The road from serfdom

Ilya Repin´s painting of Volga boatmen is not one of serfs.

Brad deLong illustrates his contribution to a discussion on Hayek´s The Road to Serfdom with this picture by the 19th-century Russian/Ukrainian artist Ilya Repin. [Russian added from comments]

High-resolution image from Wikimedia here.
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 labourers´ 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 psychological painter since Rembrandt. You may find his messaging overbearing, but it´s far from trite – see this other famous picture about the disruptive return of a Siberian exile to a household that has reorganized itself without him.

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 1917.

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 sometimes 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.

PS: Vaguely relevant older musings from me on the Tsarist katorga here.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

19 thoughts on “The road from serfdom”

  1. Oddly enough, I just saw this painting a few weeks ago in person in St. Petersburg in the Russian Art Museum (I think – pretty sure it was not the hermitage). It struck as being powerfully painted and so I'm delighted to learn more about it! Incidentally, I think the label at the museum did not use the term convict, but rather just said they were "boatmen." There were a number of other similar paintings of Russian life, including a number of very large competently painted canvasses of various battles and people. However they were a lot more simplistic and few matched the power of this one. I would also recommend the folk art in the museum.

  2. Even if DeLong was in error (and he admits he was) in his reasoning for selecting this painting to discuss Hayek, does its selection not still make a relevant point? In other words, political rights are not enough to relieve misery — the burlaks were not repressed by the state but by poverty. Your analysis of Repin's painting — "his straightfoward plea for economic progress and justice" — is exactly the critique of Hayek that DeLong is leveling or at least alluding to: it is a ridiculous argument to say that providing for some level of economic justice, however inadequate, through democratic processes will lead to serfdom. It is in fact, the failure to do provide for those things that makes serfdom and free but abject poverty nearly indistinguishable, much more eloquently argued by economists such as Amartya Sen.

  3. Actually Hayek would be a left-winger by contemporary standards. He supported a guaranteed minimum floor in income for example. He also said it was needed because the market order had dissolved and weakened the earlier networks that often helped people in times of disaster. As I read him he was not opposed to social programs, but he opposed manipulating prices and such to achieve those aims. Better to provide them "outside" the market.

    As proof, notice that he explicitly distinguished the Swedish welfare state, which essentially did that, from British Labor of the time, which wanted to institute socialism. (Preface, 1976 edition)

    My point is not that Hayek was a progressive – he was not. He did not think Sweden would ultimately be successful, and in that he was demonstrably wrong – but he offered a far more humane and nuanced approach to these issues than any right winger of today can grasp. For Newt Gingrich, today Hayek would likely be a "socialist."

  4. Thank you for posting this powerful piece of artwork, which I had not seen before. Truly, a work with psychic weight.

  5. I have a soft spot for Repin. In his picture of Ivan the Terrible embracing the son he's just killed, the look of madness and grief in the old tyrant's eyes is fantastic. One of the best of the historical-realist painters.

  6. Hayek's *obsolete* polemic? I hadn't really thought of it, but in order for a thing to be obsolete, does it not have to have been relevant at some previous time? Hayek's polemic deserves many adjectives — "inane", "disingenuous", and "overdrawn" possibly foremost among them — but not "obsolete".

  7. I prefer to spend my time on stuff like Repin´s that speaks to the human condition and not fears about Clement Attlee.

  8. If that many people are buying and reading it, well, clearly it resonates for a lot of people.

    The day I let the number of people buying a book speak to me as to its quality — that day, sir, you may have me for a cent.

  9. "…fears about Clement Atlee…" one of my favorite Churchill stories is, there was a trough urinal in the House of Commons, Atlee was there not long after beating Churchill, Churchill came in and went way down to the end. Atlee said, 'Shy, Winston?' and Churchill said, 'Clement, in my experience, if you see something which is large and works well, you want to nationalize it.'

    But, okay, you don't think much of the book. Doesn't the idea that 150000 people have bought it suggest that it's important? Worth paying attention to? I'm not saying you need to agree with it or think it's wise – but shouldn't it seem worthy of attention?

  10. Interesting post.

    For clarification's sake, let me add that by the time Repin painted his famous "Volga Boatmen" in the 1870s, the burlaks were becoming a thing of the past–there were fewer and fewer of them. As John Wimberley noted, they were free men, not convicts. They were very poor, but it should also be noted that for many of them it was a temporary trade. Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a popular writer/journalist and a friend of Repin, was (briefly) a burlak during his adventures as a young man.

    One more thing: although unintentional, it's misleading to call Repin an Ukrainian artist. Both of Repin's parents were Russians, he considered himself a Russian and he lived most of his life in Russia proper. Yes, he was born in the Kharkov region, which is now in independent Ukraine. The Kharkov region is right next to Russia and during Repin's time the University of Kharkov (founded in 1805) was one of the top Russian universities of the Empire. Even now a high proportion of Kharkov's population are Russian-speaking ethnic Russians. Should we call Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell Indian authors because they were born in India? If we are going to call Kipling and Orwell Indian-born Englishmen, then we can call Repin an Ukrainian-born Russian, but it's simpler to call them what they considered themselves to be, Englishmen and Russian.

  11. PS: The Road to Serfdom is obsolete because everywhere in the world outside (possibly) Belarus the number of influential politicians and economists advocating detailed central planning of the economy in peacetime, Hayek`s target, is zero. It´s zero not because of anything Hayek wrote but because the very determined seventy-year attempt to implement it by the Soviet Union and its satellites failed, gradually but in the end completely, to match the achievements of postwar Western mixed economies. Economies run (let´s remember) on Keynesian lines. Reading Hayek on this issue is like reaching for Cobden on the Corn Laws. There´s more current interest IMHO in Janos Kornai on perverse incentives for managers under central planning, since principal-agent problems are always with us.

  12. I think James is absolutely right. But obviously plenty of people are still arguing in Hayekian terms, even though to do so is absurd. So in any serious sense the work is obsolete (if it ever was relevant, as other commenters have asked), yet as a rhetorical device it has a different sort of relevance.

    I suppose anything could stand in as a pseudo-intellectual, authoritative sounding cudgel. We simply want to paint liberalism as crypto-communism and claim ourselves as the sole defenders of freedom and prosperity. I won't argue that I rely on Keynes similarly – he seems to back up my politics and so I go along with his general model. But even though I'm out of my depth, I do take comfort in knowing that at least there is broad consensus in favor of his ideas among economists.

  13. During my post-modern period, from which I have since recovered, I earnestly read and studied the works of Michel Foucault. Once I knew what he had actually said, I developed a formula, that may be relevant here:

    If the number of academics in your department who quote Foucault is X, you may safely assume that the number who have actually read him is X/10, and the number who actually understood what they read is X/100.

  14. Eli-

    People are not arguing in Hayekian terms. Glenn Beck and assorted right wingers use Hayek in the same way right wing Christians use Jesus – as a word of power to legitimate their position, which only works because no one has actually read Hayek or the Bible. Hayek would be considered a left winger today, as he supported any number of government programs. If I remember him correctly on this, his point about government programs was that they should act "outside" the market – like Social Security – and not by trying to override market price signals from within, such as with price controls. To be sure he had far more suspicion of government than I, or most readers of this blog, but by contemporary standards he was no right winger. Glenn Beck understands Hayek about as well as he understands most things other than making money.

    Sadly, I think Keith Humphreys is completely correct.

  15. Thanks for the change, James! Considering the substance of your article, it was a small quibble. It's just that Repin is considered as perhaps the quintessential Russian painter (and he viewed himself as a Russian painter), so it sounded weird to refer to him an Ukrainian artist.

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