If only the barge haulers on the Volga River knew

Today’s world is filled with propaganda wars. Opposing sides (often more than two of them at once) are exchanging accusations about what they call fake news galore.

Here’s the news: it’s nothing new.

One proof of many

A classic piece of traditional Russian art is a painting by the great realist artist Ilya Yefimovich Repin (Russian: Илья Ефимович Репин). It shows puffing and huffing labourers pulling a boat against the stream of the river Volga. Known world-wide as Barge Haulers on the Volga (Бурлаки на Волге), this classic has become one of the propaganda masterpieces of all time: see how hard the poorest of the poor had to work to earn their meagre living.

It took Repin three years to finish the work. Started in 1870, the oil-on-canvas classic was finished in 1873. Official interpretation: it shows 11 men dragging a barge (quite true thus far), at the point of collapse from exhaustion, oppressed by heavy, hot weather, and, especially, by their blood-sucking employers (a perfectly bloody lie).

It did NOT inspire the famous Song of the Volga Boatmen, known in Russian as Eh, Ukhnem (Эй, ухнем!), either, as some try to suggest. But that’s another story for another day.

Those labourers were known in Russia as burlaki (бурлаки). Some linguists claim the expression originated from the Tatar word bujdak, meaning homeless, others are of the view that burlak was born as the middle-German word Burlach, usually translated as “working team with fixed rules”.

Other facts that we know for certain include information such as that the burlaks operated on the Volga River, from Moscow to Astrakhan, the White Sea route, from Moscow to Arkhangelsk, and on the Dneper River in Ukraine. Some of them would work from spring to autumn, others would join from time to time. Most of them were members of semi-formal associations for craft and artisan enterprises, known in Russian as artels (артель). These helped them overcome winters by supplying them with other work: Russia, after all, is known for its cold winters, when most rivers are covered by ice.

Official propaganda

There aren’t many satisfactory explanations for the fact that arts critics and historians all over the world have bought into the official Soviet propaganda line: the poor barge haulers were a symbol of systemic and systematic exploitation of the poor in Tsarist Russia.

Some went into even more detail: look at those half-starved scrags, they said, working like there’s no tomorrow, for three kopeks (cents), hauling barges up the stream of the mighty Volga.

About as misleading as the claims that Tsarist Russia was a poor country where people had nothing to eat. She was called the granary of Europe, selling her surpluses, not the basic yields of her harvests. Statements about her general poverty make no sense.

Repin’s work is realistic in its depiction of a particular moment, not in its description of the whole. The painting itself, as much as Repin liked being called a realist, isn’t too truthful, either.

The burlaks’ work system was logical and not as straining as Repin presented it.

First and foremost, hauling boats from the banks would occur only rarely in their daily workload.

Here’s how it worked in real life (thanks to friend and journalist Mark Leyderman who sent me this description): when the going up the stream got tough, the crews would send a small boat ahead, she would drop anchor, and the crews would connect her with the cargo carriers using proper hawsers. Those would be attached to a drum. The burlaki, strong, healthy men, all of them, would start pulling those lines from the bow all the way to the stern, spooling them on the drum, thus pulling the heavy ship ahead.

They would get ashore very rarely, only to free a ship that had hit the shallows or to fix a broken vessel.

The Repin painting, in fact, shows them pulling out a vessel that met that particular misfortune, apparently a common accident. Most crews didn’t include pilots familiar with local conditions. Understandably, they never carried radar or sound equipment such as sonar: those may have existed in some inventors’ imaginations at the time, but not in reality.

Another giveaway is the flag that has been turned upside down, as a signal for some kind of an emergency mishap.

The crews that had to disembark and fix the problem used to change into their worst kinds of outfits: the banks were muddy like heck, and they saw no reason to soil their usual clothing.

Poor? You’re kidding!

While pulling ships must have been a tough job, the burlakis’ pay wasn’t too shabby, either: known records from midway through the 19th century show that, on average, your normal burlak would be earning 60 to 80 roubles a month, while the chief of the group (shishka, шишка in Russian alphabet) would be taking home 100 to 120 roubles a month.

A licenced Russian physician or a high school teacher of the highest qualification would be earning 80 roubles a month on average, while a paramedic’s take-home pay would usually not exceed 35 to 40 roubles a month.

Physicians and high school teachers were considered upper middle class in 19th-century Russia. And so were the burlaki. Their chiefs, the shishkas, were very close to being known as people of independent means.

Besides, while on duty, the burlakis were fed on company rouble, meaning that what they earned was take-home pay in full.

Many would save to be able to open their own companies. Many shishkas would become ship skippers, while many burlakis would work a few shipping seasons and then, turn into merchants or start farms that would flourish for decades, only to be confiscated and ruined by the communist revolution of 1917.

It wasn’t easy work but healthy men who wouldn’t shirk hard labour would succeed, often beyond expectations. After all, most of the opulent Russian orthodox churches that adorn the Volga River banks, and that people admire to this day, were built exactly by burlakis, using their own money and paying for them in cash.

The conclusion: the Repin painting does not show forlorn and hungry wretches. Rather, it shows relatively secure people who only changed into old and torn clothing so they wouldn’t soil the clothing they wear otherwise, while on board ship.

Repin received 3,000 roubles for three years of hard labour painting his work, and yes, creating such art is hard work. It has become immortal.

And so has the propaganda surrounding it. The shamans of political marketing had made his piece of art something that it has never been. This slander has persisted since the end of the 19th century till today.

Is it any wonder that today’s would-be progressive propagandists enjoy such field days? With the naïve faith sheeple demonstrate in obeying each and every official government fear-mongering proclamation, it is not.

If the Marxism-Leninism-based calumny could survive without many doubting it for almost one-and-a-half of a century, why not the Great Reset, a.k.a. 4th Industrial Revolution?

That’s what we should be fearing, not a non-existing virus propaganda.

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