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What is Systema?

The Elite Forces Handbook of Unarmed Combat, 2002
"Russian Military Martial Arts"
by Ron Shillingford

"The history of Russian/Soviet military martial arts is as fascinating as it is complex. Prior to the October Revolution of 1917, Russia had a multitude of regional and ethnic martial arts which are today collectively known as Russian Martial Art (RMA). From several millennia before the birth of Christ to roughly 6th century AD, RMA was a varied tribal practice amongst Slavic warrior communities, used in both internal and inter-tribe competitions and also in the reality of tribal warfare. The combat skills were passed from father to son, martial hereditary maintaining and also developing the corpus of techniques over the centuries. This was to be valuable, for from the 6th century AD, Russian tribes came more under attack form northern and western invaders, though the invader's first hand accounts of this time indicate that their opponents were ferocious hand-to-hand fighters. >From the 9th century, however, metallurgical advances were starting to affect the course of RMA development. Improved swords, spears and Armour led to the need for more decisive hand-to-hand techniques which could be used to tackle even armed opponents. Another, perhaps more profound influence on RMA, was the Mongol occupation of Russia initiated by Batu Khan in 1237, an occupation which remained until the 15th century.

Two centuries after the Mongol occupation, RMA went into something of a decline. The influence of less sophisticated martial traditions from the West and the eventual introduction of firearms meant a steady degrading of RMA authority and skills, though it remained as a persistent cultural presence throughout Russia into the twentieth century.

The revolution of 1917 signaled a major shift in the fortunes and direction of RMA in Russia. Following the establishment of the Bolshevik government, the communist regime set out to iron flat the Soviet Union's variegated cultural traditions and create a homogeneous socialist landscape. RMA was no exception to this policy, and in 1918 Lenin founded an organization under one Comrade Vorosilov to research Russian and foreign martial arts systems and create an integrated military combat form standardized throughout the USSR. Teams of investigators traveled throughout the Soviet Union, Mongolia, China, India, Japan, Africa and Europe and built up a massive profile of martial techniques and traditions. Once this was pooled back at Vorosilov's HQ, 25 Russian unarmed combat styles were brought together with karate, judo, and other defensive forms into a tiered structure of martial art skills to be taught to the military.

The top tier was occupied by the Soviet Close Quarters Combat (CQC) program. Taught only to Special Forces soldiers and Secret Police units, CQC was a highly secret selection of lethal unarmed techniques for assassination, combat killing and torture, techniques which kept close to the original teachings of RMA despite the Soviet attempts to deny this. Emphasis was placed on techniques such as strangulation and fatal strikes, these being thoroughly tested in the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. Below CQC was Soviet Police Subject and Crowd Control Tactics (CCT). CCT provided good restraint skills using locks, pressure point holds and compliance-generating kicks and strikes. Lastly, there was a general level of martial art instruction to be given to all Soviet army units, which was actually more geared to competitive sporting use than rigorous unarmed combat skills.

Thus the Soviet authorities assimilated RMA into their ideological structure while also preventing the total dissemination of lethal unarmed knowledge. The new forms were collectively gathered into a combat style known as Sambo, an acronym standing for Samozashcitya Bez Oruzhiya, meaning self-protection without weapons. Sambo generally fell into two categories: Sport Sambo and Combat Sambo, and almost all Russian military personnel would encounter its techniques in one form or another, though often without the lethality of training that Special Forces soldiers received. For there was another form of Sambo known as Combat Sambo Spetsnaz. This is essentially the repository of genuine RMA techniques, the Sambo reference in its title being meant to placate outside curiosity. Its techniques were taught in absolute secrecy, and it was often known simply as The System (Systema) by those who practiced it. It is now the province of Russia's elite Spetsnaz special forces units and of key personnel in Russian institutions such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Defense, MVD special units, VDV Paratrooper and OMON units, certain Russian Marine squads and other specialists. Slowly, the techniques of Combat Sambo Spetsnaz are becoming known to the outside world. Yet while there are many in the West who claim themselves to be Sambo instructors, some being former Soviet army personnel, few outside Russia actually have knowledge of the full scope, potential and techniques of Sambo as derived from the ancient RMA."