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A Look at the Russian Society of XIX Century Through the Prism of An Artist, Ilya Repin (1844-1930)


Ilya Repin, 34 at the time of the painting

The works of Repin form a resume of the Russian society in the second half of XIX century. According to the words of Repin himself, he has tried to render "the spirit of history" (see video here). Let's look at the works of Repin, in order to use them as a prism through which we can understand the spirit of the Russian society in the times of narodniks.

One of the most famous paintings of Repin is "Burlaks on the River Volga", 1870-1873. Burlaks were the workers who pulled boat along the rivers, 


Burlaki on the river Volga

often against the current. I remember this painting from my elementary school years, where our teacher told us that all the workers are tugging along, but only the young man (center of the painting) is looking over the heads of others, with a hope for a release from this suffering. 


Real burlaki look as in the photo. In front they put the strongest man. If the burlaks were women, they would put the strongest woman in front, but there was an overseer, a man, with a whip or a beating stick.

To characterize Russia after the abolition of serfdom in 1861, we can look at the painting

A Religious Procession in the Kursk Region

of Repin "A Religious Procession in the Kurk Region", 1880-1883.

Details of this painting give us an understanding about the Russian society. In the foreground of the painting is an adolescent boy, an invalid, who is pushed aside with a cane by some peasant, or a pauper. This episode can be understood as a constant struggle for existence among the lower classes of the society.

Nearby, there are several peasant women who are submissive and docile. They just tug along.

In another fragment of the painting we see "the belle society" - the philistine men and women, priests and generals, merchants and officials, all of whom were the basis of the tsarist society. They are guarded by faithful "bodyguards", the police and the Cossacks, on their horses.
Repin has painted several portraits of 
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). For example, Leo Tolstoy plowing. There are also portraits of Tolstoy resting in the forest, or after he was ex-communicated from the Russian Church. 

Glinka by Repin

Next, we see
 a portrait of a Russian composer, M. Glinka (1804-1857). Here we see a well-off man, thinking and writing.


There is a portrait of another Russian composer, 
M. Mussorgsky (1839-1881). One can feel a "landlord" in the painting. "Pictures at the Exhibition" are among his well-known works. There is the portrait of a Russian composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894). He has founded


the first Russian conservatory.
Next, is a portrait of a Russian


Afanasy Fet, 1820-1892.

It is always difficult to render a poem in another language. But here is one attempt, made by Evgeny Bonver, called "I have come to you delighted":

I have come to you, delighted,
To tell you that sun has risen,
That its light has warmly started 
To fulfil on leaves its dancing;

To tell you that wood’s awaken
In its every branch and leafage,
And with every bird is shaken,
Thirsty of the springy image;

To tell you that I’ve come now,
As before, with former passion,
That my soul again is bound
To serve you and your elation;

That the charming breath of gladness
Came to me from all-all places,
I don’t know what I’ll sing, else,
But my song’s coming to readiness.

Fet was a non-political poet, but his poetry is like an indication of dawn, a new-day coming.



Next is the portrait of 
Pavel Tretiakov (1832-1898), a founder of the famous Tretiakov art gallery and a patron of many young painters.
Mamontov by Repin

Savva Mamontov

Another patron of the arts was Savva Mamontov, an industrialist, painted by Repin. The industrialists stood in opposition to the tsarist, feudal regime, and hence they helped the artists who were in opposition to the regime as well.

There is a portrait of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), burning his works.





And here is a portrait of Dmitry Mendeleev (1834-1907), a polymath. He was 
the creator of the first version of the periodic table of elements. Through the paintings of Repin one can feel that the protest and even rebellious mood in the Russian society at the time. For example, a painting called "An Arrest of a Propagandist". The expression of the propagandist, during his arrest, was how the leading elements of the

An Arrest of a Propagandist

Russian society looked at the government.

And here is a beginning of a poem, "Propagandist", written in 1877, by G. Mikhailov. Dedicated to N.A.M. (Nikolai Morozov)

An inflexible pride in his looks, 

a genuine passion in speech

A simplicity in modest attire,

a shine of mind and development in eyes


An Unexpected Return of a Political Prisoner

A painting "Unexpected" shows a homecoming of an exile. The painting was forbidden by the tsar's censorship, which thought the subject was not an appropriate subject for a painter. Notice the different reactions of the members of the family to the return of the exile. Also, notice the mode of life in this apartment: in the room there is a grand piano, on the wall there are portraits of a Ukrainian poet 
Shevchenko and a Russian poet Nekrasov. Children sit behind books, and in the corridor there is a servant.

A political prisoner refuses a confession before execution

Another painting of Repin called "A Refusal of a Confession Before an Execution". Narodniks were hanged, but they refused to recognize the church and the whole of the old society. How different they are from the modern "intelligentsia"!
Gorki by Repin


In 1899 Repin painted a portrait of 
Maxim Gorky, a writer who was close to the next wave of revolutionaries after the narodniks, the social-democrats.


Repin also painted the portraits of the powers that be. For example, 
here is a portrait of count Witte, a chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Russian Empire.


Another important portrait is that of prime-minister Stolypin, killed by one of the provocateurs of "Ohranka", a state-security agency under tsar.

A clash of the popular opposition and the tsarist government has led to the revolution of 1905. Here is a painting of Repin, "17 October, 1905". In this painting, as in "The Religious Procession in the Kursk Region", there is an attempt to analyze the contemporary society. The central figure is a mad revolutionary. He is upheld on hands of a worker, a sailor and a soldier. Then there is a common-folk intelligentsia: writers, students, bureaucracy, the crazy youth. The background is formed by the 



people. This painting is more optimistic than "The Religious Procession", yet there is more anxiety in it. On the one hand, it is a reflection of the revolution of 1905, and on the other hand, it predicts the next revolution of 1917, which the painter did not accept.

Next: Narodniki, part 2

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