The Volga River portrayed in Russian art
by Olivia Kroth
The Volga, Russia’s longest river, is an important waterway. Moscow and ten other of the Russian Federation’s largest cities lie in the Volga basin. The Volga source springs in the Valdai Hills, 225 metres above sea level, in the northwest of Moscow. The stream flows into the Caspian Sea, south of Astrakhan, at 28 metres below sea level. The Volga Delta has a length of 160 kilometres. It includes about 500 channels and rivers. The Volga drains western Russia, providing irrigation as well as hydro-electric power. In its fertile valley, wheat is produced, while the delta is rich in fish. In winter, the river is frozen for about three months each year. The river is considered as Russia’s mother, Volga Matushka. It is of great symbolic importance in Russian culture and has inspired numerous artists, poets, songwriters in their work.
The Slavic word “volga” means moist, wet. This wetness has given life to a very old civilization. In the first millennium AD, Scythian tribes settled in the river valley. In the old Rus’, the Volga already served as an important trade route between northern Europe and Persia. Chuvash, Khazars, Kipchaks, Kimeks, Mongols and Tatars settled in the Volga valley. All of them used the waterway for trade and transport, as the old folk song of the “Volga Boatman” knows. In Soviet times, the Volga River was widened for navigation with huge dams in Joseph Stalin’s industrialization programme. The dams were fitted out with double ship locks. In the late 20th and the early 21st century, mainly grain and oil were and still are transported on the Volga. Tourism also plays an important role, as many visitors like to take river cruises on Volga boats, to see the lavish scenery of Mother Volga.
A popular Russian folks song tells of a person’s love for the Volga. As a boy he leaves his home to travel and roam about, but later he returns because he can never forget where he was born, on the shores of the Volga river: From far away / The Volga river flows / The Volga river flows / It has no limits, no borders / Along ripe corn / Along white snow / And I am only seventeen / My mother said / Everything can happen, son / You might get tired of travelling the roads / When in the end you will return home / Dip your palms in the Volga river / Your first look and the first clapping of oars / All of it, the river takes it along / I do not regret that former spring / Instead of it your love is with me / Here I am bound / Here are my friends / Without all that life is impossible /From the far-away river, under silent stars /Another boy is humming to me.
Russian artists have portrayed the Volga river throughout the centuries. Four of them shall be presented here with one of their paintings: Alexei Kondratievich Savrasov (1830-1897), Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930), Feodor Alexandrovich Vasilyev (1850-1873), and Nikolai Nikolaevich Galakhov, born in 1928.
Alexei Kondratievich Savrasov (1830-1897): Tomb on the banks of the Volga (1871)
A painting by Alexei Kondratievich Savrasov (1830-1897) reminds us of mortality. “Tomb on the banks of the Volga” was painted in 1871. No location is given. This tomb could be located anywhere on the banks of the river. The painting shows a simple dark wooden cross, placed upon a slope, under the bluish-grey, cloudy sky. No name can be read on the cross. We do not know who is buried here, a man or a woman, a soldier, peasant or some lonely eremite. In the foreground, there is grass, underwood and a small birch tree, stretching its thin, leafless arms towards the sky. In the background, the waves of the Volga carry a ship with white sails towards its destination. A bird with black wings flies low above the water. This oil painting with its realistic landscape and the tomb is a vivid Memento Mori. “Remember that you will die.” Death is inevitable for all of us, for the high and mighty just like the poor and lowly.
Alexei Kondratievich Savrasov, born in Moscow on the 24th of May 1830, became one of Russia’s finest landscape painters. He is considered as the creator of the lyrical landscape style in Russia. Alexei Kondratievich Savrasov was born in a merchant family, but decided to study art at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where he graduated in 1850. In 1857, the painter married Sophia Karlovna Hertz, the sister of the art historian K.Hertz. Later in life, he travelled extensively and became a member of the artistic group “Peredvizhniki,” the Wanderers. Alexei Kondratievich Savrasov died on the 8th of October 1897 in Moscow, where he is buried in the Vagankovo Cemetery.
Alexei Kondratievich Savrasov (1830-1897)
Ilya Yefimovich Repin is another famous Russian painter who depicted the Volga. He was born in Chuguyev (Ukraine), on the 5th of August 1844. He is one of the renowned realist Russian artists of the 19th century. His major works include the “Barge Haulers on the Volga” (1870-1873). In 1870, he began to travel down the Volga River, sketching landscapes and studies of barge haulers to prepare for his painting which he finished in 1873. Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, the third son of Tsar Alexander II, was impressed by this work of art and bought it.
Ilya Repin also contributed to the exhibitions of the “Peredvizhniki,” the Wanderers, in Saint Petersburg. When living in Moscow, he frequented the art circle of Savva Mamontov in Abramtsevo. In 1917, Ilya Repin welcomed the Russian October Revolution. In 1925, a jubilee exhibition of his works was held in the Russian Museum of Leningrad. Ilya Repin traveled widely and died abroad, on the 29th of September 1930. His body was brought back to Russia and buried at the “Penates”, his estate on the Carelian Isthmus near Saint Petersburg, which is a memorial museum for the painter today.
Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930)
“Barge Haulers on the Volga” (Бурлаки на Волге) depicts eleven men dragging a barge on the Volga River. They are the centre of attention, while the river remains in the hazy background of the picture. The men are working hard. Some seem to almost collapse from exhaustion under the burden. Hauling large boats upstream was hard labour that only the fittest could survive. “Barge Haulers on the Volga” has been described as “perhaps the most famous painting of the Peredvizhniki movement for its unflinching portrayal of backbreaking labour”.
The “Song of the Volga Boatmen” ( Эй, ухнем!) is a traditional Russian song. It was sung by burlaks on the Volga River: Yo, heave ho! / Yo, heave ho! / Once more, once again, still once more / Yo, heave ho! / Yo, heave ho! / Once more, once again, still once more / Now we fell the stout birch tree / Now we pull hard: one, two, three / Ay-da, da, ay-da! / Ay-da, da, ay-da! / Now we pull hard: one, two, three / Now we pull hard: one, two, three / ….. / As we walk along the shore / To the sun we sing our song / ….. / Oh, you, Volga, mother river / Mighty stream so deep and wide …
Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930): Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-1873)
According to the Russian art critic Vladimir Stassov, “The barge haulers are like a group of forest Hercules with their disheveled heads, their sun-tanned chests, and their motionlessly hanging, strong-veined hands. What glances from untamed eyes, what distended nostrils, what iron muscles!” Ilya Repin shows the men’s strength, but also their spiritual torment and despair. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Even the subject itself is terrible … I saw barge haulers, real barge haulers. You cannot help but think that you are indebted, truly indebted, to these people.” Such a feeling of an unpaid debt, owed by the higher society to the lower classes, also forms the base of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels.
The artist portrayed men whom he saw when preparing this work. Among the barge haulers he met were a former soldier, a former priest, and even a painter. Ilya Repin chose these figures as representatives of the working class in the Russian Empire. The artist felt great empathy with Kanin, the former priest. He is portrayed as the lead hauler, who looks towards the viewer. Ilya Repin described the man in his logbook: “There was something eastern about his face, the face of a Scyth, and what eyes! What depth of vision! And his brow, so large and wise. He seemed to me 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 none the less as a man of dignity. He was like a saint.”
Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-1873) – Detail
One more Russian artist who portrayed the Volga was Feodor Alexandrovich Vasilyev (1850-1873) who followed the lyrical landscape style. Born in Gatchina, south of Saint Petersburg, he was an illegitimate child. As a boy of 12 years he had to start working, earning money as a mail-boy and assistant of a picture restorer. Thus, he became interested in painting. In 1863, he took evening classes at the School of Painting. In 1867, he worked as a painter on the island of Valaam.
In 1870, Feodor Vasilyev traveled on the Volga with Ilya Repin and painted the picture “Volga barges”, which had great success and made him famous. In the same year, he also became a member of the Peredvizhniki, the Wanderers. In 1871, he was invited to join the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he left Saint Petersburg and moved to the milder climate of Crimea. Unfortunately he died young in Yalta, on the 6th of October 1873, at the age of 23.
Feodor Alexandrovich Vasilyev (1850-1873)
Like Ilya Repin, Feodor Vasilyev reminds us with his oil painting “Volga barges” (1870) of the times when barges sailed down the river and barge haulers pulled them upstream. And yet, it is quite different from Ilya Repin’s “Barge Haulers”. It depicts a meditative, quiet Volga scene. The picture shows three barges, resting on the shore. Their sails are hanging down, as no winds are blowing on this sunny day. Carved wooden ornaments on the first barge resemble those on old Slavic boats of the old Rus’. Four sailors have lighted a fire on the brown-yellow terrain, smoke is curling up. The men are resting around the fire. Three of them are sitting with their backs to the viewer. The fourth man is standing. His face is bearded, his curly long hair held together by a white headband. It is a peaceful scenery with calm water, mirroring the barges.
The old land of Rus’ (Рyсьскаѧ землѧ) began to exist under Prince Oleg, in the 9th century. At its greatest extent, in the mid-11th century, it stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south and from the Vistula River in the west to the Taman Peninsula in the east, uniting the majority of Slavic tribes. The old land of Rus’ prospered due to its abundant supply of beeswax, honey and furs for export. One of the main trade routes was the Volga. On this waterway goods were transported to the lands of the Volga Bulgars, the Khazars and across the Caspian Sea to Baghdad (Iraq). Thus, the Volga has been a main tradeway of Russia to Central Asia and the Middle East for about 1.200 years.
Feodor Alexandrovich Vasiliev (1850-1873): Volga barges (1870)
The modern-times painter, Nikolai Nikolaevich Galakhov, was born on the 29th of May 1928 in Kazan, Tatarstan. He attended the Kazan Art School, from 1942 to 1947. Then he moved to Leningrad, where he continued his studies at the Leningrad Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. He was awarded the title of Honoured Artist of the Soviet Union, in 1984, for his famous landscape paintings. From 1942 to 1947, Nikolai Nikolaevich Galakhov studied at the Kazan Art School, later he moved to Leningrad. The artist works with oil, pastel, pencil, tempera and water colours.
In 1951, he started to participate in art exhibitions. In 1955, his series of landscapes, “On the Volga River,” were admitted to the Leningrad Union of Soviet Artists. The painter has traveled extensively on the Volga River, where he paints sketches of life and nature. His style follows the classical tradition of Russian landscape painting. In his works Nikolai Galakhov advocates the principles of picture-landscape with elements of genre. His works were exhibited in Leningrad (1988), later called Saint Petersburg (2010, 2013).
Nikolai Nikolaevich Galakhov (born 1928 in Kazan)
The artist’s birthplace, the city of Kazan, lies at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka. In the 11th and 12th centuries, it was a stop on the Volga trade route from Russia to Baghdad (Iraq). Today, Kazan is one of the largest industrial and financial centres of Russia, a leading city of the Volga economic region in construction and accumulated investment. The Kazan river port is the largest of the Volga region. The port operates for 57 km up the Volga river and 123 km down the Volga river, shipping coal, building materials, industrial goods and various foods. It is a busy place but outside of the city, the Volga River flows through stretches of unspoilt nature, like those on the paintings of Kazan’s native artist Nikolai Galakhov.
One of his works, painted in 1993, shows the river on a bright, sunny day. It is almost as realistic as a photo. In the centre, the blue stream flows through a landscape of wooded banks. In the sky, a few pink clouds stretch along the horizon. In the foreground, a meadow is in full bloom with purple foxglove and white yarrow. Birch trees surround a small wooden hut next to a footpath along the stream, where rowing boats are anchored. People, working on these boats, can be seen as tiny coloured dots. The white seagulls in the right hand corner and a pine tree complete this summer idyll, “On the Volga River,” a landscape of timeless beauty.
Nikolai Nikolaevich Galakhov (born 1928 in Kazan): On the Volga River (1993)
A Russian poet of the 18th century, Alexander Sumarokov (1717-1774), summed up the essence of this eternally admirable Russian mother, Volga Matushka, in his “Ode” of 1760: Volga, in your deep valleys/ You propel your own flow / Irrigating various banks / While speeding towards the sea. / Your waters witness different things on the way, / A chain of good and bad, / You pass green meadows, / You pass sandy steppe, / Just like our century sees various events, / Different traces on the way. / At times it brings joy, / Sometimes sadness. / You, glorious mother of many rivers, / lead to the Caspian Lowland, / where you disappear in the sea for eternity, / Just like our century will disappear forever.
The Volga is a fascinating river. No wonder that Volga cruises remain popular with tourists. Traveling on the Volga means traveling through time: From Prince Oleg of the old Rus’ to Peter the Great and Catherine the Great of the Russsian Empire, then onwards to the 21st century. Russia’s central artery looks very much like it always has, with villages, towns, cities, animals and people on its shores, comprising scenes from paintings like those of Savrasov, Repin, Vasilyev or Galakhin.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Southern France. Her blog: