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Interview with Mikhail Ryabko

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The following interview was conducted in Toronto, Ontario on May 19, 2003. Present were Mikhail Ryabko, Valerie Vasiliev who served as interpreter, James Williams, Scott Meredith, and Aikido Journal Editor Stanley Pranin. Large parts of the texts were transcribed and translated by Pavel Rott.

Stanley Pranin: Thank you very much for taking time out from the party to talk with us. It’s a wonderful pleasure to be able to meet with you. I think even now that the System is starting to have big influence on the martial arts world. Naturally, people are very interested in the origins of the art. Because most of the martial arts that are popular came from the Asia, people are surprised to hear that this is a Russian martial art. I would like to understand a little more about how the System, that is, the predecessor of the art, was transmitted from its roots in Russia culture.

Mikhail Ryabko
Mikhail Ryabko: I am a little bit surprised that people have never heard about Russian martial arts and that they are surprised to hear that they exist. Look at the huge territory Russia occupies. Someone had to protect this territory. In Russia there were always warriors who were known for their bravery. And if you look at the development of Russia in the olden times, cities were built by rivers and monasteries were the sources of the first settlements. There were no roads so people traveled by river in boats in summertime and in sleds in wintertime. All the infrastructure of the early settlements came from monasteries. They provided the livelihood for communities. All of the functions of life were centered in them. Chronicles too were recorded in monasteries and science and medicine as well. If settlements were to be protected, monasteries were the ones that provided the protection. Weapons and armor were made in monasteries. Police and prisons were also located in these walled-off monasteries. Mail delivery was handled by monasteries also. They were like mini-states.

This was going on in Russia for many centuries. It is only one thousand years since the time Russia entered the Christendom, but even before that time the nation existed. Even now we can find a monastery called “Otoroch” (from a Russian word meaning “a young male”). It accommodates children that have no place to live. Orphaned children were brought up in monasteries and taught the Bible. Some were taught to defend the monastery because not everyone became a monk. Some of the children who were brought up in monasteries remained there as monks and some protected the place. It was not the number of people that provided such effective protection, it was the quality of training they had. They were always well equipped and well dressed. They were dressed and fed in the monastery, and they were paid salaries. There weren’t that many warriors protecting even high members of society. For example, a count might have six bodyguards protecting him, or an extremely wealthy one might have thirty.

Certain warrior traditions existed. There were many wars, of course, including some civil wars. Some wars were Christian wars involving the Russian Orthodox faith. Those warriors would fight for years and years defending their Motherland and they would come back to the monasteries to pray for the sins they committed during wartime and finish their lives in the monasteries. So this is a typical scenario and where the martial traditions come from. Of course, when the Russian Revolution took place it was very cruel and many of those monasteries really suffered. Monks were killed. Their libraries were eliminated. Communism is a way of religion as well, but it eliminated all other religions.

To speak a little more about warriors, emperors in China and Japan had Russian bodyguards around them for about six hundred years. Many Chinese martial arts masters said that they learned their arts from the bodyguards of the emperor, but they do not mention who those bodyguards were.

You can see a lot of emigrants from the former Soviet Union even now teaching various martial arts abroad. Some even taught hand-to-hand arts in America after the 1917 Revolution. Even today, there are plenty of Russians who serve in different armies, for example, the French Foreign Legion.

Some people may not like to hear such things and there will be many arguments about these points. You understand, why? I will tell you the truth, of course, but I have said these things a number of times in interviews, but they do not usually make it into print. People often prefer to listen to lies rather than to the truth. Sometimes a lot of money is involved.

If you take a good look, Russia shares borders with many countries and it always has had influence. An example of a Russian warrior that nobody talks about is Ermak*. He had an army of just 200 swordsmen and he defeated an army of Mongols of five thousand people in Siberia. He was the one who freed up Siberia.

* Yermak or Ermak , d. 1584?, Russian conqueror of Siberia; his name also occurs as Yermak Timofeyevich. The leader of a band of independent Russian Cossacks, he spent his early career plundering the czar’s ships on the Volga and later entered the service of a merchant family, the Stroganovs. They sent Yermak on an expedition to protect their lands in West Siberia from attack by local tribes. Advancing in river boats, Yermak and his band crossed the Urals and with the superior force of firearms conquered (1582) the capital of the Tatar khanate of Sibir; he placed the conquered territory under the protection of Czar Ivan IV and asked him for aid. Yermak was killed in an encounter with the Tatars, and his troops were forced to retreat. However, Russian troops retook the territory in 1586.

We lost a lot of during the Revolution. They tried to eliminate the roots of the people. And that’s why nothing was made out of Russians after that. You can talk a lot about that. There are many examples. There are holy warriors of Russia and their remains have not decayed and are still there in Kiev and Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, for example. Their remains have been there since the 12th Century.

JW: I have a question. What was the name of the monastery that the monks defended… where there were 100 monks to defend the monastery, about the 12th century?

MR: That is the monastery of Troitsko-Sergieva Lavra.* You went there. There are always a hundred monks there even now. Polish warriors tried to conquer it for two years. Armies of thousands attacked but could not defeat it. It was around the 14th century, I am not sure exactly.

* Monastery of Troitsko-Sergieva Lavra: One of the most magical sights in Russia is the monastery of Troitsko-Sergieva Lavra (The Trinity - St Sergius Lavra). Onion domes in gold and bright blue with gold stars come into view from the last rise in the road from Moscow. The monastery is one of Russia’s most important pilgrimage sites and one of only four in the Russian Orthodox Church to have the honorific “Lavra”. It is part of the Golden Ring, a group of ancient Russian towns to the northeast of Moscow that are, in effect, open-air museums. The monastery complex, begun in the 1340s by St. Sergius of Radonezh (the Russian Orthodox Church’s greatest saint), comprises churches, cathedrals and monastic buildings that are once again in use. Troitsky Sobor (Trinity Cathedral) is the oldest (1422-23) and finest of the churches, and its iconostasis included paintings by Rublyov, some of which are now visible in the Tretyakov Gallery. The monastery is 80 km (50 miles) north of Moscow.

SP: Have you studied this area of history? You seem to be very knowledgeable.

MR: I have studied some, not in great detail, but I have been interested. Information comes naturally when people are interested. One could do more thorough research and there is of course tons of information.

VV: He has traveled himself to many of these monasteries. That’s his favorite type of travel, to the holy spots.

SP: Would you talk a little bit about the Revolution and when the government took control of the martial techniques that were being taught? What happened during that period?

Ryabko with interpreter Valerie Vasiliev
MR: Those who had this knowledge, of course, were still there. The Communists tried to take the religious part out of this. Those who protect the homeland do not care who rules. The Church prays for every soul. During the Second World War, they also went to war and they fought the best way they could.

SP: When Mikhail first began to receive training as a child, was he just taught the physical skills or did he receive training in the religious significance of the art too?

VV: Mikhail was christened as a child but he was not introduced to religious matters. It was a period when religion was really denied and children were usually christened secretly. He believed in God but came to understand more about religion later.

SP: Was he taught on a personal basis or as part of a group?

VV: His father and his grandfather taught him.

JW: Did you continue to train in the physical techniques all the way through to your teens or did you begin to do psychic training later?

MR: The two go hand in hand. All of the exercises have physical and psychological aspects and even beyond. You should understand that if a person just starts lifting weights it is completely a waste of time. If a person works hard to earn his living then that labor is justified.

SP: When did you begin to teach the System outside of the military?

MR: I have been teaching all through my military career. I did not announce or advertise it. I have always trained people quietly in groups and as individuals. It so happens that people always found me one way or another. They have always come and asked questions. If people ask, you give it to them… as much as they can tolerate! (Laughter) Well, Vladimir then came to Canada, started to teach, and for a long time I did not give him my permission to name me as his instructor.

SP: When did you retire from military service?

MR: When the situation in Russia changed and there were not so many restrictions.

SP: Would you talk how you first met Vladimir and the promise that you saw in him as a student?

MR: Vladimir is a very interesting person. Even when he came he had something in him. The first time he came with the idea of beating me up!

SP: Does he remember that day clearly?

VV: I think so! He told me that for most of the first years he was training he always tried to catch Mikhail at unguarded moments, always tried to check him out and find a way to defeat him.

SP: Was Vladimir receptive to the religious and philosophical aspects of training after some time?

VV: Yes, but he was not yet christened when he first met Mikhail. He was christened much later in Israel.

SP: I have recently come to understand that what people normally call “courtesy” or “kindness” is not simply a moral issue but can also be viewed in a tactical sense. Displaying these behaviors is an effective way to live life.

MR: Any approach to life and martial arts that does not destroy a person’s body, soul, family or nation is a correct approach.

SP: When I first began to understand more about the System, of course, I was very impressed by the skills that you displayed, but James’ comments about your character, Mikhail, and that of Vladimir were very important for me. In that sense, I see things in common with aikido with the stress on the ethical system and the martial system.

MR: This is what makes it similar to the Russian system, the right approach.

SP: I do not know the answer myself but I think the potential for the influence of the System in martial arts in general and then in society at large is very great. Do you often think in terms of the potential of the System to influence society?

Editor Stanley Pranin poses a question
MR: I haven’t made a major goal of achieving such great results in the world. But I would really like to have people who do other martial arts understand what they are doing and where they are going. What many martial arts provoke in people is pride, ego, cruelty, and aggression. The world is not very kind. It destroys a person’s soul.

Pride destroys a person. Anything that destroys a person’s soul is not good. Negative emotions are not correct. Look at the biomechanics of other martial arts. Some destroy the body of a person. If you constantly deliver strikes against hard objects you destroy your joints. You get arthritis. This type of training destroys a person’s body. He has constant pain in his joints. If a person is irritated and nervous he is no good for his family or country.

We have a boy here who is only 10 doing karate. I can show how his right shoulder is damaged already. Anything that destroys the soul of a person – pride, vanity and anger – are no good. The same applies on the physical level. Nobody needs a sick person, but it is much easier to control a sick person.

Kicks in karate that twist the joint and put the joint out, damage the joint greatly. The bone just comes out of the joint and causes micro-tears in the joint socket. That destroys body coordination and produces pain in the joints. Why should one practice that way? What you should do instead is to strengthen the joints. The striking techniques we learned in the seminar involved a lot of strengthening of the joints, warmups and stretching, and then proceeding to striking.

Take the matter of breaking hard objects like bricks and boards. Imagine that someone actually created these objects; someone made the bricks and boards in a factory. So why should one destroy them? What for? Why should we break something created by another human being? It’s really an interesting philosophy! One wonders who gives this power and energy to break objects. What force gives this power?

SP: One of the things that impressed me the most is all of the students of the System. I think that Mikhail and Vladimir’s students reflect them very well as people. They are very helpful, very friendly, good people.

MR: It goes without saying that whatever the tree is, that’s what the fruit will be.

SP: I recall hearing from James that there is a possibility of the System being taught in the educational system in Moscow.

VV: This is what Mikhail is working on at his Ministry. They are getting the Ministries of Health and Education involved in this. That is the project that is going on right now. It is not simple at all. Not everyone likes this idea, especially the ones working for the dark forces.

SP There are dark forces in every country.

James Williams listens to reply
MR: God will help us. That’s why we need warriors. This is a difficult question - the government after the revolution wanted the fighting skills of the monasteries. Of course they tried to control these arts. For example, there is “sambo” – and they say that sambo came from judo, but really there are two different directions in sambo – one is competitive and the other combat sambo. Judo does not have that combat component. But sambo was not converted into an Olympic sport.

JW: I don’t know enough about the monk Rasputin, whether he was a good or bad person, but did he get a lot of his power from training in monasteries? Obviously he was very hard to kill.

MR: Rasputin is a very controversial figure. Surely he had something. But what forces were controlling him — good or evil — I don’t know. But he did have powers. God sorts things out.

SP: Do you hope that through your efforts and the efforts of others that some of the politicians can be enlightened and use this wonderful tool for good?

MR: There are a lot of positive things happening in Russia now. It is very possible that this sort of thing could happen. I am all for the rebirth and rebuilding of everything, in Russia, America, Europe, and Asia. I am for people, not against anything. I am for good. I am for justice. People are the same everywhere — in America, Canada and Russia. Everyone has family and kids.

No matter what we say, inside our souls we are kind people. At least we don’t wish evil on those close to us, on our children. Our people will sort out where to go for training… to end up in Heaven or in Hell!

JW: I would like to ask about the sword techniques that you taught me in Russia last summer. Did your father or grandfather also teach the sword?

MR: Those techniques I showed were the most simple… the first things taught, but they seemed to you like advanced skills.

JW: (Laughter) They were very good!

MR: To be skillful in the use of weapons is, for a warrior, like being skillful with a spoon. I don’t care what weapon you use—a machine gun or sword.

JW: I am trying to understand the roots of the System. Warriors did not fight with their bare hands, but rather with weapons almost all the time. When I first saw the System in your video “Master of Fighting.” I thought “Oh, this is a sword art!”

MR: Yes, that’s correct. A lot of our techniques come from being skillful with weapons.

JW: That’s why I tried to understand the sword part because it’s the root of the movements, evasions and softness of the System.

MR: That’s correct. Russian armor wasn’t so heavy and the metal shields were made of chain mail, so they dealt with most strikes using their bodies.

JW: I tried a cut against chain mail using a sword and it will push the chain mail all the way to the bone even if the sword doesn’t cut. I think both Michael and I are a little odd because we like this old stuff!

SP: Scott, do you have any particular questions?

SM: Yes, I am interested in the role of stories, I mean we do a lot of physical training — rolling, hitting and sensitivity, but can people learn a great deal or even more from hearing stories from people who have had deep experiences in reality? Are such stories a good teaching tool?

MR: Psychologically, they are a great tool. For example, we are talking now and you are getting a lot of information and you enjoy it. But you have to get to that level. First you do a lot of physical work and then you listen. Just like a little child. Like a little child, running around, jumping and fussing, and then when he’s tired he sits down and he is ready to listen! (Laughter).

SP: The System has religious, philosophical, and technical dimensions. I also know that there are some health practices like cold-water dousing that you use. Where did these come from and how do they tie into the system?

Vladimir Vasiliev and wife Valerie
MR: It is not only modern people who are smart, people in the old days were smart too! They also knew about the immune system. Medicine has been developing all the time so when people are hurt or wounded in wars they have to be healed. All the exercises we do are to improve strength, health, and rehabilitation.

SP: Did you learn these things as a child or later?

MR: Everything came gradually. I could not learn everything right away. There are no tricks to this. Everything comes from sweating and suffering. Knowledge comes that way. I have a number of scars I got from defending against weapons. There isn’t one spot on my body that hasn’t been hit at one time or another. All my mistakes are visible on my body!

SP: In the little booklet on the System, there is a brief mention of a Russian philosopher. Was it Porfiry Ivanov*? Has he had a strong influence on you?

MR: No, he really has no influence on the Russian system. He started a sect. He thought of a sort of “ten commandments” almost. He gave ten ways to live. He presented himself as God. The cold water dousing is of course very good. But the rest of that man’s philosophy is not something that we would incorporate. In Russia, people always swam in ice lakes and did cold water dousing, not only Porfiry Ivanov! They would make a hole in the ice and dive in. And they have been washing at the well all the time in icy cold water. That’s been done for centuries. He invented his own religion out of it.

* Porfiry Ivanov (1898-1983). A Russian ascetic and self-proclaimed doctor from the Russian provinces who died in 1983. Ivanov, a mystic who called himself the brother of Jesus, advocated an ascetic lifestyle, involving fasting, dousing oneself in cold water and walking barefoot in the snow. He has achieved cult status and centers of his followers have sprung up in many cities in the former Soviet Union.

JW: Since even the Communists couldn’t indoctrinate every little village, would people still practice these martial techniques from the old days?

MR: If you have any money in your house, the tax authorities won’t find it at all. And it does not matter where you live, in the center of New York or in the suburbs. You will still hide it. The same thing was the case in Russia [for the martial arts].

SP: That’s a very Japanese answer!

JW: The Russian gentleman from Chicago told me that Russians used to train in basements and not tell anybody that they were practicing martial arts because they were illegal in Russia.

MR: Yes, it’s the same everywhere in the center of New York or Moscow.

SP: In your personal case, your understanding of the System is very closely related with your cultural and religious upbringing involving the Russian Orthodox Church. Do you think that these universal principles can be accepted widely even for people with different religious backgrounds?

MR: Why wouldn’t they accept the System? We are not a sect, nor are we imposing anything. They can take some ideas from the training and use them without necessarily converting to the religion. We’ve had, for example, about 130 people at the seminar and maybe only 10 of them have been christened.

SP: Are there something like the “Ten Commandments” of the System?

MR: The “Ten Commandments” that Moses got from God are our commandments! (Laughter)

SP: He did our homework for us! Well, I’ve exhausted my list of questions. That was a very stimulating interview! Thank you!