Karyl Kryl: Musical Resistance against the 1969 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia
Michal Vojtech is an MSt student in ‘Writing for Performance’ at the University of Cambridge.
Photo: Josef Karas. The photo has been edited.
For those unfamiliar with everyday life behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, it may be hard to imagine just how difficult it was to come across a good artist at the time. Foreign musical records were a rare commodity, while foreign, or uncensored, books usually had to be rewritten by typewriters and passed around through underground channels. One might also talk about a proliferation of underground artists, such as the Czech singer, poet, and revolutionary named Karel Kryl. He was a major inspirational figure for the later Czechoslovak resistance against the Soviets. Born right as the Czechoslovak Republic fell to communism, for most of his adult life his art was strictly banned by the new authorities. However, the regime could never fully silence his influence. In his music, he combined traditional Czech folk elements with modern blues and rock sounds, while his symbolic lyrics were mostly anti-communist and anti-war.
Hatred for the oppressive regime took root in Karel at a very young age. His family owned a book publishing company called Tiskárna Karel Kryl (Karel Kryl Book Printings), named after his father. But in 1950, the newly installed communist government deemed the publishing company unfavourable to the regime. State agents destroyed the family’s printing machines in front of their eyes and sent Karel’s family’s livelihood to the scrapyard with them.
Kryl and his peers lived with a glimmer of hope for the democratization of Czechoslovakia. The ‘Prague Spring’ reform movement had been gaining momentum in the country in the political sphere as well.
Growing up in 1960s Prague, Kryl was part of a flourishing New Wave art scene. At the time, the authoritarian regime seemed to have loosened its grip over the city. Censorship of arts ceased, and young artists and students generally were able to participate in (relatively) free speech for the first time in their life. Art movements within this Czech New Wave gave a platform to such well-known visual and literary artists as Vera Chytilova (Daisies) and Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and inspired writers such as Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kryl and his peers lived with a glimmer of hope for the democratization of Czechoslovakia. The ‘Prague Spring’ reform movement had been gaining momentum in the country in the political sphere as well. It was a period of liberalization that sought to create ‘socialism with a human face’.[i] In retrospect to what was to soon come, many deemed these years, ‘a breath of freedom’.[ii] However, this reprieve was soon met with violent oppression from Soviet overlords and their Czech Communist Party puppets once again. To consolidate their grip over Czechoslovakia amidst this slide from obedience, Soviet forces from across the Eastern Bloc infamously invaded the country in 1969 with over half a million ground troops.
The same year, Kryl released his debut album, Bratříčku, zavírej vrátka (Little brother, close the gates), as a response to these events. It is an album concerned with not only war but also Christianity and historical themes. Each song encompasses a story of soldiers, priests, or biblical characters. For instance, the song ‘Salomé’ speaks of the tale of Salomé’s mesmerizing dance for Herod and her eventual tormenting request to behead John the Baptist. Another song, ‘Anděl’ (Angel), is a tale of a soldier finding a palm-sized angel in the ruins of a church and attempting to nurse him back to health. During this time spent with the angel, the soldier tries to understand what his fate in the war is going to be. To this day, the album is known as his most influential piece. It captured the desperation of the younger generations when the invasion destroyed their earlier vision of a brighter future and, accordingly, it was met with a supernova of success. The music label Panton quickly produced it on vinyl, knowing that they would be soon persecuted for releasing such brazen artistic statements of resistance. The album sold several dozen thousand copies before Panton was ‘reoriented’ by authorities, who made sure to destroy all stored copies with a circular saw and banned the sale and ownership of the album due to it being ‘illicit.’[iii]
After 1969, Kryl successfully escaped Czechoslovakia and lived in exile in West Germany until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when he famously returned to Czechoslovakia and played a concert for the newly freed nation, opening with the words ‘Ahoj, občani’ (Hello, citizens), as opposed to the previously normal Soviet term ‘Soudruzi’ (Comrades).[iv]
[The album] captured the desperation of the younger generations when the invasion destroyed their earlier vision of a brighter future and, accordingly, it was met with a supernova of success.
As part of my research into the work of Karel Kryl, I am translating the text of his album into English, attempting to articulately transpose the profound lyrical symbolism and complicated rhyme schemes and rhythms while doing so. Kryl’s songs not only remind me of my own family history, experienced by parents and grandparents, but teach me about the scarcity of peace and the strength of the human character throughout history. His lyrics hide universal messages and, although he may seem like a relic of Cold War Prague, his words still speak to many Czechs and Slovaks to this day, as well as to the other nations formally occupied by the Soviets. Kryl sang about his dark and beautiful disenchantment with the system into which he was born as well as the invasion that eventually exiled him - themes that certainly can ring out in Central and Eastern Europe today.
The following example is a passage from the album’s seventh song, ‘Morituri Te Salutant’[v] in which Kryl depicts a road on which soldiers are marching to their death. He uses an unusual rhyme scheme, which can be represented as ABCDE ABCDE, in alternating stanzas. The lyrics hide secondary metaphors that are often hard to maintain in the translation. For instance, the fourth stanza paints an image of a prostitute who throws away two twigs of red gladioli (‘sword’ lilies), which refers to a Latinized plural of the word ‘gladius’ (‘sword’ in Greek).
The road’s made of dust
and dirt that we have beat down
And the grey smears paint
In our hair like dye
The stars that thrust
A gem lit
So beautiful and stone bound
The wings that bate
The feathers of Pegasi
The road is a whip
Like a woman of the street lights
She rings with tags
Hangs tassels by her thigh
And her eyes drip
As she throws into the dark night
Two blossomed stems
Of red stained gladioli
Sergeant, the sand is as pale as
Arms of dear Daniela
Please stop and wait lest
I just witnessed a tale of
That very ancient
Second of oblivion
They’ll wave attention
Our hallowed equilibrium
Morituri te Salutant, Morituri te Salutant
Cesta je prach
a udusaná hlína a šedé šmouhy
kreslí do vlasů
A z hvězdných drah
co kamením se spíná a pírka touhy
z křídel Pegasů
Cesta je bič
jak pouliční dáma. Má v ruce štítky
v pase staniol
a z očí chtíč
když háže do neznáma dvě křehké snítky
Seržante písek je bílý
jak paže Daniely Počkejte chvíli
mé oči uviděly
tu strašně dávnou
vteřinu zapomnění Seržante, mávnou
a budem zasvěceni Morituri te salutant, Morituri te salutant
Kryl includes countless symbols and profound imagery as well. In this song, he repeats the motif of the Latin phrase popularized during World War I, ‘Morituri te salutant’ (We, who are going to die, salute you), which resembles other songs in the album in which he uses phrases such as ‘Inter arma silent musae’ (In war, the muses keep their silence). Kryl here compares the road that the soldiers walk on to the path of their lives. The immeasurable beauty of the universe gives purposed existence to these men who suffer on the raw ground far away from Heaven above, longing for things that are, in their situation, as inconceivable as the feathers of Pegasi flying in the vast skies. The lyrics are somewhat amorphous in their descriptions, yet they still paint a very clear image in the reader’s mind. This is often the emotional depth of his mysterious storytelling that I believe is strong enough to outlive us all, as all great works of art can. Like his contemporaries, Forman or Kundera, Kryl deserves a recognized place in the international art scene both for his songs and poems that empowered the spirit of the suffering masses, and for his bravery to assert himself as a resistance symbol against an insurmountable oppressor.
[i] Zdeněk Švarc. Československo 1968. Pokus o socialismus s lidskou tváří (Czechoslovakia 1968. An attempt at socialism with a human face). Prague, 2012. Bachelor thesis. Charles University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Russian and East European Studies. Thesis supervisor Tůma, Oldřich. [ii] Ibid. [iii]Vojtěch Klimt. Akorát že mi zabili tátu: příběh Karla Kryla. Prague: Galén, 2010, s. 98. [iv] Recording of the concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDeWSpq_evk [v] Karel Kryl. ‘Morituri Te Salutant Od’. Accessed through: https://www.hlasite.cz/text-pisne/karelkryl/43614-morituritesalutant/.