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A burlak (Russian: бурла́к; IPA: [bʊrˈlak]) was a Russian epithet for a person who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries. The word burlak originated from Tatar word bujdak, 'homeless'. According to another version the word originated from old middle-German bûrlach (working team with fixed rules, artel).
Burlaks appeared in Russia at the end of sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth century. With the expansion of freight-hauling, the number of burlaks increased.
The chief of a burlak gang was called Vodoliv (Russian: Водолив), next in line was the Dyadya (Russian: Дядя, captain), followed by the Shishka (Russian: Шишка, first in the line of haulers), while the last in line was called Kosny (Russian: Косный, last in the line of haulers).
There were seasonal burlaks, who worked from spring to autumn, and temporary burlaks, who worked occasionally. Burlaks did not work in winter, when most Russian rivers were frozen over.
A typical symbol of a burlak was a spoon on a hat.
The main areas of the burlaks' trade in the Russian Empire were the Volga river, from Moscow to Astrakhan, the White Sea route (Belomor’e), from Moscow to Arkhangelsk, and the Dnieper river, in Ukraine.
Burlaks joined up in an artel (typically from four to six, sometimes ten to forty, and occasionally up 150 people) mainly in winter, despite that at this time clients paid the lowest price, because in winter burlaks were often otherwise unemployed. The final payments were in autumn, after finishing work.
With the coming of the Industrial revolution, the number of burlaks declined: in the beginning of the nineteenth century about 600,000 burlaks worked on the Volga and Oka rivers; in the middle of nineteenth century, 150,000, and by the beginning of the twentieth burlaks had all but disappeared.
The burlak was a popular hero of Russian proverbs ("Dog, do not touch the burlak—he is a dog himself"), songs (Russian: Ekh, dubinushka, famously performed by Feodor Chaliapin, The Volga Boatmen's Song etc.), and artwork (Burlaks on the Volga by Ilya Yefimovich Repin).
|This section does not cite any sources. (April 2012)|
In Latvian, the word burlaks bears the meaning of a "violent criminal, a murderer," however recently it has come to mean a "petty criminal", as used by former president of Latvia Vaira Vīķe Freiberga. In Lithuanian slang, the word burliokas means peasants of Russian ancestry, usually Old Believers.
Burlak also means a man who goes to get some extra income: chopping wood, making chimneys, metalwork, etc. The verb burlachit' doesn't necessarily refer to hauling barges. This verb can still be heard in the Kirillovsky District around the town of Kirillov. An old woman might use the verb when referring to her cat going out to hunt ("Опять Васька ушёл бурлачить").
In the Ural Mountains, where the most river trade was downstream, delivering the metals and finished goods produced in the uphill plants and mines, while mountainous terrain made hauling the barges upstream all but impossible, the word has come to one more meaning. As barges were built for a single journey and disassembled for wood on arrival, burlak came to mean simply a sailor, an ordinary member of a barge crew.