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DeLong Smackdown Watch: Song of the Volga Boatman


James Wimberley:

The road from serfdom « The Reality-Based Community: Brad deLong illustrates his contribution to a discussion on Hayek´s The Road to Serfdom with this picture by the 19th-century Ukrainian artist Ilya Repin. I can´t get very interested in Hayek´s obsolete polemic, but Repin´s painting is a masterpiece and worth thinking about.

First of all, Brad is wrong to think it´s a picture of serfs. The painting dates from 1873; serfdom was abolished in 1861, and there´s no indication that this is a laudatory piece about the the bad old days. The subjects are burlaks; free but very poor migrant workers. In 1870, many were no doubt former serfs.

The formal merits of the piece are obviously very great, but I´m unqualified to comment. The wedge-shaped composition in the letter-box canvas points off to the right, creating an impression of the vastness of the Volga and the Russian plain it flows through, and the interminable nature of the labouers´ task. The beauty of the summer light and pale blue sky contrast with the misery of the humans.

What I can respond to is the psychological and social commentary. Repin was an acute observer, for my money the finest pyschological painter since Rembrandt. You may find his messaging overbearing, but it´s far from trite.... The Volga painting says several different things to me.

  1. The burlaks are brutalized and degraded by their narrow and poverty-stricken lives. (In England, barges were hauled along canals by horses, not men.) It´s not that the road to serfdom is easy, it´s that the road from serfdom to citizenship is long and hard. Compare the parallel legacy of American slavery. Russian intellectuals tended to romanticise the peasantry; Repin is asking them to face the sordid reality. Distributing the land to Russian peasants will not instantly turn them into Athenian or Yankee citizen-farmers. Though once they had the land, they had the commonsense not to vote for Lenin, the one time they had a chance in 1918.

  2. The burlaks are strongly characterised, distinct individuals, struggling to retain their dignity as human beings. They are very far from a formless, plastic mass – in fact they are so individualistic that they seem to have a hard time of pulling together in an effective way. Not surprising that revolutionaries like the Peoples´ Will signally failed to organise them politically. Repin may well be distorting reality a bit to make this point. See this actual photograph from the 1900s, showing well-coordinated and purposeful labour. But then again, people pose for photographs.

  3. The painting is sometimnes given the English title of ¨convict boatmen on the Volga¨, but this seems a mistake. Chains and guards are not in evidence – though the burlaks are as badly off materially as convicts. The coercion here is that of poverty, not state repression. Repin is making a straightforward plea for economic progress and justice.