Meet Moscow's Punk Priest, the Rev. Sergei Rybko

A Russian Orthodox Priest calls on his past to save the souls of rockers.

October 15, 2009, 9:55 AM

MOSCOW, Oct. 16, 2009 — -- On a Tuesday night, a dark rec hall on the outskirts of Moscow is hosting its weekly "Rock Festival." It's really nothing more than an open-mic night for local hard rock bands to showcase their talents, something some of the acts could use a touch more of.

Teens and 20-somethings mill about, a handful in front of the stage, the rest scattered throughout the low-ceilinged room sitting at tables or standing in groups. Skinny jeans and studded belts are de rigueur.

At 8:30 p.m., the door to the hall opens and a man who decidedly doesn't belong here walks in. Bald and bearded, he walks with the gait of a large man and the confidence of someone familiar with his surroundings.

A cursory glance immediately identifies the black-cassocked man with an oversized gold cross around his neck as a Russian Orthodox priest.

The Rev. Sergei Rybko makes his way up through the middle of the room and plops himself down in a chair 20 feet to the right of the stage. For someone who is so clearly out of his element, he doesn't get many looks from the hipsters and headbangers. They've seen him here before.

As the alternative band OffiGella finishes its set, Rybko, 49, gets up and heads to the stage. He waits in the wings while his long-haired sidekick, Yuri, introduces him as a former hippy and regular rock festival attendee. The audience of 30 in front of the stage cheers when Rybko takes the microphone and flashes the peace sign.

He keeps his talk short, keenly aware that the crowd won't put up with a long religious discourse. They've come together this night because in a way, he tells them, they're a club of lonely-hearts, like "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Together here, their hearts are united but, afterward, they will be all alone.

"You don't have to be alone," he says. "If you reach out to God, you will never be alone."

Another peace sign, a slight bow, and the crowd cheers as Rybko leaves the stage. A heavy metal band starts up, with a "singer" whose roar could shatter windows.

The Rev. Sergei Rybko: Once a Rocker, Now a Priest

A young man makes a beeline for Rybko as he comes off the stage. "I wanted to say a big thank you for coming and for his support," the young man says afterward. "I had some questions I didn't know who to talk to about, so I asked him and he explained everything to me."

Rybko dallies for a few moments, watching a mosh pit form before making his exit. He leaves before Gella, the lead singer of "OffiGella," has a chance to talk to him. A pretty red-haired girl, she is pregnant and her bandmates had been urging her to ask him if it's OK to keep singing at these shows.

His mission comes by way of the church, asked by the patriarch (the head of the Orthodox Church) to reach out to young people in the rock subculture.

Despite the charge from on high, however, Rybko is realistic about how successful he can be. "At least they didn't throw anything," he says when asked for a self-assessment. "My job is to sow, it is up to God to cultivate.

"If what I say changes someone, if it makes someone purer, closer to God, then that's a successful evening," he says.

It's no coincidence that the patriarch picked him for the job. Rybko has some street cred with this group because they know that before he walked around in a cassock, he rebelled against Soviet communism in the 1970s by starting a band and leading a small group of anarchists before becoming a wandering hippy.

"I used to be a rocker and I will always be one," he says. "For the average person behind the Iron Curtain, it represented the only truth that you could listen to."

His first job in the church was at 19 as a bell ringer where he would mix traditional ringing with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin songs. The old ladies in the congregation loved it, he says. Working at the church wore off on him and, at 28, he was ordained as a priest.

Two days after Rybko's appearance at the hall, he's standing in front of an entirely different audience at the morning service at the St. Sergius of Radonezh church in the Moscow suburbs.

It's a full house, the congregation is older, mostly women with scarves covering their heads. They follow Rybko in prayer and take communion before the service culminates with the traditional walking of the icon around the church.

Rybko Has His Own Rock Club

"These people have already discovered Christ and the Orthodox world is the essence of their lives," he says near the gates of the church. "In the club, I talk to people who are far away from God, from Christ, from the Orthodox religion.

"If I open the Bible [in the clubs] and start to talk like a priest, they will all run away. So I have to use their language but make sure they understand that a priest is speaking to them and that Christianity will solve their problems," he adds.

When the worshippers leave, he heads around the back of the church to a small building where he has set up what he calls his own rock club.

It's the kind of small, dark room with a funky smell that any rebellious 16-year-old would have in his parents' garage. Instruments and amplifiers lie about, multi-colored lights flash and graffiti is spray-painted on the walls.

But, then, you spot the religious art and large cross on the ceiling.

"It's very unusual," says Dmitry Rock (his stage name), a long-haired guitarist with two piercings in his lower lip. "When I first came here, I couldn't believe a priest set this up. Then we got used to it."

Musicians are free to come here and rehearse; better they hang out here than on the streets, Rybko says.

Rock is not religious and Rybko's overt goal is not to make people like loyal churchgoers. But, as Rybko did when he was younger, they've now started helping out around the church.

Despite his colorful past, Rybko admits that, these days, he feels more comfortable preaching in church than hanging out at concerts and clubs.

"Thirty years ago [that] would have been my home," he says. "[Now] I feel more at home in church, that is closer to me. But it is my duty to go [to the clubs]. If I don't, who will?"

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