Find 3 Good Things, Even in the Worst Situation - Interview with Valerie Vasiliev

May 09, 2021 by Takahide Kitagawa  
We interviewed Valerie Vasiliev, who has been supporting Vladimir as his wife and business partner.  How did they come to know each other and have grown Toronto Systema HQ together?

Place of interview: Tokyo, Japan
Interviewer: Takahide Kitagawa (Systema Tokyo)
Interpreter: Ryo Onishi (Systema Osaka)

Taka: When was Toronto HQ founded?
Valerie: November 1st, 1993.

Taka: That means twenty-eight years ago.
Valerie: That's right.  Before that, Vladimir taught a small group at a community center and at our home.  The group became bigger and bigger, so we considered opening a school. We estimated that twelve or more students would pay for the rent.  And we had this many at that point, so we started the school.

Taka: In 2010, you moved to a bigger gym.  Had you been teaching at the same place till then?
Valerie: Yes.  We had been using our initial gym for seventeen years.  As more and more students came, we moved to a bigger place on the same street.  It was about one and a half times larger, so we could add a larger reception desk, office and changing rooms. What was most fortunate for us in both gyms was that the students helped us in many ways.  They assisted with placing the mats, setting the mirrors, equipment, bringing their friends, etc. Systema students are such good people.

Taka: When did Vladimir came to Toronto?
Valerie: In 1990.  He didn't mean to stay in Canada at first, he was just visiting a Russian friend.  He met me while he was seeing some friends, we fell in love and he decided to immigrate to Canada.  That was all so coincidental.

Taka: Was Vladimir in the military then?  In that case, I suppose leaving Russia must have been very difficult.
Valerie: I don’t know much about that. Vladimir prefers not to talk about it.

Taka: How did Vladimir get his Canadian citizenship?
Valerie: As I was already a Canadian citizen when we met, he got his citizenship by marrying me.  The process was complicated as it usually is.  Many forms, appointments and then a spousal interview. They asked us all kinds of questions in order to prove that it was a real marriage.  Such as, all the relatives' names, birthdays, memories of childhood, the placement of the furniture at home, on which side of the bed each slept, where we put the toothbrush and many other details.  For example, what were the first words you exchanged when you met. We were put in separate rooms and were asked the same questions for 45 minutes each.  A few errors were allowed, of course, but you had to give correct answers to almost every question to pass the spousal interview.  All the conversations were recorded. It was just like the movie "Green Card".

Taka: I am glad you two were able to pass that challenging test.  What did Vladimir do after he moved to Canada?
Valerie: For a short time after moving, he did a few part-time jobs with his friends, but soon he began to teach martial arts.  He seemed to realize that it was his calling.

Taka: How did he introduce Russian Martial Art to the Canadian people?
Valerie: He was just teaching and people enjoyed his classes very much.  Then one day the big local newspaper Toronto Sun published a full page article about our school.  "Russian Martial Art" was such a novel idea for Canadians. Apart from that, we did nothing special to make ourselves known.

Taka: So you did not do any special advertising?
Valerie: Not at all.  All we did was to put our phone number on the yellow pages, so that someone interested could contact us.  It was not until 2003 that one of our good students created a website for us.

Taka: The website was made around the time Vladimir was invited to the Aiki Expo.
Valerie: It was 2000 when he was first invited and 2003 was the second time.

Taka: In 2005, Mikhail was invited, too.
Valerie: That's right.

Taka: How did the students get to know Systema, then?
Valerie: Mostly through word of mouth. We had three classes a day then, each lasting for an hour and a half. In the first year of opening the school, we had our first child, Melissa.  I was working as a physical therapist, we needed money for raising the family, so we both had to work hard. As soon as Vladimir would come home after the morning Systema class, I handed him the baby and ran to work.  Then Vladimir had his evening classes from six-thirty in the evening, so I had to rush back home before six. I ran through the door to take the baby, and Vladimir rushed to the gym.  In the following year, when we had our second daughter Julia, we raised her in a similar way, both of us working.  We never thought of hiring a babysitter.  We didn't want to have a stranger in the home until the children could speak, since they wouldn't be able to tell us if something went wrong.  We took care of them all by ourselves until they became two years old.
These were very busy and challenging years. At the gym, we had to attend to the students and registrations, so I would go to the gym towards the end of the class, carrying baby Melissa in a basket, and while pregnant with Julia.  When class was done, Vladimir would take the basket with Melissa and drive home, and I sat at the office with the baby in my belly to collect payments, arrange registrations, etc. As many young families do, we worked really hard, but we managed it with the help of God.

Taka: What is the upbringing policy of the Vasiliev family like?
Valerie: I wanted everyone to have positive thinking, like a factory of positive ideas. Because our brain needs to work on something, we should set it to produce good thoughts instead of bad or negative ones.  I learned that from one of my favorite authors, Saint Elder Paisios.
I used to play this game with my daughters:
"Find three good things about any situation, no matter how bad it may seem."
For example, if you we were stuck in traffic, find at least three good things about that. Or even if someone becomes ill, you can still find three good things there.  It's a useful game; you develop the ability and the habit to think positively.

Taka: What do you do when you and your husband disagree with each other?
Valerie: We don't care much about which one is right.  What matters is which one is stronger at that time. The stronger one listens to the other and lets the other have it his or her way.  If I feel strong on that day, I let Vladimir do what he chooses. It doesn't really matter who is right or wrong if we love each other. Thank God, Vladimir and I think much in the same direction, and the discrepancies, if any, are fairly small.
In Russia, they have a joke: "What is marriage? It is a union between two people, where one is always right, and the other one is husband.” If we do everything to glorify God, anything goes.

Taka: How do you manage the Systema Toronto HQ gym, your second family?
Valerie: Good people come to Systema.  They are our treasure, so I hope to support them. We have so many members, we can't always give them enough of our time.  There are more than eight hundred registered instructors. It’s hard to remember every one of them unless they stay in touch. And we have many God children in our Faith.  Of course, I would like to be in touch with everyone, but I simply can't. Not being able to give enough to others may be one of my biggest regrets.

Taka: I think the Toronto HQ is one of the most successful gyms not only in Systema but also in all the martial arts world.  Could you give any advice to the other gyms?
Valerie: Always be in communication with and help one another.  The instructors who continue to be in touch with HQ Moscow and Toronto are all doing well.  Those instructors who are only concerned with what they can get, usually don't last long. We have been teaching for 28 years now, and those instructors who have followed us faithfully have become successful.  On the other hand, those who have left to have their own ways haven't had much success. Mikhail Ryabko once said, & "Sometimes people become so grown up, they think they gave birth to themselves.”

Taka: When did you see meet Mikhail for the first time?
Valerie: In 1999.  We brought our first group on a training trip to Russia.  Mikhail came to meet us at the airport.  He was wearing a yellow T-shirt on his big body, which made him look like the sun.  He was so happy, warm, and hearty that I instantly became fond of him.
I said to Vladimir, "You should have brought me here earlier!"

Taka: What did you do in Russia on that trip?
Valerie: Mostly training and sightseeing.  We went to see historic places in Russia.  At the end of the travel, we spent three nights at Moscow, when Mikhail introduced our group to his students.  We literally fell in love with the Moscow group, and we had marvelous trainings, conversations, and sightseeing together.

Taka: I remember seeing a video from Toronto HQ featuring Mikhail titled "The Master of Fighting".  That was in 2000, I think. Is that the recording of the training you mentioned now?
Valerie: The film was done a year later.  Since we had such good training at Moscow then, we led a larger group to Moscow for a few subsequent years.  "The Master of Fighting" was filmed then.

Taka: There were people who have become senior instructors since then, like Kwan Lee.
Valerie: That's right.  There were about thirty people on each trip.  We visited a Russian military base and churches and took bus tours.

Taka: Could you tell me about the twenty-five years that you were working as a physical therapist?
Valerie: Sure. At first, I was working full-time at a hospital, then outpatient clinic and then a retirement home. As my work for Systema increased, I hired an assistant and gradually lessened my work.  Finally, a few years after we had our third child, it became impossible to have enough time for my work and family, so I started to work full-time with Systema.

Taka: As a medical professional, what do you think of Systema?
Valerie: It seems that medical educations today generally lack the whole picture.  What is important is to see the health system as a whole, including breathing and psyche, forgiving others, trying to become a better person, having a warrior spirit, and all those things that are important for a human being.  But medical practice treats only a part of a human being.  One of our students in America is a doctor.  According to his personal study, a patient who had practiced Systema breathing before the surgery recovered about three times faster and the amount of prescribed medications needed was three times less. That's amazing.

Taka: Could you tell me some of the most impressive learnings from Mikhail?
Valerie: Oh, there are so many of them, but one thing I can think of is "Calmness". When I met him first, I was a bit nervous. Then Mikhail waved his right hand down as if to say "Don''t worry".  I asked him to show me that gesture again, "How did you do that?". By practicing that gesture the way he did it, I learned how to ease up on the problems inside.
Trust God, never give up, and things will go well most of the time. You'll get what you want. It may take a while, though, so patience is important.

Taka: How do you explain Systema to someone who knows nothing about it?
Valerie: To someone who is learning martial arts, I would say, "You don't have to learn patterns, because every situation is different in the real world. It's no use memorizing what may never happen. Instead, relax and have a clear awareness, try to cause the least damage to the opponent, and survive. Systema is not only spiritual, it is very practical.  It's also good for health, so what more can you hope for?".
For those who have no interest in martial arts, I would show them the benefits for their health.  I think some people are born with a warrior's mind. Martial arts are for such people. There are people who are born to be doctors, writers, or architects. Similarly, some are born to be warriors who protect their country and their family.  Systema is very beneficial for them. To the other people, it also brings them a healthier and happier life. That's why I was happy to teach the "Breath and Body LITE" class in Japan, and that's why I’ve been sharing with therapists, nurses and other medical professionals.  Systema also gives us all the opportunities to meet wonderful people.

Taka: Last question.  Could you tell me what you are planning to do in the future?
Valerie: I love to host and attend big events.  It makes me feel like it’s a holiday. We often crave things that can do us harm like sweets, eating too much, drinking, or having late parties.  Systema, on the other hand, is both a pleasure to do and it’s good for you. Every seminar, every class is a big or small holiday to me. Especially Systema camps, since they are for 6 full days.

Taka: Any messages to the students?
Valerie: Mikhail said, "Be a good person, and everything else will come".  Japanese students are very kind to one another and they have great talent and diligence. They are reaching very high level in Systema.

Taka: Thank you.
Valerie: Arigatou gozaimasita.

Valerie Vasiliev was born and raised in Russia, moved to Canada with her parents in her teenage years. She graduated from University of Toronto with degrees in Psychology and Physical Therapy. Vladimir and Valerie met in Toronto and were married in 1992. In 1993, they started Systema HQ Toronto school. They have 3 daughters and continue to run the training facility. Valerie worked as a full-time and then part-time physical therapist for 25 years. She is also a Godchild, close friend and translator of Mikhail Ryabko. Valerie is NOT an instructor of Systema, but has significant experience with breathing and bodywork practices of Systema.

Takahide Kitagawa
Representative of Systema Tokyo
Takahide Kitagawa founded Systema Tokyo in 2009.  He teaches Systema every day in the central part of Tokyo.  He has published many books on Systema and has hosted seminars in Tokyo with Mikhail Ryabko, Vladimir Vasiliev, and Daniil Ryabko.  He appears on media like TV and magazines, and teaches classes at various locations in Japan, dedicated to making Systema known all over the country.
Recommendation from Taka - Breath and Body LITE (downloadable) "Valerie is one of those who understand Mikhail and Vladimir best, and has extensive knowledge and experience as a medical professional.  The classes held by such an exceptional person have impressed so many people in Tokyo and Osaka. Valerie's class will surely help to develop your potential even further".
Takahide Kitagawa Takahide Kitagawa is a Systema instructor, certified by Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev.
He has over 20 years of martial arts experience.
Takahide teaches regular classes at his school, Systema Tokyo, in Japan.