Samara stands on the Volga. Never mind the fact that it also stands on the Samara. The latter has always been in the overwhelming shadow of the former. The river has always been important in the life of the city providing it with water to drink, fish to eat, waterway to transport goods and people, and beaches to rest.
But it hasn’t been so restful for many people in the previous centuries who had to work hard to barely make ends meet. A lot of cargo ships in the 19th c. had to be hauled by people walking along the shore and towing barges by ropes.
This couldn’t have escaped the attention of artists who preferred to paint genre and real-life scenes. Ilya Repin spent some time in Shiryaevo on the other bank of the Volga in the 1870s. There he started painting probably his most well-known piece – Burlaki na Volge, or Barge Haulers on the Volga. If not for Repin we wouldn’t even remember those barge haulers now.
Those men represent so much about Russia even though they were not unique and human towing of ships was practised elsewhere. But our cultural heritage has this scene so deeply rooted in all of us that it might sometimes seem as if we both feel sympathetic to those men and see ourselves in them all at the same time. And to one born on the Volga the picture bears additional connotations of being part of the personal ancestral past.
Topography (if not common sense) – higher shore on the right – tells us that haulers are towing the ship upstream. It looks like the scene could have well been seen right there in Shiryaevo. But the actual place doesn’t matter much. Similar scenes were typical of other places and not just on the Volga. Hauling was in use even in early 20th c. While Repin depicts all-male group women and children were often employed in barge hauling as well. This was probably one of the lowest paid jobs for the most unfortunate yet unwilling to beg at church doorsteps. I don’t really know how many seasons one could survive in this position. They say, men were stronger those days. But even strong men could not work like that for years without severe consequences for their health.
Why do we sometimes see ourselves in them? Maybe it is because we often work hard (or so we feel) for so little. Or maybe we are made to haul some burdens upstream despite all the obstacles. Probably it is because a lot of things look so old and contrary to universal progress, while we are left to remains of the ancient past. I don’t really know and it is hard to explain. It is just that Barge Haulers is not simply one of the greatest Russian paintings hung in some museum. It is part of our past, but on some levels it still lives on.
Some time ago Barge Haulers returned to Samara in the form of a sculpture based on the painting. It is remarkable that just like that ship in the picture is almost optional the metal ship in the sculptural group is also attached separately that it might not even be “in the picture” depending on where you stand. People are the centrepiece.
People are still the centrepiece of debates about who’s hauling whom in this country. The original painting was surprisingly bought and exhibited by a member of the royal family. The sculpture was sponsored by the former mayor. The rich seem to enjoy the depiction of how the poor work for them. The poor seem to enjoy the depiction of how picturesque exploitation is and always has been.