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: 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-of 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.
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