surprised to learn the real guy was formerly a priest.

Fragment 2. The Brute


This giant looks incredibly strong. Imagine him straightening up. He’d be a head higher than everyone else. His wrinkles look like scars, especially with his broken nose highlighted by a couple of brushstrokes. The prototype was a fist-fighter. And yet, this most powerful man of them all looks up to the sage, the leader. The sage knows where to direct this ancient force. We can only hope the sage doesn’t lead him and his power to anything evil.

Fragment 3. The Hateful Stare

Ilka the Sailor

This man looks directly at the viewer. And his gaze is exactly the kind that makes the viewer mutter, “Thank God, there’s that barge and that harness!”

And, certainly, the viewer realises the man can unharness himself any time, so instead of the barge, we turn our eyes to the sage leader, for it is he and only he who can keep the man restrained.

Please, don’t let him get unchained, we say, forgetting – just in this case – that we were just getting sick at the comparison of these men to animals.

Why does the man hates you, the viewer? Because of injustice. You, the viewer, are his equal, the same kind of man, but it is him who has to haul the barge. He doesn’t hate his past that left him torn rags for clothes and a barge to haul as the only survival option. He doesn’t hate the laws of the land that brought about his misery. His hatred is directed and focused at you.

You personalise all the bad things that happened to him. You will be the first to suffer retribution when he is set free. It doesn’t matter that you had nothing to do with his fate. I mean, you’d try to cry out something like, “It was not my fault you were…” before you’re torn to pieces.

Fragment 4. Three ages of man


The youngest member of the team in the most ripped shirt is readjusting the strap, but the impression the viewer gets is that the boy wants to get out of it. He is definitely unhappy and rebellious. His clothes show that it was not some past experience that had earned him a place in this team: he’s too young for that. He hasn’t ended up at barge-hauling, he begins with it. He starts from the lowest base possible, and this is not something he is prepared to endure for long. The rebellious youth, which will rebel and riot against everything and for anything! It is good there are wiser men around, otherwise the barge would never reach its destination.

Immediately behind him is a dark-skinned middle-aged man, whom we can barely see. His shirt is white and his trousers are neatly tucked into his “laptis”, or bast shoes, he’s even got a decent peaked cap! He has earned enough money to maintain the appearance of a respectable working man, and seems to be content to keep walking. These people are the backbone of any society. Whatever happens in the higher spheres of society, these people keep doing their little jobs, getting their little wages, and spending them on little trifles and joys. This is the kind of man the rebellious teenager is most likely to turn into.

There is an old man to the right of the teen. He is leaning against the teen’s back, filling his pipe. He has zero protest inside. No hardship, no propaganda can spark up any kind of rebellion in this granddad. He would chuckle to himself, refill the pipe and keep going, trying not to work too hard, but knowing – from experience – how to look a hardworking person in the eyes of others. It is the end of life journey for the teenager. They are painted together, and the contrast between them is so striking, it is hard to believe the young rebel will end up an old opportunist. But he will.

Fragment 5. The Tired


This man doesn’t want to revolt. He just wants a break, he’d do anything for it, or for any job that doesn’t involve heavy lifting. If you watch the rope from the team to the barge, you’d notice it is sagged, it is not taut. This is because the barge is being steered to deeper waters, so in fact we see the haulers at the moment when they are not forcefully tugging at the rope, but are rather walking. waiting for the moment when they would really have to push to break the barge’s inertia.

So, the man is a bit exaggerating his suffering. He is one of the lamenting kind of man, who is always ready to moan about his misery. Were it happening in a Southern State, we’d hear a heart-breaking  performance of some traditional blues from him.

Fragment 6. The Free-loader


This guy follows the powerful brute, a great place to go a tad lax about pulling the rope. Puffin’ not with effort, but on a pipe. Even the flap of his collar is buttoned up. Such men would always find a nice place to while away their life. I am sure you have some of them around.

Fragment 7. The Police

soldier and greek
The guy closer to us is a former soldier, and behind him is a Greek immigrant.

In a typical team, these places would be given to haulers who were not only strong and healthy, but also had to supervise and urge on guys in the middle, all those tired, freeloading or rebellious types. The team’s police.

They are the backbone of police in any society, but it is important that there’s a leader who gives them orders. Without orders they may run into temptations of using their power excessively or direct it towards their own personal enemies.

Fragment 9. The Bloodsucker

This “possibility” is shown by the Greek who turned away from his immediate “subject” to glare at the owner of the barge. The owner (or his representative) is shown in Fragment 10, wearing a red shirt.

Red is a fitting colour, given that the haulers were referring to such types as “bloodsuckers”.

Fragment 8. The Almost Useless


The last man in the team would be someone who is really sick or weak because of his age. His responsibility would be to watch the rope not getting caught in uprooted trees, stones or bushes along the way. This is why the guy looks down.

This is Russia. If you are sick, you may be given an easier job, but don’t expect people to really care about you. It is your personal bad luck, you have to wait it out on your own.

it is cruel, but still quite valid, because in a society driven by a central national idea people are expendable. Fatalism, that means men are likely to passively accept anything that comes their way, does not really help.

The somewhat humorous side of this story is that the Grand National Idea was often either an unknown or incomprehensible concept to these people. Repin illustrated it by the flag of the barge (flags and pennants were very popular decoration elements at the time). The flag is painted upside down. These people would like to stand for a cause, under the banner of something important. The problem is that no banner, be it right or wrong, can change their misery.

Yeah, the stripes should be the other way around

Fragment 10. The Future


This is the part of the painting where Repin was showing a steamship. When he first saw river haulers, he was surprised they had not been replaced by much more powerful steamships. Well, there was a price barrier at the time, plus haulers also did the job of loaders, and as a merchant was travelling along the river, that was handy.

Repin wanted to create a “small conflict” between the incredible hardship of haulers, and the freedom the new age of technology and enlightenment offered. Do you see the river gulls freely soaring above the ship? Yeah, a very simple metaphor.

In about three years after the painting was completed, the hauler business ceased to exist. Steamships finally won.

So, let’s have the fragments reassembled into a single picture and reflect on the overall meaning of the painting.


I labelled them with their simple names or major attitudes.

To sum up, this is a national portrait of the Russian people, hauling the barge of an upturned national idea no one really cares about in an obsolete, ridiculous, but traditional way of doing things, painted by an intellectual who believed that sage leaders among the common people would always stand up and lead them towards a better life.

And that’s exactly where Russian intellectuals went wrong: they equalled the Common Man of Labour with the Sage Leader, as shown in this painting.

There were never enough sages. There was a lot of the other types. Repin saw it, painted it, and fooled himself by focusing on the sage. When the other types won, and Repin was forced to emigrate, he said, “What a fool I was – and not a lone fool – you may count Leo Tolstoy and many others in this group of fools, when we celebrated and praised this damned revolution…. What a pain it is to remember how we all praised the Man of Labour, and now this man has shown himself for what he really is: SCUM!”

In part III, which is not exactly a continuation of this post, we’ll see how different intellectuals coped with “proletariat” when it took power into its callous hands. 

Stand by for a post with some trivia about the painting that didn’t fit in here. It might be fun to read – I will have it ready in an hour.

If this is your first time here, you can sample stuff in this blog by clicking on ABOUT at the top of the page. You’ll find links to some of my best or typical posts there. There’s an Art & Fun shelf if you feel like in need of a laugh. You can also sign up for my posts to be delivered right into your hands using the form on the right.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed both Part I and Part II of your posts on this painting. Your analysis of this painting really opened my eyes to the intent of the painter and at the same time provided some insight into the psyche of Russia. Thank you for sharing; it’s small wonder you have been Freshly Pressed twice.

  2. Wow, what a great dissection! But isnt the sage leader leading the men in the exactly OPPOSITE direction of progress, enlightenment and the better life, as represented by the steamship? Opposite directions…seems not coincidental…

    1. The steamship appearance in the painting reflects a discussion Repin had with his friend when he first met a haulers team near St.Petersburg. Repin was shocked at manual labour being still in use while steamships had already made their way into Russian waters. So, it is not the haulers who are to blame for not using the steamships, but rather merchants who hire them because of cost considerations.

  3. I love your stories! This analysis, dissection of a painting is so fascinating and so clever. It makes me not only look really close at it but think about other things… How right you are in your generalizations! How sad that they are true…

    1. Thank you! But to each sad generalization there’s a flip side of a positive outcome. Were it not for the big national idea dominating Russian mentality, there would be no country like Russia in its present form ))

  4. Boryana, great thanks for the post! Repin has always been one of my favorite, and this reading of “The Burlaki ” enriched my feeling for “them”. They had my presence for many hours in St. Petersburg State Russian Museum. I especially appreciate fragment 6 (it’s me 😉 )

    1. You should thank Artmoscow, the author of the blog. I only shared this post on my FB page and i am glad it lead you here. Look around his previous post there is a lot more fascinating stuff.

    1. Of course i know the song. All Russians know it. Russian mothers probably sing it at childbirth )) It was sung only when they needed to budge the barge, that is move it from a still position, to sync their movement. At other times, they had a different set of commands, but they never sang any songs ))

  5. Wow! I am speechless and glued to the PC awaiting Part III. Don’t be so tough on Repin, it is not the ideology but the poignancy of his humanism that makes this painting a work of genius.

    1. Thank you ) I am not tougher on Repin than he was himself ) He was young at the time, his head was free from ideology, but his power of observation was that of a genius.

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