Introduction To the Russian Combat Art
“In my opinion, Systema is not a martial art or a sport – it is a science of life, of WARRIOR’S life.” (Major Konstantin Komarov, Systema Manual, page 16)
The purpose of this article is to provide insight, albeit very limited insight, into the various areas of training in which the RCA engages. This is not meant to be a book so it will be a very brief overview of the strengths of the Russian Combat Art.
Systema is made up of two interconnected symbiotic general areas. The two areas are health and combat. The area of health covers both the body and the mind. Combat covers H2H and weapons. Unlike other arts, these are not to be separated from each other.
This art is known by different names like Systema, Russian Martial Art or the Russian Combat Art (RCA). At one time, the art was known as Poznay Sebya (Познай Себя). The phrase literally means To Know Yourself. Additionally, there are some practitioners of this art which do not use either of the above appellations nevertheless it is the RCA. I will use RCA to refer to this art throughout this article.
In reality, the RCA is not a martial art as understood today. It is not a sport to be played in a fenced area with limiting rules. The word martial does refer to combat and the RCA was created for combat. But today’s martial arts, while they can be effective, are no longer the arts of combat.
The RCA is also not in the category of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). MMA like many mainstream martial arts is more sport. MMA is fought inside a fence, has rules of conduct, referees to enforce those rules and violations. A violation is a movement or strike which is considered illegal within MMA.
That is extraordinary. A fighting system which outlaw moves and strikes. Now, can a student of various martial and MMA arts take down a perp? Certainly, especially if the perp does not know what he is doing. But merely because an art can be used to defend yourself or others, a street fight, does not make the art a combat art.
The RCA is a true combat art. In the Russian military the special forces (special designation) are called Spetsnaz. If you watch a modern-day military parade in Moscow, you will see some troops wearing a tee-shirt under their uniform which has horizontal blue and white strips.
These are the more elite forces, Spetsnaz and therefore, they possess the more elite training. Nevertheless, when the American hears Special Forces (SF) he often thinks of the Green Berets who are considered Special Forces within the US military. Green Berets and Spetsnaz or Special operators are not necessarily the same.
There are different levels of Systema. The levels are determined by the amount of and specialization within that level of RCA. During the Soviet era the highest level of Spetsnaz was the GRU (Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff).
My instructor's instructor was a General who worked within the Soviet-era GRU. In this sense those who worked within the GRU were Spetsnaz because they were a special designation. Nevertheless, these men and women were more than a cut above all other Spetsnaz and were called Special Operators. For this reason, those of the GRU received the highest level of training in Systema. This is the tradition of which I am a part.
The RCA was created for combat. Unlike other arts, the RCA covers the use of H2H, handguns, assault weapons, the knife, sticks, chains, Shaska and the Kindjal. Most other arts today focus on H2H and some limited forms of knife work. The breath of RCA gives the student a far larger array of tools they can use to meet any conflict from a mere street fight to an actual combat situation and survive.
One of the most important parts of being human is the psyche. Training the psyche is as important in the RCA as the hands, knife, etc. The psyche is concerned with the mind or spirit of a person. More importantly to the practice of RCA, that part of the psyche with which we are concerned is what produces the emotions. There are a number of emotions which we must learn to control to be effective in the RCA but the most important is fear. The goal of the RCA is to fight in a non-agitated condition.
The danger of an agitated psyche lies in the fact that such a psyche will create tunnel vision and separate the head from the brain stem. Both are catastrophic. For this reason, the RCA devotes a lot of time, energy and training to the control of fear. Fear can affect the body and mind in numerous ways. Fear affects breathing, vision, mobility of the body, tension and muscle control among some of the more important.
Fear can be also debilitating. This is catastrophic in a combat situation. There was a time when soldiers in the US military were put through some very realistic training. Some of that training included actual explosive devices detonating very close to their position. Another example is crawling through deep water. I am sure you have a few extra examples. I do. BTW, the Russians still train realistically.
In the RCA, there are a couple of things we do to control the human psyche but generally through training and practice we put the mind and body into situations which would normally stir up the psyche.
Breathing: Breathing is affected by the condition of the psyche but also affects the psyche. Breathing and the psyche are intimately tied together so by controlling how we breath we control the fear. We will talk about breath in a few paragraphs.
Moving on the ground and wall: Most arts tend to stay away from working on the ground. Of course, the most notable exceptions are BJJ or MMA. The RCA spends 1/3 of training time against a wall or on the ground. These are two areas most people are not familiar with and when caught in these positions, the psyche becomes agitated. Additionally, the training incudes crawling on the ground and fighting against two or more adversaries against both.
Knife Work: The knife is a very important fighting and training tool in the RCA. We will talk about knife work in more detail in a few paragraphs. Nevertheless, most people would rather face a gun than a knife. A knife can affect the psyche like no other tool. So, the RCA uses the knife to train the psyche. Here are some ways to use the knife for training.
Drop the knife on body: Those who are more advance in the RCA will lie on the floor and drop a real knife that is rather sharp onto the body in various spots. This exercise helps forces to calm the psyche and keep the body soft.
Use of the knife in training: If an art actually trains with the knife which few do, they usually train with a wooden or plastic replica. In reality, this is useless at a point. A real knife is the only thing that can agitate the psyche in a way to train it. The danger is that the way you practice will be the way you fight. If your psyche is not properly trained, you may very freeze in a real fight.
Striking: When I first got involved in the RCA, I assumed that everyone trained by hitting and getting hit. I was wrong. It is amazing how many people involved in one of these arts are afraid of being hit. Of course, the reason they are afraid is that their psyche is agitated. In the RCA, we do everything possible to encourage the student to learn to be hit. Being hit like the use of a knife, is an art. The more the student practices being hit the more soft his body becomes, the healthier his body and the calmer his psyche.
Breathing: The body is concerned with breathing, relaxation, movement and strikes. In the RCA, we do not hold our breath when fighting. Holding one’s breath creates unnecessary tension and the tension leads to an agitated psyche. There are three forms of breathing in the RCA which the student learns. Each form is meant to control the psyche and softness of the body.
Softness: Relaxation and softness are usually interchangeable in the RCA. Most if not all arts claim to be soft when fighting. Unfortunately, most arts and the RCA have different definitions of the word, soft. Not all softness is equal. Almost every art or form of fighting fights with muscle. This is self-defeating. The muscle forms tension. Tension will negatively affect a strike making the striking less effective especially over time.
Additionally, the RCA targets tension in the body because striking such an area will increase the power of the strike. So, in the RCA we spend a lot of time working on softness. Most of the families in Systema, train to fight with 25% or less of the body’s muscles. My instructor was trained and he trained his students to fight with no muscle.
Movement: Movement is a central aspect of every art because to fight means to move. But not all movement is equal. The movement within RCA, is much wider than most other arts. Let me give you an example.
In the RCA, we move when fighting to deflect and to break the opponent’s structure. Most movement in the martial arts are large and sweeping. Very few martial artists, at least on the street level, fight close in quarters (CQC). Fighting close into the opponent, called short work, is a hallmark of the RCA. Short work includes fists, slaps, hands, elbows and arms but also shoulders, chest, knees, feet and hips for an example.
When we engage, we do not stand toe-to-toe but move. We move our body (heads, shoulders, chest, hips and knees) constantly as well as rotate strikes using the head, shoulders, elbows, chest, hips and knees. Movement is not a mere addition to the RCA but is central to it.
In the RCA, we do not senselessly beat on someone hoping that eventually he will go down. Rather, we train to, as my instructor said, Screw them into the ground. To do so we use strikes. A strike is merely a hit to the opponent’s body from my body no matter what part of my body or tool I use.
By breaking I do not mean we break bone. Breaking bone can often times be counter-productive. The stories are legend how a person with a broken bone was able to continue the fight. By break, I mean simply that we adjust a joint to the particular position we desire to bring the opponent down. In many cases, breaking structure will damage the ligaments and\or tendons which is far better in combat.
In the RCA, we are not concerned with how strong the opponent is nor his muscle mass. Most people fight with strength and this leads to tension and the student of the RCA will use the tension to do greater damage to the opponent. So, we focus on the weaker aspects of the body – the joints.
Joints make all opponents equal. Joints are generally weaker than muscle and can be manipulated without much effort. Additionally, there are some joints which are more susceptible to breaking than others. So, when we fight we use our strikes methodically by focusing on moving the joints in such a way to break the body down. Here are some advantages to this type of fighting.
* Less energy will be expended in the fight. This is a significant advantage.
* Less muscle will have to be used, which means the student can outlast his opponent.
* Controlling the opponent is far simpler providing the student a significant opportunity to be successful.
* Women have a greater chance of winning when attacked because they can rely less on muscle.
* Older people have the same advantage over an opponent as do the women.
Here lies the greatest difference between the RCA and all other arts. The RCA is about combat. We do not concern ourselves with differences like whether this form of fighting is street fighting, etc.. To the student of the RCA, it does not matter.
What makes the RCA a combat art? We train in all weapons. When was the last time you saw those studying BJJ train with a knife or gun defensively and offensively? This does not mean that a student of a generally accepted martial art does not know how to use a knife or gun. The difference is that training with weapons for combat is inherent within the RCA. It is not in martial arts.
As all historians of the martial arts know a martial art was originally created for combat hence, the term martial. These arts included the weapons of the day but generally focused on H2H, knifes, spears, swords or long blades. Very few if any martial arts today focus on firearms. In the RCA we focus on all.
Combat Body: There are two major issues which ought to be covered in this section. The first introduction will be ligaments and tendons. I will briefly cover the importance of these. The second is the Russian massage. The massage takes a lot longer to explain. For the sake of brevity in this article, I will leave a discussion of this subject to a later date.
In the RCA, the properly prepared body is called the combat body. The combat body is not centered around lots of muscle or muscular strength. A person who possesses huge muscles can still have a combat body but the combat body is focused on the psyche, breathing, relaxation as well as ligaments and tendons.
We have discussed the psyche, breathing and relaxation so we will focus on ligaments and tendons. The primary importance of these two body parts is to hold various body parts together. Ligaments and tendons generally are stronger than muscles and it takes less time to strengthen these parts for combat.
The main reason we focus on ligaments and tendons is they do not constrict our movement. Muscles do. For example, make a fist. Most students of various arts will tighten their fist when prepared to strike. Yet, there are two major groups of muscles which run through the fist and arm. One group will pull the fist back toward the elbow while the other group pulls forward. In essence, the two groups are cancel each other out. This canceling does not mean a strike with a fist will not hurt. It simply means the strike loses some of its ability to be devastating. Removing muscles from the equation and using the ligaments and tendons allows all the energy to unidirectionally flow into the fist for the strike.
There are two basic reasons why ligaments and tendons cannot do that for which they were created. The joint(s) in question has shrunk. Generally, this is due to the lack of water within the joint. This is easy enough to fix – just drink more water. Second, the ligaments and tendons are not exercised to retain their strength. Obviously, the solution is simply as well. The ligaments and tendons allow us to do what muscles will not – throw our weight around!
The RCA historically evolved differently than most if not all other arts. There are few if any martial arts which incorporated the firearm into their genetic makeup. The RCA did. The RCA trains with the firearm very differently than does those in America. In America the three primary stances used for firearms are the Weaver, Isosceles and Fighting stances.
Things are much different in the RCA. The American stances are rigid and limiting. In fact, in the last couple of decades there have a number of studies which show that these stances, used so often by Police and Military, are not effective. Actually, both the Weaver and Isosceles stances were created for competition. Competition does not equivalent to combat and this has been proven in actual combat.
So, in the RCA here are some of the ways in which we train with firearms:
· The RCA uses a normal stance to fire the weapon. The stance is the same as used in all combat areas and is concerned the proper way to walk.
· The RCA fires the weapon moving in every direction - front, back, up and down.
· The RCA fires the weapon while crawling on the ground in every direction – forward, backward and sideways.
· The RCA fires the weapon while falling to the floor, rolling on the back, on the stomach rolling over the shoulders both forward and backwards as well as getting up.
· The RCA draws the firearm with either hand, with little movement while standing, lying on the ground or against a wall.
· The RCA trains to fire the weapon across the front of the body, the back of the body and under the arms to the rear.
· The RCA uses fires the weapon in what I will call a normal position using the front and back sites and using the side of the weapon. Additionally, the RCA uses the gangster method as well.
· The RCA trains firing a weapon when walking, running, crossing a creek or in the back of a truck. Systema has a tool that can be created which imitates up/down and side-to-side movement so to practice firing as you move.
· The RCA also trains to take on multiple shooters while in any of the positions mentioned above.
Please keep in mind, the above training is the regiment used by the GRU which many argue produced some of the greatest special operators worldwide. A student or teacher might be tempted to say that this regiment is obviously superior to the typical American traditions. Nevertheless, after being trained in this regiment, I have to say it is superior to the American systems.
The knife is one of the favorite weapons of the RCA. In the US, it is often stated that a combatant ought not bring a knife to a gun fight. In the RCA, they do and often win. The Spetsnaz is deemed by many to be the experts in knife work.
The Filipino art is considered a close second and by some to be superior to all others nevertheless, there are some large differences between the philosophy of the two arts. The gap is even larger between the RCA and other martial arts. Almost every Martial art practice some form of knife work. Generally, the knife work is defensive and static and almost never offensive.
The fact is knife work in most martial arts has a lot to be desired before it can be called a true combatives. This does not mean that what is practiced is not useful. Rather, it means that the training is very limited and leaves the student open to injury or death in a real fight.
In the RCA, we train with the knife defensively and offensively and most often by combining both. There are two interesting views supposed martial arts instructors like to magpie on the internet. First, there is no real defense against the knife. The only real defense is to run. There are times to run. The RCA unlike most other arts trains students to run if necessary. Generally such suggestions come from those whose art is deficient in real knife work.
Second, there are numerous supposed martial art instructors on the internet who seem to make a living out of challenging the knife work of the RCA. I have watched their videos and it is clear to me, a student-instructor, that these instructors, the word is used loosely, have not trained seriously in the RCA knife work.
In their videos they attack certain “techniques” used in the RCA. They do so by supposedly demonstrating how useless and incompetent the move is. Of course, the uninitiated will probably find their demonstration convincing. Yet, sadly I have never seen one of these instructors do the following. First, they never demonstrate the move properly. Second, they never confront a true student-instructor with their supposed finds.
In the RCA, we train with the knife for all combative situations. Here is a short list:
In the RCA, we use the knife to train the psyche. Most people are more afraid of the blade than a firearm. I know personally, people who possessed a black belt in another art who are deathly afraid of training with a knife. The knife is the best tool to calm the psyche.
In the RCA, we do train how to properly run from a knife fight so as not to be injured. I have yet to find any art which claims the best knife defense is to run train people to do so.
In the RCA, we use real knives in Knife Work. Obviously, no one starts out by using a real knife but eventually the goal is to move beyond a piece of wood to a piece of metal which has a sharp tip, relatively sharp edge, a blade and handle. Each part of a knife is a weapon in itself.
In the RCA, our breath work becomes an extension of our knife work. We calm the psyche by becoming comfortable with the use of all parts of the knife including the blade and edge. Breath work helps us to maintain a calm psyche and proper movement.
Here is a list of how we train. Again, remember this is list is not complete.
· We train with a real knife. Of course, people work up to that point but steel is what is necessary to calm the psyche.
· As mentioned earlier, our main focus in any work is breath work.
· We learn to properly run from a knife fight.
· We learn to use the knife’s tip to train our psyches to operate and bodies to move.
· We learn to hold the knife properly whether we are using the blade, edge or handle.
· We learn to use a knife lying on the ground, standing against a wall and standing up.
· We learn to use a knife while moving among our adversaries.
· We learn to rotate the knife to strike forward, to the side and rear of your body.
· Static knife training is placing the knife blade, edge or tip on the body then rotating the body to escape and retaliate.
· Active knife training is where a partner attacks with a knife and we use our knife to escape, eliminate or disarm the threat.
· We use the flat of the blade to strike and disarm an opponent.
· We learn to manipulate the body to break the opponent’s structure to disarm the adversary.
· We learn to manipulate the thumb and pinky to disarm an opponent.
· We learn to draw a knife concealed under a shirt or jacket.
· We learn to draw a knife with the opposite hand in case of injury.
· We draw our knife while walking, going down to the ground and rising in different positions and situations.
· We train using our joints to hold a knife in a fight if an extremity is injured.
· We learn to use the knife nonlethally.
· We also use the knife to break the opponent’s structure moving him or her to where we wish.
· We learn to feel the knife’s presence.
· We learn to obfuscation during a knife fight to our advantage.
· We train to draw our knife and what to do til you reach that point.
· Let me add this one. What I am going to add will depend on your instructor and how deep they are willing to go in your training. We learn old style GRU and KGB assassination techniques.
Knife work is exciting and critical to any defense. Firearms are great but two issues arise when using them. First, they are noisy. I am sure you have noticed that by now. Depending on the situation, it might be more advantageous if your adversaries do not or did not know your location. Of course, if you rely solely on a firearm and you know this to be true. Of course, if you are in the midst of a raging battle this might now be all that important.
But the fact is, most you will not be in such a situation. Second, firearms will eventually run of ammo. Or at the very least, at some point in the apocalypse you will be forced to conserve your ammo. You will want a knife. Actually, you will want to be properly trained to use the knife. Russian Combat Art is a means to do so.
Again, as I mentioned, this list is not complete because there is simply too much to list. Yet even though the list is short, there is no “martial art” present today which exceeds the Russian Combat Art in the training of, the breath of or the competence in knife work.
Again, thank you for taking spending your time reading these short essays. I hope they have helped you to better understand the system called the Russian Combat Art. Should you have any questions please contact me via email. Bo