The lyrics, in English:
Cry To Me, River,
Tell Me About The Days Of Ancient Times,
About What Thou Saw Long Time Ago-
Tell By The Whispering Of Thy Drops
Bring By The Waves To Nothingness
Resounds Of Battles Where One Raised His Sword
Against His Brother
In Murmur Of Tide Voices Are Heard:
Who Dishonored His Ancestors Names?
Who Destroyed Our Ancient Faith?
Who Gave The Slavonic Land
Into Enemies’ Clutch?
Miserable Descendant Of The Great Knjaz,
Worthless Son Of Svjatoslav,-
Fratricide, Apostate Of Faith,
Named “Saint” For His Betrayal!
Who Built The Churches
Upon Our Sacral Ground?-
That Herd Trembled Of Fear,
When Knjaz Svjatoslav Nailed His Shield
To The Constantinopolis Gates!
The song fades in with a flute playing the triple meter melody. Most listeners would recognize that particular ostinato pattern as Carol of the Bells but this choice is significant, as I will soon detail. Immediately one can hear the texture and tone of the song is somewhat low-quality, tinny (or at least focused more on the treble rather than the bass), and abrasive. This is all standard of the black metal genre, though the addition of folk instruments and synth textures to support those instruments is considerably less common. After this intro in triple meter, the flute and synths drop out and the song switches to quadruple meter. Here you can hear an example of the “blast beat” drumming pattern, in which, if it were a real drummer, he or she would be using all four limbs to hit something on the drum kit, usually the bass drum, the hi-hat, the snare, and either a tom or a cymbal, and he or she would be hitting these on every eighth note (though sometimes even faster in some more aggressive metal genres). The song is strophic in form, with the vocal verses occurring in the quadruple meter sections, separated by the triple meter instrumental refrains in which they bring back the melody. Musically, all of the melodies are relatively conjunct, with no extreme jumps in tone. And while the choice to include the main theme of the Christmas song Carol of the Bells may seem conspicuous in a song with lyrics so hostile to Christianity, that particular melody was originally an old Slavic pagan chant sung at new year’s until it was co-opted by Christianity. This is a theme we find echoing throughout the song.
The circumstances of this song are fascinating. On its face, it is about an ancient 10th century conflict in the lands of Kievan Rus’, a medieval state encompassing modern day Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of western Russia. The song mentions two figures, Knjaz (Slavic royal title usually translated to “Prince” or “Duke”) Svjatoslav and his son, Knjaz Volodymir. Svjatoslav was responsible for much of the expansion of Kievan Rus’. His campaigns against Khazaria and the First Bulgarian Empire led to both of their collapses, and he also subjugated numerous Slavic tribes. As mentioned in the song, he also warred against the Byzantine empire, although the matter of nailing his shield to the gates of Constantinople is most likely a heroic legend. But most importantly to the songwriters, Svjatoslav remained an unrepentant pagan for his entire life, fearing he would lose the respect of his troops if he converted to Christianity. He died in battle when the Byzantine emperor John Tzimiskes persuaded the khan Kurya of the Pechenegs to ambush him above the Dnieper rapids, and after the battle Svjatoslav’s skull was made into a chalice.
Due to his sudden death, there were no real plans in order for succession, and war broke out between his three sons, Oleg, Yaropolk, and Volodymir (often modernized to Vladimir). Yaropolk defeated Oleg in battle, Volodymir fled to avoid dying like his brother, and Yaropolk reigned for several years before Volodymir returned with an army of Varangians. Yaropolk was overthrown and Volodymir had him slain on the way to peace negotiations. We see this event echoed twice within the lyrics. Knjaz Volodymir reigned for many years as a pagan, setting up altars, shrines, and sacrifices (sometimes human) to Perun and other figures in the Slavic pantheon. But in 988, some say to secure a political alliance with the Byzantine empire, he converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, tore down the old pagan monuments and erected many churches and cathedrals.
It’s an interesting song because, if viewed solely in the context of this ancient history, it’s a little over a thousand years too late to change anything. But when viewed in the contexts of modern Ukrainian politics and the modern black metal scene, things start falling into place. Ukraine is a nation with a rich and storied history, but as a modern state it didn’t achieve sovereignty and autonomy until fairly recently. As a result, there is a deep streak of nationalism in the Ukrainian zeitgeist. Black metal, as a genre, was formed in Scandinavia in the early 90s as a protest against what its members perceived as the dominant Judeo-Christian culture and the encroaching grasp of global capitalism. It culminated with the burning of several churches and even a murder or two before the main players were jailed. The criminality of the genre has tapered off since then, but the harsh and antagonistic nature of the music still draws in musicians of a more disgruntled state of mind.
When we combine these elements, the natural result is Kroda’s Cry To Me, River… (Betrayal of Knjaz Volodymir), a song that clearly identifies an Ideal Ukrainian in Knjaz Svjatoslav, elevating him to mythical status as a man who fought for Ukraine’s culture, lands, true people, and gods, and establishing him as a cultural archetype of the Defender of Slavic Culture. This archetypal Defender stands in stark opposition to the Enemy, which in this case is Judeo-Christian culture. Thus, according to the framework of the song, the greatest crime of the Betrayer Volodymir was not fratricide. The song demonizes it, to be certain, but keep in mind Yaropolk was not innocent of the crime himself, albeit under slightly less treacherous circumstances. Ultimately, it is irrelevant in the face of his greater sin: turning over the Slavic lands to the Church, tearing down the altars to the Slavic gods, and essentially betraying the True Slavic Culture set up by the song. Notice as well that the Pechenegs and their khan Kurya are never mentioned in the song, let alone framed as Enemies or Betrayers despite killing the archetypal hero Svjatoslav. This is because they were pagans, and within the framework no pagan can be an Enemy. Thus the conflict of this song is not only the struggle of 10th century Kievan Rus’, it is the struggle for the very cultural soul of Ukraine.
Obviously not all of these are conscious decisions on the part of Kroda. While they may be nationalistic, their particular brand of nationalism is not a violent one, and they tend to keep the lyrical content of their songs firmly within the realms of mythology and ancient history. But, as niche as it may seem, Kroda is not the only Ukrainian black metal band with folk elements and nationalist leanings. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that some of these bands do espouse a violent nationalism; some of them do write lyrics about white supremacism; some even go so far as to call their particular brand of metal national socialist black metal, though that particular trend is not one limited to Ukrainian bands. The similarity in sound between Kroda and these other bands leads to an overlap in fanbases, and all it takes to confirm this is a quick look at the comments on the song’s video. They see the enemy discussed in the song not as Judeo-Christian culture (which at this point is so globally entrenched that most protests against it are utterly ineffectual) but as anything that they perceive as threatening the existence and dominance of the “white race.” It is an ugly, sad truth, but this is the world we live in.