Burlaks on the Volga
The summer view over Riepin’s Barge haulers on the Volga.

The Volga shore in Samara is scattered with monuments and statues celebrating the mighty river or honouring famous figures, whose life paths for various reasons crossed the city. There’s, however, one monument in the embankement that clearly stands out from the rest – ‘’Barge haulers on the Volga’’ is not only beautifully made, but in one simple scene it captures as well the painful daily reality of those less fortunate inhabitants of the Russian Empire.

Burlaks on the volga by Ilya Riepin
Burlaks on the Volga by Ilya Riepin, 1870-1873

The painting

The original painting depicts 11 burlaks of varying ages hauling a vessel upstream of the Volga, an occupation reserved mainly for the poor farmers, the homeless and the exiles to Siberia who managed to return westwards. In the painting they’re mostly exhausted older men who appear defeated by life and resigned to their fate, except for the young boy in the middle, who is highlighted by the painter in brighter light; he is holding his head high, face turned in different direction than the remaining figures. In the background the viewer will notice as well a steam boat, which signals the arrival of the future and  – most likely –  a change of fate for the haulers. And indeed, more or less in this time barges were replaced by steam boats and hauling service was no longer required.

Riepin’s Summer by the Volga

The original work was inspired by the scenes witnessed by Riepin during the summer of 1870, which he spent in the village of Shiryayevo, situated about 25 km away from Samara. During that time he made preparatory sketches of the landscapes and of characters he would later immortalize in his famous painting. Notably, Ilya Riepin went through a lot of trouble trying to convince local people to pose for him due to the folkloristic belief that the subject would be robbed of his soul once the image has been put on canvas. Eventually, the painter succeeded in finding a few less superstitious models willing to do the job, among them a former priest, a soldier and a painter.

It’s worth mentioning that tourists can visit the house-museum in Shiryayevo where Riepin spent his Summer.

Controversies

Like with many famous art works, also Riepin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga were not spared some controversy. First of all, there are minor inaccuracies in depicting the work of the haulers, such as the fact that they seldomely dragged the boat while stepping on even, soft sand, as shown by the painter. More often the shore was rough and covered with shrubs and stones, which made the job fairly tiring and uncomfortable. The work was also performed by children and women, and not only by men. Also, despite discomforts, hauling paid well and thanks to the wage earned during the season, i.e. when the river wasn’t frozen, burlaks could live comfortably throughout the rest of the year.

A more significant inaccuracy is the fact that by 1873, when the painting was completed, sailing boats were largely replaced by steamers and by then the work of barge haulers had pretty much disappeared, making the subject of Riepin’s masterpiece look slightly outdated. If you’re interested, here you’ll find more information.

Riepin’s burlaks on the Samara Embankment

The monument inspired by Riepin’s masterpiece helps to bring the barge haulers to life in today’s Samara. The viewer will see a painting frame filled with 11 men hauling the boat up the river stream. Refreshingly, the dynamic background is made up of the changing Volga landscape and of modern passenger boats and cargo ships that move without much haste behind the inclining figures. The barge haulers have been transferred to contemporary Samara and have become an integral part of the city’s panorama.

The brass copy of the famous realistic painting by Ilya Riepin is situated at the bottom of Leningradskaya Street (opposite of Coffee Bean cafe) and should be on the bucket list of any visitor to the city.

Barge haulers
Riepin’s Burlaks on the Volga with frozen river in the background.