Before the era of steam engines, the process of moving a boat or a barge up a river was extremely difficult. The usual method was to tow them using beasts of burden, such as horses or mules, along a towpath on the banks of a river or canal. Sometimes a team of human pullers did the job when animals were not available.
During the time of the Russian Empire, barges loaded with cargo were often towed up the Volga and its tributaries with the help of laborers known as burlaki. The work was grueling and seasonal, but tens of thousands of people living in villages along the Volga found employment in it.
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“Barge Haulers on the Volga” by Ilya Repin, 1870.