An interview with Priest Anatoly Pershin: "Music is the instrument in God’s hands"

Priest Anatoly Pershin comes from Saint-Petersburg. The first time he saw the city he fell in love with it forever. It was not his service what brought him there, but music. It influenced his life significantly and once it nearly lead to his death. However, music by itself cannot be blamed for our misfortune or problems. They can be caused by our attitude towards music and the way we use it: whether we use it for our own good or for the good of others, to glorify God, or simply to honor ourselves.

Father Anatoly, what are your first childhood memories connected with music?

I was born in a village called Vypolzovo in the Tver region. The first time I got acquainted with music at the dinner table. At that time there was a tradition of having large feasts. At these feasts people would gather at the main table and sing different songs. My parents were very talented and hospitable people. My father liked when the house was full of people. He was never tired of them. It was there, in the house of my parents, where I heard the national songs for the first time. My father played the bayan (Russian type of button accordion) and many other instruments – the house was full of them. Every time I tried to touch the strings, to push the buttons. I began to imitate my father playing the bayan…

What was then?

My parents wanted me to get a music education. I am a creative person, but such a person is a little bit lazy. I had been studying music for three years and then gave it up. When I was a teenager, I heard the sounds of a guitar and they charmed me. I even exchanged my favorite boxing gloves for a guitar. I did not know how to tune it, just searched for harmony, concord, switches and even tried to make up my own tuning. God gave me the feeling of harmony.

How did poetry come to you?

It happened suddenly. I walked at night on a village road, turned eyes to the sky and suddenly all of creation started to come to me… Then something has awoken inside me. I began to write poems. I was 13-14 years old. The village seemed so small to me. I had a feeling I was born for something significant, but I could not understand for what exactly.

When did music and poetry begin to influence your life?

During the Soviet period, it was quite hard to get absorbed into real poetry. A lot was forbidden. My sister worked at the library and I came to her and was looking for different books. The school education was not enough for me, because I felt I needed something more. So, a spiritual search began. Nobody could answer my questions. Parents were party members, all the people around me were communists. I started to learn philosophy, ancient Greek mythology, read foreign literature and Russian classics. Finally, it all mixed in my head.

What did music meant for you in the years of teenage and adolescence?

Once I accompanied a girl who was going to enroll into a Music College in Tver (former Kalinin). We approached the College and I heard a buzzing swarm of instruments… When we entered the room and I saw a person playing the Bach prelude on the guitar, I realized I wanted to study music there. I learned two classical pieces even on my cheap guitar to a point that my fingers bled. I was accepted to the school with a variety theatre major although the competition was tough enough to get in as there were about 20 people per one place.

What kind of music did you listen to at that time?

I grew up listening to Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Slade, Chrisitie. We lived near a military city where people came from different cities and brought different music with them. That thrilled my imagination. I wrote songs for guitar and performed one of them when I was entering the College. In my village I always played at the discos. In school I played in the group “Gray clouds on the blue sky”. I endued clouds with different human characteristics – a gloomy cloud, a cheerful cloud, etc.  At nights, I practiced in the bathhouse.

Can we say that in your youth some music led you to the light while another, on the contrary, led away from it?

Of course, after all I suffered from music. Music can even kill a person. I ended up in psychedelic music – it means you express despair in music and poetry.
After I finished my studying in the College I worked in Tver. I was even proposed a flat there, but at the same time I appeared in St. Petersburg by chance. I remember my first morning in the city. Since then I fell in love with St.Petersburg and did my best to get there. I moved there, worked as a street cleaner and got a room. I found out that there was a rock-club. This music was strange for me, but it let you express your thoughts on stage at that stagnant time.  I met Jury Shevchuk and other rock musicians. At nights we got together in the utility room and decided the fate of Russia (laughing).

I took interest in it, created a band. Then my career started as a musician began, we started touring and I was even invited to the USA.

However, something happened, didn’t it?

A misfortune happened to me. My neighbor in the shared flat attacked me with a knife. Perhaps, I was hated for what I arranged there. I got to an ICU, lost a lot of blood and slipped into a coma. My life divided into two parts. In the first part I was a young man on the rise, while in the second one I became a slowly-dying cripple.

What saved you then?

I got to the monastery where Jury Shevchuk referred me to. There I prayed and on the relics of St. Anthony of Siya I was cured. I returned to St.Petersburg and built a church in honor of St. Anthony. I was ordained as a priest by bishop Tikhon of Arkhangelsk and Kholmogory. 

Can we say that in some moments of your life music led you to God, and in the others God helped you to develop yourself in music?

For me music was always some kind of a search. Just like Ariadne's clew.
When I became a priest, I did not play anymore, but my guitar was always with me. To be honest, sometimes I wrote the works “for future use”. What is more, I invited musicians to perform on the metochion of Antonievo-Siysky Monastery. Once they whited me, I asked for a guitar and played for an hour. They said: “Father Anatoly, you should try to perform on the stage!” But I thought that no one needs my songs! But the very first concert proved I was wrong.

My art, if we can name it so, is my confession. Everything what I feel inside me, other people can feel as well. We all are similar. I try to describe my spiritual condition, and then people come to me and say: “Father Anatoly, this is right about me!”

Does this mean that at first there was only music in your life, then only God, and finally there were you, God and music together?

I think we can say so. I think God had a plan about me. I got some musical skills, but when I started to move away from lyrical music, which was closer to me, then God stopped me. Music is an instrument, just like all the other things. You can use a knife to slice bread, or you can slaughter a person with it. Rock music brought me to a deadlock. I used my instrument in a wrong way. My artistic activity was based on my own selfishness and self-fulfillment. I had no idea that one can glorify God with music. However, I do not consider rock music to be bad. If you could provide me with an ensemble of musicians, I could write even a rock opera or a musical.

What do you think: are we all called to art, or just few of us? How can be art combined with obedience and humility in monasticism?

Of course we all are called to art. For example, there is a cobbler. You come to him, he makes you a pair of shoes with pleasure, and you are satisfied as well. This is his obedience and art at the same time. You have to develop the talents God has granted you. I think monks should write music and poems. On the other hand, there is a film about the monks from Pskov-Caves Monastery. This film tells about a monk who made wonderful kiots (icon cases) and other things from wood. Once he had a dream, in which his wooden works were demolished by worms. And then God said him: “I have chosen you to be a monk!” So, you see, it is quite a difficult question for me.

What is your attitude to the “Royal Voice” festival, organized by St. Elisabeth Convent?                         
This is a great festival. I know Nun Juliania, and we have even shot a TV-program about her. She fulfills the God’s commandment and develops the talent she got from Him. I repeat, this is a controversial question. Everyone decides by himself what to do, and then only God can judge.