Ilya Repin: Barge haulers on the Volga (1870-1873)

(State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia)

A famous painting from the Russian artist Ilya Repin (1844 – 1930). The painting shows a group of 11 'burlaks' (= barge haulers) who are dragging a boat upstream on the Volga river (Although Repin shows only men in the group, women also served as barge haulers). Burlaks were usually landless or poor peasants who worked from spring to autumn. The work itself was very tough and backbreaking. In the background you can see a steamship - steampower would make this type of work obsolete but as it was considered 'cheap labor' (humans were cheaper then animals or machines) it continued until the beginning of the 20th century. The 11 men are based on actual people whom Repin came to know while visiting the Wolga region- the leading burlak for example is a former priest. Painting from 1870-1873.