report by Rachel Klingberg
I was honored to be invited to the United Nations for this demonstration; many deserving students from all over the world would have been glad to be there. Edgar told me that because I'm a writer, if anyone was to document and remember what was shown to us on that day, it'd be me. I shall try to live up to his expectations. First let me say thank you to Mikhail, Vlad, and Edgar, for inviting me to be their guest, and to the United Nations, for hosting this enlightening event.
I met our group outside the Visitor's Entrance, and could not believe how handsome all the guys looked in their suits. I've never seen Edgar or Vlad that dressed up before. Peggy and I were also wearing formal business attire and both of us were in heels. Mrs. Ryabko and Mrs. Vasiliev were dressed beautifully. I think all of us spent a moment or two marveling at each other's appearances; after years of working out together, always looking sweaty and rumpled, it was strange to suddenly see everyone so dressed up. It was an occasion to look one's best; being a guest at the United Nations is a great honor.
That was my first time meeting Larissa Ryabko and I'm sorry that there was too much of a language barrier for us to communicate beyond "Hello." She is a stately woman and looks very much like a colonel's wife, which I intend entirely as a compliment. Maybe I will learn Russian someday so I can greet her properly.
The UN representative who served as moderator opened the event by saying that martial arts gets a bad rap in television and the movies, yet it involves self-discipline, awareness, love of beauty of movement, and harmony in the body, mind, and with the environment. "True inner discipline is freedom," he said, and to that end, martial arts masters from Russia, China, Japan, and the U.S. would demonstrate.
Valerie introduced Russian Martial Art, with comments from Mikhail and occasionally Vlad. Mikhail was surprisingly verbose. His military background is evident; he was at home in this environment, the elder statesman speaking before the committee. Vlad smiled the whole time, he looked like a mischievous schoolboy about to launch a paper airplane. He didn't say much. Mikhail quoted Romans: "If you want peace, be ready for war." He also said, "I was always sent to war. The United Nations is the only organization that wanted me to stay home. My family and I are grateful." We laughed, but he was quite sincere.
Mikhail provided an introduction to Systema through Valerie's translation. "Russian Martial Art encompasses wrestling, striking, health and fitness, and religious components." He explained how Systema was classified under the Soviet Union and if the Soviet Union had still existed, Systema would still be suppressed. I realized that I had been directly affected by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in that it gave me a chance to learn Systema, which has changed my life.
"No competition, no stances, no tournaments," Mikhail continued. "We get close because it's a better range for holds and strikes." He demonstrated the range of the legs, which is farther than the arms. Mikhail said that students see results after just a few classes. "Go with the force, don't resist," he said. "You should be no different than an everyday person, just standing around."
He and Martin began to demonstrate. Martin tried to grab him. It was interesting to see Martin, one of the top instructors in the world, with an even greater master. It was the first time I was seeing the extent of Mikhail's skill, and it was truly amazing. The other masters there to demonstrate their styles looked on with rapt attention.
Mikhail demonstrated hitting Martin several times, using the unhurried, un-flashy movements he had talked about as 'everyday standing around.' Martin took the strikes very well, perhaps better than anyone I've ever seen. And because Mikhail's strikes aren't flashy, an uninformed person might think he's not hitting Martin that hard. But when Martin sat down next to me afterwards, I noticed he was panting. I thought to myself, "So he's mortal," because I've never seen Martin out of breath! Martin told me later than when Mikhail hits him, he is acutely aware of his own mortality.
He also showed the no-contact work with Martin, which is of course, amazing. He never falters. Just when you think Martin might actually get him, Mikhail steps out of the way at the last second. It's really a marvelous, breathtaking sight. It was my first real close look at the extent of Mikhail's skill with the psychic energy; previously, I had only seen this high-level work on videotapes.
Frank A. was next to demonstrate, and he too tried to grab Mikhail at different speeds, fast and slow. Mikhail showed the no-contact work with Frank, as well. He attempted to de-mystify it, showing how Frank would halt if he raised his fist, stuck out his leg, or presented an imposing figure. He said there are various ways to employ the no-contact work: by stopping suddenly, or by moving suddenly, even by taking a sharp breath, all of which cause a 'frozen' reaction in the opponent.
Mikhail talked about even movements, uninterrupted, and full breathing. He emphasized the need to dissipate aggression with your own actions and breathing. If you have fear, you feed the attacker's aggression. He also said that Systema practice never includes pre-arranged attacks.
Frank attacked him faster. "The defender must be calm and ready," said Mikhail. "Strike in such a way so that he forgets about you," he said, hitting Frank and stopping his attack. "Quick, painless resolution." He demonstrated exciting versus calming strikes, and several strikes that I think made the recipients (Frank and earlier, Martin) laugh.
Frankie F. and Denis also demonstrated with Mikhail. Denis takes strikes very well, after Mikhail hit him, he invited one of the other masters to come up and hit Denis a few times. Master Short Iwasaki hit Denis in the stomach – I am not sure if he was hitting him as hard as he could, but he was putting a good deal of effort into it. He smiled as he saw how little his strikes affected Denis. Compared to Mikhail's punches, which seemed so much quieter, Denis hardly seemed to notice Master Iwasaki's. He also kicked him quite hard, but Denis just smiled and moved only a little.
Denis said, "The strikes make you warm." He lifted his shirt, and his stomach was reddened. "I did not get offended," he added, and I think the strikes do less damage because of that.
Vlad did a very brief demonstration with multiple attackers that I wished was longer, but there was so much to show, and not enough time. Somehow Vlad's shoe came off and in his usual witty expression of Systema, he launched it at his opponent, to much laughter. I wish Vlad could have demonstrated longer, but there were other masters waiting to demonstrate their own styles. The moderator thanked Mikhail and his demonstrators: "Versatile, wonderful, powerful yet relaxed… very beautiful," he said.
The other three masters were also very interesting speakers and I was going to add a few lines about their demonstrations, but there is so much to write, and I want to get it down while it's fresh, and also keep this at a good, readable length, though I could write a whole missive. There were masters of Tai Chi, Aikido, and Tong Il Moo-Doo also there to demonstrate.
After the demonstrations, they opened the floor to questions, and the moderator requested another demonstration of Mikhail's no-contact work. I think Denis was the one to demonstrate with him, but cannot quite recall. They showed a few more minutes of this extraordinary work, during which Mikhail really does appear to be an ordinary person, "just standing around." Ordinary, but so elusive – always one step ahead of his attacker, almost as if he's reading his mind. Mikhail had a few more words about the psychic energy, which I think of as "the energy of intent." I think the moderator, rather than having any particular question, just wanted to see more of this remarkable movement.
After posing for photographs and thanking everyone, we celebrated the exciting day with a lovely meal at the famous Russian Tea Room. It was a memorable experience, a day I will remember for a long time to come. Systema has truly become an international martial art, and a force for good. I hope the entire world will be as fortunate as I to benefit from this precious gift of knowledge, freely shared with us by two great masters whose greatness extends so far beyond combatives.
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