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Systema (The System)

Systema (which literally means “the system”) is a dynamic form of hand to hand combat that has a rich history steeped in many parts of Russian culture.  The first historical record of this type of fighting dates back over 1000 years, to 948 AD and the Cossack culture.  The Cossacks were renowned for being fierce warriors and were often hired out as mercenaries. They are credited with being the first developers of this martial art.  It was so ingrained in their culture that even parts of Cossack dances incorporated moves used in their fighting.  

During the Soviet Era only the highest levels of the military were trained in Systema. Information about the old ways of fighting was suppressed as it could have become a threat to the State.  Systema was initially viewed as counter to the new Communist persona of Russia.  Despite this suppression, people at high levels of the government recognized that Systema was a very powerful system of martial arts.  Stalin’s personal bodyguards were taught the techniques, but as their fighting techniques were necessarily kept secret, Systema was not still widely available in this era.  The Spetsnaz, among other military groups employing the martial art, also honed the skills in unarmed combat and refined techniques for disarming enemies.  

Systema has always been fairly freeform, with an emphasis on creative fighting solutions rather than adherence to strict forms.  In contrast to East Asian styles, there are no stances and no katas (pre-set orders of moves). One concept that Systema does share with other martial arts is an emphasis on cultivating a healthy strong spirit- the goal of the teaching is not only to learn self-defence, but also to help preserve the body and spirit of oneself and one’s training partners.  A core teaching is “poznai sebia” or “Know Yourself.”  Systema is designed to instil a sense of humility and purpose in its practitioners. 

Systema is tailored to the individual, to play off of each student’s natural strengths.  Each teacher may choose to incorporate different training methods for their classes.  The system uses the body’s natural instincts- there is no rigorous curriculum, but there are several exercises that are shared across schools.  These exercises are designed to expose students to a variety of situations and help hone their natural reactions to it. 

In recent years, Systema has been brought to the West.  Several teachers, especially Mikhail Ryabko, Vladimir Vasiliev and Val Riazanov have helped spread the teaching of Systema to the West.  With demonstrations, seminars and the founding of schools worldwide, these three teachers have increased the popularity of this martial art. 

From its relatively humble beginnings with the Cossacks, to its refinement under Soviet rule to its recent growth explosion, Systema’s rich history and unique outlook ensures that it will have a place in the minds of future martial arts practitioners.