Look closely at this masterpiece by the Ukrainian artist Ilya Repin.
It is worth clicking the image to see a larger view.
This is what life was like for too many people in a pre-industrial society.
Read the Wikipedia article. Some of the people pulling the barge had once been part of what passed for the middle class in that place and time. Once they lost their footing in the middle class, this was their fate. As far as I know, none were convicts – they were just people down on their luck and desperate to make some sort of a living. Their only option was to hire themselves out for toil too arduous even for a beast of burden.
Barge Haulers is inspired by scenes witnessed by the artist while holidaying on the Volga in 1870. He made a number of preparatory studies, mostly in oil, while staying in Shiriaev Buerak, near Stavropol. The sketches include landscapes, and views of the Volga and barge haulers.
The characters depicted are based on actual people whom the artist came to know while preparing the work. He had had difficulty finding subjects to pose for him, even for a fee, because of a folklorish belief that a subject’s soul would leave his possession once his image was put down on paper. The subjects include a former soldier, a former priest, and a painter. Although Repin depicted eleven men, women also performed the work and there were normally many more people in a barge-hauling gang; Repin selected these figures as representative of a broad swathe of the working classes of Russian society. That some had once held relatively high social positions dismayed the young artist, who had initially planned to produce a far more superficial work contrasting exuberant day-trippers (which he himself had been) with the careworn burlaks. Repin found a particular empathy with Kanin, the defrocked priest, who is portrayed as the lead hauler and looks outwards towards the viewer.
Barge Haulers on the Volga shows a row of eleven male burlaks dragging a barge on the Volga River that must be pulled upstream against the current. The men are dressed in rags and bound with leather harnesses. They are rendered as mostly stoical, although in obvious physical discomfort, with their bodies bowed in toil. The scene is rendered in a white, silvery light which has been described as “almost Venetian”. In earlier studies, it was dominated by blue tones.
The men appear to be unsupervised and form the focus of the picture, with the barge relegated to a minor role at the rear of the frame. Further in the distance is a tiny steam-powered boat, perhaps a suggestion that the back-breaking labour of the barge haulers is no longer necessary in the industrial age. Also worthy of note is the inverted Russian flag flying from the main mast of the barge suggesting adding to the sense that something is not quite right. Repin echoes the stop-go rhythm of the labour in the undulating line of the workers’ heads. In the preparatory studies, many of the figures were positioned differently; for example the second man was shown wearing a cap with his head bowed into his chest.
There is a general sense of mounting exhaustion and despair moving from left to right amongst the group; the last hauler seems oblivious to his surroundings and drifts from the line out towards the viewer. The exception is a fair-haired boy in the centre of the group. Set brightly against the uniform muted tones of his companions, his head is raised looking into the distance, while he pulls against his straps as if determined to free himself from his task…
Russian and Ukrainian society at that time had too little infrastructure to support much of a middle class. It was not simply a matter of income inequality…there was too little wealth to go around, because too little wealth was being produced. Industrialization was still in its infancy. Fossil fuels were in very limited use.
This is what the leftist/green/pro-jihadi convergence wants – not for themselves, of course – but for us.
Be thankful that it is not OUR faces staring out of that bleak canvas.
Not yet, anyway.
Leonid Kharitonov & Red Army Choir – Song of the Volga Boatmen (Live) (h/t: The Osprey)