Mikhail Surikov was born, grew up and still lives in the old Russian city of Vologda. He is 45, a seven-time world champion in martial arts. He established 16 world records and 17 Russian records, which were fixed by the Russian Records Registry and the international agency InterRecord (an analogue of the Guinness Book of Records). Mikhail was the first Russian athlete ever to be included into the European and International Martial Arts Hall of Fame. Also Mikhail is the first athlete in the world, who won 7 medals on one World Championships, the first athlete in the world, who was able to hold 51 wrestling fights without rest for 117 minutes. He was awarded the Suvorov Medal for spiritual, moral and patriotic upbringing of the young and young generation in 2021 as part of the "Golden Pen" award. We talked to Mikhail about his challenging childhood, sports, his path to faith, war and the love of God, which the athlete always puts at the center of his life.
- Mikhail, tell us a little about your youth. It must have happened at a turbulent time for the country...
- I lived in a time of the mighty Soviet Union. There was no breakup of the country yet. We were all together, one country and one people. My father was a military man, and we lived in a wooden house, but it was very nice and comfortable. Then my father was given an apartment, my mother was offered a subsidy as a laboratory assistant at the optical-mechanical plant... Yes, we stood in line for cars, but it was a living line that led to the fulfillment of our dreams. Everything was coordinated and moved in a single context. I look back on that time with pride.
When I turned 11 years old, a period of disintegration began. The world had changed. We matured much earlier than we needed to. The crisis led to more crime. Gangs and mobs of all kinds were popping up, no matter what city you came to. Some sudden and strange confrontations began, "neighborhood against neighborhood," "yard against yard"... Before, it was all like fun, but became a violent confrontation with the use of knives. There seemed to be some unspoken "rules of honor" that were actually violated in practice. There was an incident: I was walking with my mother and six people attacked me. I had to defend myself and my mother (her first and foremost).
Upbringing took place in the family. My grandmother was a believer. I saw faith in God, the prayers of loved ones. And my father was not even allowed to wear a cross, he was a member of the Communist Party, and we could not go to church. As soon as I was allowed (I was 12-13 years old) I went to church to be baptized.
- Was that your decision?
- Yeah. Grandma said: "Let's wait until the weekend." But I insisted that I had to be baptized right away. At the church, they asked me if I was being baptized for fashion or for faith. I said I was being baptized for my faith. And I needed spiritual support. I had already practiced martial arts. That was instilled in me by my father. As I have already said, I was brought up in the Russian traditions and in the environment of Russian culture. The harmonica was constantly playing, my great-grandfathers and acquaintances played instruments, I saw Russian dances. There were icons in the corner. I was able to see my great-grandmother and get in touch with her as a bearer of tradition. Dad wore a cross when it was "allowed" (he had already been baptized). The role models were the Russian epic knights. Although there were other examples, from contemporary culture. Bruce Lee, for example. I liked him, too. I felt that in order to rise high in sports, I needed spiritual support. And I saw how people of faith were strengthened in their faith before my eyes. Some of them were telling their stories, including military men who had returned from Afghanistan. I saw how the Lord saved and sustained people. So when we faced hard times, sports became a priority. There were athletes involved in street fights against you. Often you had to fight one-on-one. I probably had about a thousand fights in the three years before the army.
The role models were the Russian epic knights
- Every day.
- And that doesn't mean I was a bully. On the contrary. I was the smallest, the most puny. I got bullied all the time. I had to stand up for my friends. I may have weighed 60 kilos, but I had character. I trained five to eight hours a day. Often I even had to stick up for the older guys. Often they called me to help. When you were walking through town, they could attack you and try to take your money. They could meet you on the way to school...
- It's a tough time.
- Food was gone from everywhere! Thievery flourished. You go with a voucher, you are attacked, they want to take the voucher away. I had to stand up for others for that very reason. Once I woke up in the morning, ran a race, drank a glass of warm water, and there was food on the stove. And my mom says, "It's either for you for lunch or for dinner. It's your choice." (Michael sighs heavily). My father and mother also split up. In general, the period in life was not easy. Dad lost his job. Mom and I lived alone. To save money on transportation and to buy us food, she walked to work - to the other end of the town. And all of this, as I said, happened abruptly. One day and you were left with no food on the table. You had to walk in your only shoes during all seasons. You literally had to survive.
You'd come to a competition... You'd be hungry. You'd snatch a piece of bread somewhere and go to perform. Those were very tough times. They were an invaluable experience for hardening and understanding life. How young guys live now and how we lived then ... I don't want any repetition. And that time, I believe, was a consequence of our godless past. We have turned away from the faith. And look how we live today. And we all complain. But show us that time, or just experience it. Of course, no one would want to go "there".
- What was your first sports passion?
- As I said before, I was inspired by Bruce Lee. I started with boxing and hand-to-hand combat. Then came combat sambo. Then I created my own system, and my passion for sports became a kind of hardening of my inner core. For example, sports help a lot in the spiritual life. I am very happy when I go to a sports training camp.
- I am getting closer to God. When I leave for the competition, I get away from everything, from work and from the hustle and bustle. I have two training sessions a day. The rest of the time I can devote to God. I pray, I like it a lot and it gives me a strong spiritual foundation. Yes, sometimes I come home tired after practice. But when I read a prayer, even sitting or lying down, I am always in touch with God. I don't ask the Lord for victory, but for the opportunity to go my way with dignity. It may sound surprising to some, but sports help me to repent. Humility and patience manifest themselves in the practice of sports... These are the qualities that are transformed from words into reality and are revealed in the heart. At the training camp you have several practices a day, you have to compete and fight against strong opponents. But you have to exercise as much as possible if you want to win. And when you come out at the competitions, you realize in practice what Suvorov said: "Hard in training, easy in battle". And after every competition you realize that every victory is from God. After all the trials of the competition I pray to God with a feeling of deep repentance.
I don't ask the Lord for victory, but for the opportunity to go my way with dignity
It seems to me that after each such moment I get even closer to God.
- Sports helped you in life, too.
- Yes, I made a name for myself. I formed as a fighter before the army, winning all the competitions in Northwest Russia. I went to boxing, kickboxing, hand-to-hand fighting, combat sambo tournaments. Wherever I could apply myself, I performed in every competition. I even did kung fu in Moscow. I met in one sports camp with the "grandfather" of Russian martial arts, Vladimir Viktorovich Karpov, who definitively shaped my way of an "orthodox warrior". And in that camp I had to fight with representatives of different styles. I won them all. Karpov was so satisfied that he came to Vologda to train me. He taught me not only martial arts, but also traditional culture. And then the moment came, and I was drafted into the army.
- I know that you are a combat veteran. Do you think it was providential that you went to war?
- The first Chechen campaign began. I was a patriot of my country (my father had brought me up that way). My father told me (he had got a good job by then) that he had every possibility of leaving me to serve closer to home and in a good unit. I said, "Dad, you raised me right". Why did they put me in sports? My father wanted to see a warrior, a real defender of the fatherland. That's how I made the decision that I was going to serve wherever they sent me.
- And you were sent...
- To the internal special forces. It was providential. The war brought me even closer to God. There I felt that there is a God. The main thing I got out of that time was the principle the Lord left us: "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends" (John 15:13). Friends have always been one of my first priorities. It was in the war that I learned what true friendship means. In the war I learned how to pray sincerely and fervently. Of course, it hardened my character - for good and noble deeds in the future.
Of course, I had the experience of loving my homeland. These were not empty words for our family. My father always told me about the moral side of loving one's country. These conversations were always backed up by concrete examples. This helps me today in my work with the younger generation, I can already tell you something about my example.
- How did you manage to hold on and not break down later, in civilian life? How did you recover when you came home?
- Thanks to my father, my mother, and my friends. Friends are those who help me to this day in sports, and then and after the war. You can't tell your parents everything openly anyway, especially since they were already worried. With your friends you can share a lot, the more so they understand you. A true friend is always there: in trouble and in joy. Once again I emphasize that I have learned from life examples the words of God about the true sacrificial love of friends. God brought us together for a reason; we have been together since childhood. Even our life in God passes together today: we are members of one church community, we pray, serve, and work together for the good of the Church and our small country.
But of course, first and foremost it is faith in God. Without prayer, without reading the scriptures and the instruction of the church fathers, I would not have made it. Coming out of the war was very hard. The first two years I fell asleep to military songs. I could stay awake for days without them. I used to put a cassette into a tape recorder and fall asleep like that. A year and a half after the war, I met my future wife. She also helped me a lot and was by my side. And when my daughter was born, it brightened up our family world and life became even easier. God sent such an angel. They say when a girl is born, there will be no war.
- Then there was coaching, social work... Tell me about it.
- Yes, I started coaching when I returned from Chechnya, I worked in the gym myself, performed in small tournaments, then I started traveling around Russia. There was a boom in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and then there was grappling and MMA. I wanted to show that our Russian hand-to-hand fighting and combat sambo were no worse. That's how I got involved in international competitions.
I'm like Ilya of Murom, at 33 years "got off the stove". I was in the national team of Russia, traveled all over Europe and achieved great results. I didn't really believe that after 33 years one could achieve anything serious at all. But now I've won three European Jiu-Jitsu titles, won the Old World Grappling Championship and became a seven-time (now eight-time) World MMA Champion. That's all I achieved after 33 years.
I'm like Ilya of Murom, at 33 years "got off the stove"
- Such examples actually motivate people, and not just in sports.
- And thank God! I plan to set a few more world records. I finished my career as an athlete. I won my last championship at the age of 44. I was in the national team and I won a silver medal for the team and got the golden medal in the overall standings. I fought with a leg injury, in the finals they took me off because of that, but the fight was not lost, we didn't lose any points. All this is thanks to God. The body is weak but the spirit is awake, as the Apostle Paul said. I experienced it all myself. My body was all bruised and beaten up in competitions, but my spirit was reaching out to God. I prayed not only for myself, but also for my opponents, that he would not have any injuries, and that everyone would perform with dignity and excellence. I always treated my opponents with respect. I had no anger or hatred, only positive emotions. That makes it easier to fight, in a good mood and with a smile. You're cheering in the fight, you want to show courage and fighter's ingenuity. You came out to the fight and showed all your skills, gained during 3-4 months of exhausting trainings. But everything was done in prayer. That's important.
- Now the list of your victories is impressive...
- Yes, I am the first Russian athlete to be inducted into the European Martial Arts Hall of Fame. The first athlete in the world to win the most medals in one championship (the record is still unbroken). The first athlete to land 12 punches in one second. I already told you about 51 unrestricted wrestling bouts.
I must say that the achievements of my students are also high. They are awarded titles of Master of Sports, they enter international competitions. Some of them connect their lives with sports, some use it as a "handy" tool for their profession. Some need sports to form themselves as human beings. My task is to make sure that a number of our athletes get into the European Hall of Fame, so that the guys represent our country properly in the international arena. I always fly the flag of the Russian Federation, it's very important for me. And it is important to play the anthem of our country.
- But back to your spiritual journey. You came to the Church very young, you went through the war with the faith... But at some point you went to the Old Believers. How did this happen and why?
- It happened at a time when I met Ded in a sports camp. He was a practicing Edinoverets (Orthodox Old Believer in the Russian Orthodox Church - Editor's note). He told me about the baptism of Russia and Russian warriors and fought in the hand-to-hand fight. He crossed himself with both two and three fingers, by the way. But I was quite young at the time and did not pay much attention to this. Later, after the army, began to study Russian history. Studying the lives of ancient Russian saints, I saw their connection to that "old" tradition. I wanted to pray the same way our saints did. Now, of course, I no longer see the difference. But since God allowed both traditions to live in the Russian Church, thank God, it must be so. It's God's will for everything.
Yes, at some point I went to the Old Believers. Because I didn't know about Edinoverie yet. I joined them... But for me after the war, the feeling of love was very important. To tell you the truth, I feel it for all people. With the Old Believers, I encountered the fact that they have a very noticeable separation of people. And I after the war (where there was bodily strife) was not looking for a new (in this case spiritual) strife, but for peace and solitude.
The Lord indicated that we would and should be together. And subsequently, when I learned of Edinoverie, I went there immediately, because that is exactly what connects us. My task as an Orthodox Christian is to make sure that we all live in peace and love, in One Church. Why else was I attracted to Edinoverie - it stands on this divide between the two parts of the Russian Church, like a thread connecting one to the other canvas, which should be one. I think that, in time, everything will return to normal and the Old Believers and us will be together.
- Why did you choose the path you're on now?
- If I went back in time and lived my life one more time, I would live it exactly the same way. My whole life is about standing before God and praying to Him. I saw my life as being useful to my family and friends, my city, my community and my country. God gave life not so that we could eat it up and drink it away, doing nothing or stuffing our pockets with money. He gave us life that we could find the Kingdom of Heaven and try to live it with love and kindness, to help each other. And in order to find the Kingdom of Heaven it is necessary to help your neighbor, your family, your work with prayer to God. Because only from God are all results, victories and achievements.
My whole life is about standing before God and praying to Him
- In conclusion, tell us a little about your social activities.
- My work with young people and my social activities are very broad. I travel all over Russia. I plan trips to Syria and Serbia and countries of the former Soviet Union. I hold master classes, talk to kids, including on spiritual and moral topics. This is my mission for peace, which I carry out with Vasily Aleksandrov and the "Ruspomosch" Foundation with the support of the parliamentary center for comprehensive security of the Fatherland, where I now work as part of public diplomacy. We work extensively on charitable causes, telling personal examples of the spiritual and patriotic exploits of our people. We speak from our own examples, telling how we personally overcame certain personal difficulties. Family values, the love of husband and wife - this is really important in our world, we always talk about it. We talk about the substitution of concepts in our world, even the simplest and most simple words, like love, kindness and mercy.
There are a lot of projects, and what's nice is that they move. Public activity with the parliamentary center, which I have already mentioned. We are involved in the film "The Sambist" with the director Igor Yarinskikh. This is a non-fiction film, a documentary about Anatoly Oschepkov, Anatoly Kharlampiev and Vitaly Spiridonov, the founders and creators of sambo. By the way, the film will be about the spiritual side of this kind of wrestling. Oschepkov was blessed by St. Nicholas of Japan to bring sambo back to the world. I take part in making a film about it as an athlete, a musician and even an altar server. Basically, whatever God has gifted me with. The spiritual side is most important. The film will be interesting, based on archival footage, with famous priests and even Patriarch Kirill. There will be a private screening first, and one of the first to see it will be Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Subsequently, there are plans to shoot a feature film series "The Sambist" as well as "Russian Bogatyr". The last film is already about me and the Vologda region.
I'm also the leader of the volunteer company "Combat Brotherhood" under the "Young Army". I play the balalaika, perform as a duet with my teacher and play by myself. Took part in the program "Note in note" of Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) and Galina Ivanovna Teplykh. I hope that all our labors will give at least some small sprouts for the good of our Motherland.
Interviewed by Vladimir Basenkov, September 18, 2022.