Astrakhan, Burlaks, and the Song of the Volga Boatmen

Long after the Mongol Empire died, and the Silk Road vanished along with it, the city of Astrakhan remained an important stop for merchant-travelers. Situated at the northern end of the Caspian Sea, in the vast Volga Delta, it was a crossroads of cultures. Indians, Armenians, Persians, Turks and Europeans mingled with Russians and the local Tatars.

For several hundred years, gangs of poor men and women — the burlakshauled boats from Astrakhan to Moscow and back again, up and down the Main Street of Russia: the Volga River. An old Russian song says, “Volga, thou art our mother,” but the burlaks sang a different song, first published in 1866 as “The Song of the Volga Boatmen.” The song inspired Russian artist Ilya Repin to paint Barge Haulers on the Volga  in 1870.

Astrakhan is also a stopping point for the characters in my forthcoming novel — tentatively titled Empires of Truth, Book 1 of The Antiquary Trilogy. A European mission to Persia is returning to the Baltic, and they stop in Astrakhan for six months to build boats and prepare for the voyage up the Volga.

The quartermaster, a Swede named Jens who is related to his country’s royal family, is overseeing the transfer of their caravan across the Volga and into their temporary quarters outside the walls of Astrakhan.

Clusters of buildings were scattered across the plain between the river and the city. Against the rising sun, on the tops of all the tallest buildings, Orthodox three-bar crosses raised Christ’s crucified body into the air, another reminder that the mission had arrived back in familiar, if not quite friendly, territory. Five towers on this section of wall created a sawtooth shadow on the ground, and the road from the main gate cut through rough earth to the solitary dock where a few ships were tied up. Most were anchored out in deep water, while smaller boats had been run up on the beach for teams of men to work their cargo. All had given way to ten flat-bottomed barges that rested against the far bank, the ten ropes stretched from one side of the river to the other, and the two hundred barge-haulers who were ready to bring the Persian caravan across.

“If you’re ready to begin, I’ll give the order,” the soldier said.

“Yes. We’re ready.”

The soldier shouted something to one of his men and a flag went up.

Jens thought the burlaks who manned the ropes looked exactly like Adam’s translation – from the Tatar word meaning “homeless” and the Latvian for “violent criminals.” Their faces and arms were darkened by days in the sun. Their clothes were a patchwork of soiled rags sewn together, and fragments of white skin showed where new holes had been torn. When the flag dropped, their muscled bodies strained against leather straps, and the loose-hanging ropes snapped up out of the water. He expected their faces to contort with the intense physical effort of pulling the loaded barges off the beach, but there was no change at all. The day’s work had just begun, and every man’s eyes already held an immutable look of exhaustion and despair.

The burlaks did their work expertly and without supervision, starting with the barge furthest downstream. As the Volga’s current swept one barge away from the shore, the next upstream gang of men started their haul, until all ten boats were in the water in a staggered symphony of backbreaking labor. And then the men started singing. Jens didn’t understand the words, but he heard the repeating chorus that echoed their trudging steps until all the boats were safe on the eastern shore, and he made a mental note to ask Adam about the haunting song.

The song that the burlaks sing is haunting indeed. The English translation does not do it justice, but here are the first two stanzas.

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.

You can listen to two different versions at the Wikipedia page.


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