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Systema (Система, literally meaning The System) is a Russian martial art. Training includes: hand to hand combat, grappling, knife fighting and fire arms training as well. Training involves drills and sparring without set kata. It focuses mainly on controlling the six body levers (elbows, neck, knees, waist, ankles, and shoulders) through pressure point application, striking and weapon applications. Systema is often advertised as being a martial art employed by some Russian Spetsnaz units.
There is no historical “real name” for these arts, a fact which can lead to some confusion. In a sense, the name “Systema” (the system) can be thought of as a generic title comparable to “Kung Fu” (“one who is highly skilled” or “time” and “effort”). The most likely version is that the name Systema was taken from the name given in Russia to a similar martial art before that, the Systema Rukopashnogo Boya (System of hand-to-hand combat).
At least in Mikhail Ryabko‘s Systema, “The System” is a reference to the various systems of the body (Muscle, Nervous system, respiratory system, etc.) as well as elements of Psychology and the Spirit.
As there have been and still are a number of different fighting styles common throughout the Russian military and special forces, like Alpha, GRU, Vympel, several other names and nicknames are commonly mistaken for Systema. For example, some troops and special forces personnel train in “bojewoje sambo” (combat sambo), which is a separate art. Also, troops would refer to whatever was taught as “rukopashka” (Russian slang for “hand to hand”), or “machalka” or “boinia” (Russian slang for “fighting” and “beating”). The name “Combat Sambo Spetsnaz” was coined by the Soviet government, even though those are different styles.
Joseph Stalin‘s personal bodyguards were practitioners of Systema. Ryabko was taught the system in the army by one of those bodyguards. After Stalin’s death, Systema became the style of fighting employed by some Special Military Operations Units for high risk missions in Spetsnaz, GRU and other government facilities. There were and are a number of different combat arts trained throughout Russian special forces units other than Systema. It is due to the Soviet Union‘s strict ban on non-sanctioned traditions, and the sensitivity of special forces training, that it was not until after the cold war that Systema became known. Systema’s pre-Soviet Russian heritage is only recently being rediscovered.
It is likely that the roots of Systema are lost in ancient and family arts, changed by military and contemporary needs and rediscovered and adapted by each instructor and practitioner.
Another theory proposes that the various forms of modern Systema are evolutions of an intensive research and development project carried out by several generations of hand to hand combat instructors at the Dinamo training facility in Moscow between roughly 1920–1980. If so, that would place Systema in the same stream of military close-combat training as combat SAMBO and related styles such as SAMOZ, which was developed by V.A. Spiridonov.
If this theory is correct, the stylistic influences on modern Systema would include numerous national martial arts styles, military close-combat systems and indigenous Russian combat styles as well as aspects of sports science, biomechanics and sports psychology as these disciplines were incorporated into the Dinamo close-combat research and development project during the 20th century.
Also, another theory suggests that Systema is in fact a modern internal system, which is based on Chinese internal martial arts like Taijigong, Taijiquan and others. Russians were interested in Chinese internal martial arts long before WWII, but intense research was done in the 50s and 60s. Moreover, masters from China visited Russia in that time, taking part “in experiments and teaching soldiers”. However while there are some similarities in approach the training methods and basic principles of the Russian arts and Chinese arts have considerable differences.
Systema is counted alongside a number of pre-Soviet traditions which are being actively cultivated by the Russian government. In 2004, the Dinamo Sports Center played host to a demonstration and celebration of martial traditions.
It is still a relatively unknown, but Systema or relatives to it are being taught by several practitioners inside and outside of Russia. Of particular interest is that different people from different backgrounds were taught subtle variations of Systema.
Furthermore, since practitioners train in their own preferred manner and with their individual understanding, their style expressed in their art is unique to them. This is most readily seen with senior students and other high-level artists.
In popular culture
- William Gibson mentions Systema in his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition and its 2007 sequel Spook Country. In Pattern Recognition, the bodyguards of a wealthy Russian are said to be practitioners of Systema, a martial art that was, to date “…restricted to KGB, bodyguards and the special forces…” and said to be derived from Cossack dancing.One of Spook Country‘s main characters is trained in Systema and uses it to defend himself as well as ostensibly for other purposes related to self control and confidence. It is made clear however that what he calls Systema is a codified body of skills and knowledge that borrows the name alone from the real-life fighting style.
- In the manga Akumetsu, the titular character was shown to be proficient with this form of combat.
- In the 2011 novel Carte Blanche written by Jefferey Deaver, the character of James Bond states that he is a practitioner of Systema. He says it is the main fighting style he learned in spy training. Bond describes the art as open-handed, with a focus on elbows and knees.