The World We Lost
Updated: Dec 11, 2021
Start at the beginning. Why is it this picture, cryptically titled Romania, 1968, that has followed me around for decades? It hangs now—in the form of an exhibition poster—on my office wall. I never tire of looking at it. But why?
To answer, I start at what I think is the beginning. I start with Koudelka himself.
Born in small-town Moravia, the son of a tailor, Koudelka got his first introduction to the camera when the local baker showed him some photographs he’d taken. Young Josef was hooked and, at age 14, earned the money to buy his first camera. Later, he attended the Technical University of Prague and, in the 1960s, worked a day job as an aeronautical engineer while launching himself in the art world. He staged his first exhibition in 1961 and began documenting Prague’s then-vibrant theater scene.
Today, when caution has taken the stage, Koudelka’s forty-year-old theater pictures are still bracing; they rethink the stale genre of theater stills. High-key and high-contrast, the photographs are expressionistic rather than documentary. To make them, Koudelka joined the actors on stage, immersing himself—and by extension, you, his viewer—in the drama. Study them and you will have little idea of who the actors are or what the stage scene looks like but you will get a sense of the play, its mood and emotions—maybe even the point of it all.
Taken in the context of Cold War Czechoslovakia, the whole enterprise—the dissident plays, the experimental productions, the rule-breaking photographer—looks like a brave, if minor, provocation of the hidebound powers-that-be. In other words, it looked as though tragedy was on its way into town.
And indeed it was.
Bliss was it then to be alive
Although only 13 at the time, I remember hearing news of the Prague Spring. The papers and the TV news were full of stories about the liberalization taking place in Czechoslovakia and the loosening of the Soviet grip on one of its client states. The spring itself was a long one, lasting from January to August 1968. On the ground, where the artists and the students and the everyday citizens lived, it was one of those enchanted times when the whole earth wears the beauty of promise. And even for a kid in Plainfield, New Jersey, a kid nowhere near old enough to understand what was at stake, the Prague Spring made for thrilling reading and even provided a tonic against our own grim news of war, assassination, and riot.
Behind the scenes, where the big men live, the spring was as much a product of party in-fighting as an expression of the popular will. In January of that year, the leading actor of the piece, Alexander Dubček, took control of the Party after a power struggle with his hard-line predecessor Antonín Novotný. By all accounts a devoted communist, Dubček nonetheless saw need for reform, for what he dubbed “socialism with a human face.” And for eight months, that’s what the Czechoslovak people got.
Dubček’s Action Program increased freedoms of the press, speech and movement and promised economic and electoral reform. The people responded: the press printed pieces critical of the USSR, the Social Democrats started forming their own party, and political clubs, unsanctioned and unaffiliated, cropped up. Even Gypsies got into the act, challenging—in print—the policy of assimilation.
The Soviets, alas, were less enthusiastic, and on August 21, 1968, the Prague Spring shut down as thousands of tanks and hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Pact troops entered the city. In Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, crowds confronted the troops, and at the National Museum, tanks fired on the buildings. And through it all, Josef Koudelka was out on the streets, on the rooftops, in the line of fire—one shot is even taken from the tank gunner’s point of view—immersing himself in the drama. In this, the fortieth anniversary of the invasion, these photographs have been collected in a new book, Invasion 68 Prague, and accompanying exhibition at two New York galleries. Gathered together, these pictures make for painful viewing, documenting as they do the doomed resistance of Prague’s citizenry. The crowds that seem to engulf the tanks and the one-to-one appeals to individual soldiers, the young men waving the Czechoslovak flag and the young woman openly weeping, the fires blazing and the dust settling, the emptied streets marking the end of the struggle—all trace the whole sad tale.
The world being what it is, even those who don’t know the story can guess how it ends. The reformers were arrested and flown to Moscow, where after “frank talks,” they renounced their reforms. Six days later, Dubček returned home and the retrenchment began. The good citizens returned to their private lives. The students took their exams and, if they were lucky, no one in charge knew they had been out there on the streets. The artists, scientists and intellectuals scattered to Paris, London, New York. Josef Koudelka, whose images from the invasion had been smuggled out and published under the credit line “P.P.” (Prague Photographer), joined the exodus in 1970.
As for Dubček, he was expelled from the Party and wound up in internal exile, working as a clerk in the forestry service.
History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake
At some point in my research, it dawns on me that my picture—the man and the horse—was taken in 1968, the Prague Spring year, the Soviet invasion year, the year it all fell apart. I dig a little deeper and learn that Koudelka returned from Romania—from photographing this picture—on August 19, 1968, just two days before the tanks rolled across the border.
I try to imagine what it might have felt like: to live in a country that’s survived years of censorship and one-party rule, where fear dominates and you have to watch what you say, where life is tamped down. It turns out not to be so very hard, after the last eight years in my own country, to imagine such a state of affairs. Nor to imagine the longing that you might wake up from the nightmare of history. Nor, with a nod to our own last election, to see the hope for something better snatched away.
I try to imagine too what it must have felt like to be with the Gypsies: to travel among a wandering people with no discernible taste for nationalism and the complications of modernity, to be outside all the big-stage political machinations, to live on such direct terms with the world.
I start reading up on Gypsies. But before I can even make it to Wikipedia, let alone the library, I come up against the word itself: gypsy. A conjurer’s trick of a word, a slur with an undertone of envy, it calls up so many, often competing associations: beggars and thieves, liars, fortune tellers, horse traders, Bizet’s Carmen, tambourines and Gypsy music, The Virgin and the Gypsy, caravans and the freedom of the open road.
The research leads me to the statistics and observations of scholars and journalists, but even there, the word seems to cast a peculiar spell. At least one point of consensus emerges: the linguistic and genetic evidence is beyond dispute that the Roma—Roma being the preferred term to describe the Gypsies—trace their origins to India.
But it’s anyone’s guess why they left or exactly how they dispersed. Or how many of them there actually are. The population estimates I find range from 12,000 to 300,000 in the same country (in this case, the Czech Republic).
Scholars believe the Roma arrived in Europe in the 11th century. Since Koudelka’s Gypsies lived in Czechoslovakia and Romania, I focus my research on those regions, but I learn that, whatever land they traveled to and however warm their initial welcome may have been—in the Middle Ages, they were granted the privilege status of pilgrims—they soon came to be reviled. As outsiders with their own strange language and customs, they made for perfect scapegoats.
I had never known that, from the 13th century until well into the 19th, Gypsies were chattel in Romania. And, although not enslaved in the Czech lands, hangings were routine there, with the executions strategically conducted along the border where the hanged bodies could serve as a warning to any wandering Gypsy considering entry.
During World War II, between 200,000 and 500,000 Gypsies were exterminated in the Nazi camps. In 1941, with help from its German allies, Romania transformed the occupied province of Transnistria into a killing ground for “undesirables.” Virtually the entire Roma population of the Sudetenland died in the camps. The Romany word for the Holocaust, Porajmos, translates literally as “the devouring.”
Under Communist rule, things improved, but only marginally. At first, many were attracted to the Party’s egalitarian ideals but then ran up against the official line that their nomadic life was inimical to the socialist order. Banned from traveling, the Roma were forcibly relocated into permanent residences with new neighbors who had always hated them and saw no reason to stop, socialist order be damned.
Such was the state of affairs when Koudelka asked for time off from his job to work on his photographic project.
He lives as one dreams of living, in a caravan
Today, Koudelka describes the Prague invasion as “the maximum” of his life. “In ten days,” he told the photographer Frank Horvat, “everything that could happen in my life did happen. I was at my own maximum, in a situation at its maximum.”
The work made his name in the West and, ironically, became his ticket out. Magnum, the legendary photo agency founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and friends, handled the pictures, and it was Magnum that secured him the visa that got him out of Czechoslovakia and Magnum that served as his home base in the years that followed.
But while the invasion pictures may have made Koudelka’s reputation, it is with the Gypsy pictures that he found his full voice—as though, in the lives of these perpetual outsiders, he saw something of his own untethered future and, more to the point, something of our own plight. Since leaving Czechoslovakia, Koudelka has been a gypsy himself, living out of a sleeping bag and rucksack. For years, he had no fixed address, relying on the Magnum office to do business. Today in his 70s, he keeps two Spartan places, one in Paris and one in Prague, but still owns no car, no television, no cellphone.
For nearly 40 years, Koudelka has lived a sort of double exile: the literal one that drove him from his homeland and a second estrangement from the very world he fled to—from the whole superstructure of modern life, the getting and spending, the endless chatter of cheap gossip disguised as news, the selling without end, all the shabby stuff we spend our days acquiring. “To express the existential situation of modern man,” writes Czeslaw Milosz, “one must live in exile of some sort.”
That double experience—the engaged citizen’s and the stateless wanderer’s—find respective expression in the Prague pictures and in the Gypsies. Whatever the relative merits of these two bodies of work, they are bound together in the essential dialogue. Without the Prague work, the Gypsies photographs flirt with simple nostalgia, beatufiul pictures from a century before. Without the Gypsies, the Soviet tanks are mere reportage, more bad news from the frontlines of history. Together, they speak eloquently about what is at stake and what has always been at stake: how are we to live.
Critics often describe Koudelka’s vision as dark, focusing on the desolation of the lives he depicts. I’m not so sure. Certainly they are stern pictures, tough-minded in their honest appraisal of the scene. But what a gift that honesty is, how generous and humane. They take in all of it—the humble, the brave, the elegant, the gleeful, the sorrowful, the tragic. The commonplace of four loaves of bread laid out on a rustic table, the scene sanctified by the pictures of the Madonna and the Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging on the rough-plastered wall above. A young man baring his chest to a Soviet soldier, defying him to shoot. The Old World grace of a man, finger resting on his left cheek, as he contemplates who-knows-what. The playfulness of three scrawny boys flexing their arms in a classic Strong Man pose. The heartbreak of a family of mourners gathered around the body of a dead woman laid out in her coffin, the scene illuminated by a light at once harsh and caressing. The fear of a man in handcuffs, on his way to prison, and ostracized from his fellow villagers who cluster, gaping, in the distant background. An old man, a dead ringer for Samuel Beckett, standing defeated before a burned-out Prague apartment building.
And my picture: a man and a horse talking to one another. The man, squatting before the animal, gestures for all the world like some Left Bank intellectual explicating a subtlety of his impenetrable theory. The horse, a magnificent dapple gray, is attentive, nodding patiently, lovingly to his glib companion.
The image—all of them for that matter—borrows much from the early theater work. It’s not just that the pair could be on stage, characters in some fairy-tale version of a Beckett play. And it’s not just the sense of drama, the heightened moment. It’s also—and this is what makes the picture distinctively Koudelka’s—that the world depicted here is one where action and word, soul and deed rhyme.
You don’t have to romanticize a way of life that’s passing to feel the loss. I’m no Josef Koudelka, ready to throw off the blandishments of modern life for a bedroll and the open road. But I do see in this picture of a man and his attentive horse, a world not yet out of tune with itself. I see a conversation, a coming together, and a promise of connection to one another—a connection to life itself. Unmediated, perilous, and innocent.
I see a picture of a world we have lost and thes world as we dream it could be.