Ukrainian Artist Ilya Repin, the Narodnik Movement, and the Power of Propaganda

Ilya Repin, Ukrainian Woman, 1876


Artist Ilya Repin was born in 1844 in Chuhuiv, Russian Empire, in an area which, after the February Revolution of 1917, was declared the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and then in 1991 became independently known as Ukraine.  Most recently, Chuhuiv was bombed on February 24, 2022, as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine which began on the same date, but which has been an ongoing threat since February 2014. Presumably, Russia is seeking to regain territory it lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and so the world watches as it invades Ukraine with impunity, destroying the peace and lives of families throughout that nation. This area of the world has a long and rich history, but has suffered from the terror of war for centuries.  At one point, during the 10th and 11th centuries, Ukraine was the most powerful state in Europe, and its capital, Kyiv, was the center of Kievan Rus, until Kyiv was destroyed by the Mongols in 1240.   With centuries of shifting nationalities, borders and political alliances all based on the productivity of one of the richest caches of natural resources in the world, Ukraine’s position in European history cannot be understated.

Ilya Repin was highly influential and prolific, and remains one of the leading artists associated with his day.  Due to the inflammatory nature of some of his art, as well as his ideological differences with the Russian government, Ilya Repin lived much of his life in exile, in an area of Finland which was later allocated to Russian Saint Petersburg.   His paintings depicted the some of the most important political moments of Russian history, ranging from the murder of Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich by his father, Ivan IV Vasilyevich, known as Ivan the Terrible and the first declared Tsar of Russia, to the documentation  of the Narodnik Movement, which was active in Russia after the abolition of serfdom in 1861.

Ilya Repin, Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16th, 1581, oil on canvas, 1885, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The painting below, Arrest of a Propagandist, depicts the betrayal by an informant and subsequent arrest of a propagandist in the Narodnik movement which grew among Russian intelligentsia and focused on redistribution of capital, and social revolution. After the overthrow of serfdom in 1861, agrarian-based socialist sentiment became widespread among middle and upper-class Narodniks, with the belief that if the peasantry, newly released from serfdom, could be organized, then the aristocracy could be overthrown, paving the way for a new form of socialist egalitarianism.  

Ilya Repin, Arrest of a Propagandist, oil on canvas, 1892. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. A Narodnik propagandist is betrayed by an informant, and arrested by authorities.

The fervor and idealism of these sentiments developed into a movement known as  Going to the People. Organized by the intelligentsia, notably Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Lavrov, and focused on educating and uplifting the peasants to overthrow the aristocracy, Going to the People was a mass phenomenon of social unrest.  While having no centralized leadership, intelligentsia encouraged idealistic students to leave their university posts, abandon their studies and go live among the peasantry, inspiring them to rebellion and eventual overthrow of the ruling classes.  Students were to guide the peasants in ideological education and development of propaganda networks, promising that participation would lift up their station in life, allowing the development of greater equality. At its height in 1874, between 4,000 and 6,000 impressionable students from the upper classes quit their studies and flocked to the countryside, brimming with idealistic, revolutionary sentiment meant to see through an economic and political transformation of Russian society. Differences within the Going to the People movement arose as to whether it should remain peaceful and idealistic, or more overtly revolutionary, and adoption of the peasant lifestyle proved too onerous for many used to the comforts of upper class urban life. 

Ilya Repin, They Did Not Expect Him, oil on canvas, 1884-88, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. This painting depicts the return of a Narodnik revolutionary to his home after imprisonment and exile.

Nevertheless, the Narodnik movement ultimately resulted in the successful assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, after four previous attempts by radicalized Narodnik agitators failed in 1866, 1867, 1879 and 1880.  The movement, while achieving its goal of destroying Tsar Alexander II, was ultimately not effective because of the disconnect between the ideologies of learned intelligentsia and illiterate peasants. The upper classes overly idealized the peasant lifestyle, as well as the willingness of the peasantry to participate in revolutionary activity.  Many former serfs were suspicious of the interference of the urban agitators, and actually supported those in power as their rightful overseers, believing that the aristocracy acted on Earth acted as representatives of God, not to be opposed or aggravated in any way. The ideals behind Narodnichestvo, however, had taken hold strongly enough to influence the later Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and it is speculated that the ideology influenced the Bolshevik Revolution that resulted in the destruction of the Russian Royal Family. 

Ilya Repin, Bolsheviks, oil on canvas, 1918, Constantine Palace, Saint Petersburg. A depiction of a Bolshevik soldier stealing bread from a child.

Ilya Repin was a close friend of Leo Tolstoy, whose books strongly focused on their depictions of the lives of both peasants and aristocracy.  Tolstoy was strongly influenced by Narodnik ideology, as can be seen in his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, in the rendition of an idealized rural lifestyle taken up by the discontented but idealistic protagonist Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Levin, as he struggles to leave behind the aristocracy and embrace a more natural, wholesome and spiritual lifestyle as exemplified by the simple yet happy peasantry.

Ilya Repin, Tolstoy Writing at Yasnaya Polyana, oil on canvas, 1891, Pushkin House Collection.

While the Narodnik movement may have begun as a truly idealistic outgrowth of the release of people from centuries of serfdom, with an urge to equalize classes and seek reform for the benefit of all, unfortunately, the romantic idealization of the peasant lifestyle, and the flattering glorification of good, honest hardworking family folk living close to the land still continues to this day. Note the recent “Freedom Convoy” movement, with many adherents coming from the North American heartland – centers of industry based on agriculture, oil and associated resource extraction and transportation. While we no longer openly acknowledge class divisions in the Western world, implicit class distinctions based on education, income and heritage still remain, and people all along the spectrum are easily manipulated by the propagation of increasingly sophisticated, emotionally charged propaganda and disinformation.

Whether in 19th century Russia, or 21st century Europe and North America, power protects itself. Those holding it are isolated from the harsh realities of life, easily deploying common people to spread propaganda which further its interests.  It is sad to see this at play in the world today, spreading throughout the world via social media venues. Peace is an elusive thing, easily fractured and rarely found, but we must strive to achieve it at all costs – except through the horrors of war.  While many changes are needed in our world to effect greater economic equality and improved living conditions, particularly for the most vulnerable, incitement to violence and war should be the very last avenue of approach.  However, when attacked by the power hungry, grabbing for additional resources and terrorizing innocent citizens, unfortunately, there must be a call to stand and fight for the basic right to live peacefully and unobstructed.   It is a travesty that even after the terrible lessons of two world wars, with 40 million dead in World War I and almost 85 million dead in World War II, we are still facing the brutal, horrible realities of war today. 

We must support peace in Ukraine, peace for all people everywhere, and work for an end to war once and for all.

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