My Life with Barge Haulers on the Volga

Philip Metres

     An excerpt from The Flaming Hair of Fate: Life Among the Russians

I can’t recall the first time I finally saw Barge Haulers on the Volga, the arresting painting by nineteenth-century Russian artist Ilya Repin, because when I did, it was like I’d always seen it. After all, by the time I saw it, I’d been living it.

In the foreground, ten men in tattered clothes lean forward, harnessed by a strap to a ghostly barge in the painting’s four-by-nine-foot horizontal distance. At first, they appear to be a single mass of raggedy, sun-blasted, life-whipped creatures—more animal than human—in a white-blistered and lifeless environment. Only the sky is a beautiful, untouchable blue. But looking longer, more carefully, we can see each man emerging into his own. The man in the back actually looks dead, as if only the strap keeps him up, and his partner—the burlaks are doubled up, like cattle pulling a plow—casts his eyes over him, a pang of worry brushed on his face. One man appears powerful, his muscles taut and straining, bursting from his torn shirt, while others look battered and wan and distracted. One man wipes the sweat from his brow with the inside of his right sleeve, while another man clenches a pipe between his teeth, leaning less than the others. In the front, one man looks blankly just beyond the frame. At first, it appears he’s looking at us, but then it’s clear he’s not seeing anything; his eyes are turned inward, his face full of meek suffering, some noble soul who’s found himself in the hell of this endless pulling. Directly behind him, the darkened muscular man stares intently at the viewer, a murderous anger animating his eyes.

The ten men surround an eleventh. In the midst of this grimy and defeated group, a younger man—still a boy, really—blond and feminine, dressed in lighter colors, leans back, as if resisting this Sisyphean pull of strap and ship. His clothes are bedraggled, but his flesh is not burned; it veritably shines. Only now do I see a cross hangs around his neck, against his gleaming chest. His mouth is curled with disgust; he fights his fate.

The first time I saw an image of this painting, I immediately saw myself in him. I’m half embarrassed by the obviousness of it. There I was in Russia, middle-class scion of the American suburbs and largely unscuffed by life, a newly minted college with all his teeth and the promise of an American Dream firmly on the horizon, suddenly finding myself among the struggling heavers of the laden barges of post-Soviet existence. Each hoisting and lugging the dead weight in his own way, as if he were born to it.

Like a lunatic, but being of sound mind and body, I set myself among them. I was in Russia from 1992 to 1993 on a post-undergraduate fellowship, pursuing a year-long independent research project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change,” a phrase I’d practiced on the plane over, despite my four years of Russian, the language still resistant to my American tongue. My task was to master the language, translate contemporary Russian poets, meet and interview them, and generally engage in what the Watson Foundation called a wanderjahr, a year of wandering upon completion of one’s formal education. Of all the places in the world, I chose Russia, the dark mirror of America, the ex–Evil Empire, the place where misery was a sort of pleasure. I wanted to live among Russians, like a Russian, I told myself and all the Russians I met, and they greeted this assertion with alternating looks of wonder and concern. Why would an American want to live like us? Would it even be possible?

During my years in college, in my life before Russia, I’d make weekly service visits to the Mustard Seed soup kitchen in downtown Worcester, where people would gather and line up for a hot meal and some fellowship. People whose lives had gone wrong in the hundred ways that lives can go wrong, and then really wrong, spiraling to the point where you had to gather in a queue that always got longer toward the end of the month, when government checks had long been spent and everyone was facing the plain fact of hunger. As the years passed, I noticed how Donna Domiziano, the matriarch of the Mustard Seed, slowed down and grew resigned, bone-weary and heart-weary from the sheer endlessness of need. How the bags under her eyes grew, as if they’d seen too much. I sometimes wondered if they were a repository of unreachable tears. There was too much to do and not enough time to weep at the madness and sadness of it. At the Mustard Seed, I saw for the first time in my young and protected life how the poor were not an undifferentiated mass but a thousand different people with a thousand different stories, with all of the hopes and alibis and self-delusions and shames of everyone else, only all of it was plainer to see—the lies were more obvious, the hopes more distant, the sheer raw need more intense. Talking with the people, I was fascinated and sometimes terrified by their faces, by their eyes, by their stories. The stories of the homeless are themselves sometimes like their encampments—places that they cobbled together with the castoffs of others, places they could hunker in and hide. I still remember the ex-con Latino man who told me that he jogged with his hands raised above his head because it was better training, because he could outrun his demons that way, and because it made the heart work harder. As if in the mere fact of running, he were always winning, always crossing some invisible finish line, breaking the tape with his chest.

Every week, after our talks, serving the meals, and cleaning up at the Mustard Seed, I sensed how little I could know about the struggles of their lives, the mystery of them. I would carry them back when I returned to my dorm room, thinking about them as I wrote papers on William Blake and Anna Akhmatova and tried to write the poems that would draw me outside of myself and my petty concerns. I knew also that it was possible to lead an existence in which I’d never have to encounter such people. That they would be no more than exotic extras at the edges of the film of my life. In Russia, it seemed to me, there was no escape from hardship, cruelty, or suffering. It was always there, right in front and around me. So many barge haulers, hauling their own invisible ships, leaning into their burden, dragging the ghostly weights behind them.

Repin, painter of Barge Haulers and one of the great scourges of the aristocratic conscience, part of a movement of social realist art in the Russia that would come to be known as the Peredvizhniki (The Wanderers), imagined that the consumers of art who would see his painting would be shocked at the brutishness of life in their country. Despite the fact that it caused a scandal in the Russian art world, he was right about his audience; Barge Haulers on the Volga, perhaps the most famous of all the Peredvizhnik paintings, was purchased by the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, the second son of Tsar Alexander II.

Some viewers saw in Barge Haulers the burly spirit of the peasantry. The nativist and patriot Dostoyevsky wrote, “[I saw] barge haulers, real barge haulers, and nothing more . . . you can’t help but think you are indebted, truly indebted, to the people.” Others saw in it an outrage against human dignity and the seeds of revolution. Some of the scandalized viewers, at the end of the nineteenth century, would eventually fight against the injustice of a system that makes people into living dead. It would lead to the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the fall of the monarchy, and the rise of Communism and the Soviet Union.

During my time in Russia, I met the dashingly talented and half-alcoholic, half-stoic poet Sergey Gandlevsky, who began writing during the Stagnation Period of the 1970s and completely opted out of Soviet society, working as a night watchman. When I interviewed him, Gandlevsky was elated by the recent fall of the Soviet Union and was then working as an editor for the journal Foreign Literature. His work so entranced me that I decided to translate his poems; ten years later, A Kindred Orphanhood: Selected Poems of Sergey Gandlevsky was born. It was a labor of love, though not without incredible difficulty, since Gandlevsky’s work was highly metrical, highly allusive, and often rich with slang. Years later, after doing two reading tours in the United States together, I discovered that Gandlevsky had written a poem about Barge Haulers on the Volga that he’d never collected in any of his volumes.

Gandlevsky’s poem, also called “Barge Haulers on the Volga,” casts back to his days in elementary school, learning about the painting as an image of proto-socialist-realism. The poem then pulls forward into the present, dragging the weight of slave-wages and debt on a new generation of Russians, as he sees the painting with his own eyes for the first time:

Barge Haulers on the Volga
     (After the painting by Repin)

And to prepare each Pioneer
For a life of social protest,
They would show us every year
This painting: to model the best.
Its folksy deprivation
The subject of its presentation.
And though I’ve long been old and fat
I think back to this same canvas.
Howl to the public all you can—
Say, in the Onegin stanza—
They’ll never deign to coddle you,
Translating you into free verse. . . .
Barge haulers have nothing to do
But wander alone all these years.

Hello to you, my friends! You’ve changed
Not one bit since the days
When we as schoolboys prevailed
Over what our classes entailed.
We’ve changed. We are quite familiar
With slave-wages now, and languor,
And debt’s strap tied to the shoulder.
We know the general deal quite well.
Now I, in turn, being old and frail,
Amid the cries to “ho” and “heave”
Surrounded by gloomy burlaki
To drag the barge upstream,
When bathed in light my glasses gleam.

Despite the excitement at my discovery of a rare and uncollected Gandlevsky poem, I was piqued to read his embittered take on translation and took it as a subtle dig at my own attempts to bring Gandlevsky into the American poetic tradition, often with loose meters and slant rhymes. For Gandlevsky, as for so many other Russian poets, American poetry didn’t sound like music and didn’t sound like poetry. For him, it didn’t matter that he was writing a stanza in imitation of Alexander Pushkin’s famous verse novel, Evgeny Onegin. These bastards will translate you into free verse. Well, this bastard anyway, resisting the pull of music.

Over a century after Barge Haulers was painted, amid the ruin of post-Soviet life, I ducked beneath my own leather harness with the Russians, wanting, as I’d told them and myself incessantly, to live like the Russians. “To live in Russia,” my host father, Valera, once told me, “you must be very hard.” He recommended ice-cold showers, raw garlic, mustard powder for my feet, and reading Tolstoy. He must have pitied my weakness and did his best to make me into a man.

How quickly I recoiled against the daily indignities of the life they had to live—beyond anything that I’d ever seen or known—dealing with water shortages, waiting in lines for hours just to buy a train ticket or some bread, dealing with apathy or cruelty at every step in one’s day, and getting paid in currency that was losing its value almost overnight. I can still recall, amid the scrum of passengers seething onto a train, a grizzled man pull out a handkerchief from his pocket that was literally black with dirt and grime, blow his nose into it, then place it delicately back into his pocket as he slipped into the train. Even as I’d wanted to witness from inside the experience of Russia, and even as I indeed lived inside that experience, I always remained an outsider, constantly expelled by the eyes and judgments of Russians, who saw my boots, or olive face, or the way I recoiled from the daily indignities.

Perhaps I saw the painting first in the Den of the Voice, my teacher Dima’s crash pad, where we’d been repairing weekly for crash courses on the history, culture, and arts of Russia. I say “repair,” because even the getting there was tough, walking through busted-up sidewalks and broken roads, waiting for hours at train depots, jostling with strangers in packed trains. Everything about Russia was hard. Some of it was even cruel, like the cashier at the ticket booth who gloated with a strange delight when she announced that I’d just missed a train, the last train of the day.

It was the exact opposite of the ruminative, endlessly simple, and simply endless “Drive Somewhere” by the Vulgar Boatmen, 1989, that stretched my summer nights in Chicago, where eternity was awaiting quietly in the driveway in the form of a Chevy Cavalier. “And you know my name, and you take my hand,” the song begins, some phantasm of a romantic relationship that I daydreamed about for too many teenaged years. Just turn on the radio to XRT, roll down the windows, “and the world turns small, right outside your door,” and find a country road where the sky would be so wide, everything petty and dirty in me evaporating in its light.

So when Dima and I would meet in the Den, toward evening, night falling fast, it was like escaping into a dream. Dima would whip up something on the stove, some potatoes and meat, and perhaps a simple apple cake for dessert. Nestled around a tiny table in a tiny kitchen, we’d eat, drink some strong tea, and then repair to the room to stretch our minds into the expanses of this mystery: Russia.

Later, I saw it in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, trying to escape the brutal weight of Moscow in winter, finding only another wintry city with little comfort. At least I was on the move, where new sights would distract me from the great weight that had settled in the center of me. Apparently, Repin had a difficult time finding people to pose for him, because people held to the folk belief that their souls could be stolen by a painter’s representation of them. So he painted the people that he got to know while on vacation in the Volga region. The burlak with the distracted soul in the painting was Kanin, a defrocked priest that Repin got to model for him. Repin saw Kanin as “a colossal mystery, and for that reason I loved him. Kanin, with a rag around his head, his head in patches made by himself and then worn out, appeared nonetheless as a man of dignity; he was like a saint.”

Still wet and cold from the wet snow outside, feverish from numerous undiagnosable illnesses, delirious from lack of sleep from the train ride, and weighted down by the life that I was living and witnessing as I lived, I stood before the massive canvas, big enough to imagine the burlaks as nearly life-sized, just off in the framed distance. It was a colossal mystery, this massive place, this land of hardships, this land of struggling people, and for that reason I loved it.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter