Thursday, 11 November 2010

Will the real Russian Martial Art please stand up?

Well, it’s been quite some time since I last posted something on my blog, so I thought I’d make a comeback with this Q&A-type article on the subject of my understanding and perception of Russian Martial Art, and the way we practice it at the Göteborgs Dynamo Club. Please keep in mind that the views expressed below are to a degree personal, but also the result of my research on the work of various instructors from different styles of RMA, some of whom I have had the opportunity to personally meet, train, and exchange views with.

What is Russian Martial Art?

Contemporary Russian Martial Art is the old Slavic combat skills and training methods coming from as far back as the 10th century, that were systematized during the second half of the twentieth century, through the influence of Soviet scientific research in the field of human biomechanics and the neurophysiology of learning – in a few words, it is tradition viewed and treated through the eye of cutting-edge science, and at the same time, a way to study combat within the context of the rational Western scientific tradition. In this sense, there is absolutely no place in RMA for irrelevant national folklore, false prophets, or masters demanding blind faith from their students.

Is RMA the creation of one specific person, group or family?

RMA is a body of knowledge on combat and physical culture that has evolved over the centuries through the life experiences of the Russian people. It is not a martial art that sprang fully formed out of someone’s head. Having said that, we must point that there are indeed various persons who have developed their own training approaches to contemporary RMA. Such persons are Alexey Kadochnikov (Russian Style), Alexander Retuinskih (ROSS), Mikhail Ryabko (Systema RMA) There are also a number of systems that are modern-day revivals of old Slavic fighting styles, such as Belov’s Slavyano-Goritskaya Borba, Gruntovski’s Skobar, Buza, and the Russian All-Around Fighting. These specific approaches are different styles of RMA but they share too many common elements - way more than their founders would sometimes like to admit. Alexander Retuinskih, for one thing, has been quoted as saying that “…there are no Russian martial arts; there is only Russian Martial Art” and this is the view I subscribe to.

Is RMA conceptually connected to a specific religious dogma?

Rational science cannot in any way be connected to religion. The idea that one’s religious faith affects his ability to learn a martial art is just as absurd as claiming that only a Christian can become a good doctor or that great physicists are exclusively Buddhists. Having said that, an interesting historical connection is that, in 1274 “wall-to-wall” fist fighting contests (one of the most popular cultural expressions of RMA) were banned in Russia, under threat of excommunication from Christianity for the participants, since the church considered them “barbarian ceremonies”[1].

Video: Common people having fun and honing their combat skills at the same time - it's not just the "cammo pants crowd" that needs to prepare for war. Does it looks like a pagan ceremony? Sure! Is it Russian Martial Art? You bet!

Isn’t RMA the combat system used by elite units of the Soviet and Russian military?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because during the Soviet era, the Bolsheviks attempted to wipe out any martial tradition of native origin (something similar to what happened to Chinese martial arts during the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong). During that period, Russian Martial Art remained in practice due to its lethal effectiveness, in some (not all) elite units of the Soviet Special Forces concealed under the title “Combat SAMBO Spetsnaz”[2]. No, because the roots of Russian Martial Art can be traced back in the 10th century, in an era when Russia did not have a professional army (professional military units were introduced to Russia during the 17th century, according to the Western European standards [3]). Back then, in times of war, the people who defended their country were farmers, artisans and merchants, rather than warrior knights. These simple people were forced by circumstances to develop training methods that were:

  • effective enough to keep them able-bodied and mentally tough,
  • not injurious to the body so that they could keep doing their everyday jobs,
  • playful and challenging so that training would be enjoyable rather than a burden.

Since Russian Martial Art consists to a large degree of those training methods that have survived until today, it is a combat system tailored to the needs of common people, that one day might be called upon to defend their land of family, rather than those of elite soldiers that make a living out of fighting.

Video: Military hand-to-hand combat training of a GRU special forces unit: a few things look like Russian Martial Art, but most don't...

How is RMA different from other styles of martial arts?

In terms of the result we seek to achieve, it is not different. Just like most martial arts, RMA includes strikes, kicks, takedowns, joint manipulations, control and restraint techniques, defense on the ground, plus fighting with and against weapons. What differs though is the overall approach to learning, and the specific training methods that derive from it. The specific ways in which RMA differs from other combat systems can be summed up as follows:

  • Health comes first, effectiveness follows. In RMA, training is supposed to make one healthy for life, not able to fight for just a decade or so. We emphasize correct biomechanics that allow for maximum performance with minimum stress to the body. Other than contact injuries (that we seek to minimize using protective equipment or controlled force application) and accidents, all other injuries that happen as a result of the training are not considered “part of the job” and are dealt with through a diligent health-first approach. Now, can someone become a good fighter without good biomechanics? Possibly, but the price to pay in injuries will be steep when his fighting days are over.
  • Training is non technique-based. Instead of practicing specific techniques until they become “second nature”, the RMA practitioner’s goal is to first understand a series of fundamental concepts and cultivate a number of basic principles that when applied, will allow him to improvise spontaneous solutions to a great variety of combat problems, i.e. “create techniques” under pressure. Take fist fighting as an example: instead of practicing the six standard punches of boxing, in RMA we first learn how to generate maximum full-body power, and then how to apply force with the fist from any position and at any direction. This way, someone who practices Russian fist fighting, can rather easily limit his options to those allowed by the sport of boxing, while a boxer cannot easily expand his options to movements he has not trained at. In this sense, RMA becomes a set of concepts and principles that enhance performance whatever the strategies and tactics used by the fighter or the context of combat (un-armed combat, weapons fighting, sport fighting, self-defense etc), rather than a specific method of conducting combat.
  • All-around dexterity is valued more than specific skills or aggression. In RMA, we do not only train combat-specific exercises and drills. We also practice a great variety of exercises/games (balancing, rolling and tumbling, twirling with the staff, sticks and rope, etc) that result in the development of all-around dexterity - the cultivation of “intelligence” in one’s body, so that it has the potential to perform ANY movement fluently and effortlessly. All-around dexterity is often mistakenly referred to as an “innate talent”, but the truth is that it can be cultivated. A body which is dexterous can learn surprisingly fast how to perform any task (martial or other) much more efficiently. This is why dexterity training is a valuable tool to improve performance not only in the field of combat, but also in all kinds of sports and of course, the physical activities of everyday life. Besides the facilitation of the learning process, there is one more reason that makes dexterity very important: in the chaos of combat, it is not aggression and blind fury that will save one’s life, but rather morale, adaptability and improvisation. Dexterity training is the key to all three.

Video: Arkadiy Kadochnikov, Alexey Kadochnikov's son, demonstrating a biomechanical exercise with incredible flow! If there is no sophistication of movement, it's not Russian Martial Art...

Does training in RMA include physical conditioning?

Practitioners of RMA are taught to use as little force as possible when fighting, but occasionally that might still be a significant amount of force, so conditioning is necessary. At the beginning stages of training our conditioning mainly consists of joint mobility work and stability work, but down the road Russian kettlebells and skipping ropes become our favorite (though not the only) tools.

Is there any full-contact fighting involved in RMA?

Historically, full-contact fighting of various forms (one-on-one and “wall-on-wall” [4] fist fighting, belt wrestling, one-handed wrestling, stick fighting) has been an important aspect of RMA. At the Dynamo Club, in order to ensure the effectiveness of the skills that are developed through practice, we need to test them under pressure, so we do a number of drills against resisting partners and occasionally we fist-fight, wrestle or stick-fight using full force. Of course, we use the appropriate protective equipment to minimize injuries. Having said that, we believe that full-contact sparring is just a part and not the be-all and end-all of martial arts training.

Video: Some single-hand wrestling demonstrated by practitioners of Russian All-Around Fighting. A force-against-force drill that may not be "realistic combat" but builds skills useful in real combat.

Is RMA easy to learn?

To make it simple, RMA is a training method that helps one to master his own body, in order to learn how to manipulate other people’s bodies in the context combat. It is a process that might be described as challenging, occasionally frustrating, extremely rewarding and definitely fascinating, but easy… no, not really. To put it differently, how easy is it to become a good (let alone elite) tennis player, pianist or dancer?

Who can train in RMA?

Theoretically, any person who is physically and mentally healthy can take up RMA. On a more practical level, it helps a lot if you commit to training because you enjoy learning new physical skills for the sheer challenge of it and not because you’re expecting short-term returns (like being able to disarm knives, AK-47s, bazookas, etc, especially if you have not spent a day of your life in the army). In a few words, if it is a few “simple, effective, and easy-to-use techniques” you are after, in order to become a “spetsnaz killing machine” within a few months, RMA is not for you.

Last but not least: the Göteborgs Dynamo Club is not your run-of-the-mill franchise gym, where you swipe your membership card at the reception desk and train while avoiding interaction with all other human beings under the same roof. In alignment to the centuries-old tradition of Russian Martial Art, we first and foremost are a community of people exploring movement as related to hand-to-hand combat. We train as a community and we grow as a community. In this sense, it is more important for one to become a good training partner than a good practitioner. If your personal agenda is the only thing you consider important and you cannot be a team player, there are other gyms out there that can help you more than we can.



[2] Retuinskih, Alexander. Russian Style of Hand-to-Hand Combat. 1st Books, 2001. p. xxv


[4] Wall-on-wall fist fights were usually held during religious celebrations in Russia. Men and youngsters of neighboring towns and villages met on fields or frozen rivers, formed lines or “walls” and fought with fists, under very strict rules. The wall that managed to break through the opponents’ wall was the winner. Although the wall-on-wall fights were held for entertainment, they were actually a type of informal military training. What was tested in these “competitions” was not the technical competence of the fighters, but their mental toughness and their willingness to fight shoulder to shoulder with their comrades when duty called. A famous Russian phrase, “Do not hit a man when he’s down”, is said to have its roots in the rules of wall-on-wall fighting.


  1. This is great! Thanx for the effort. Permission to translate to Serbian (with full credits of course)?

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Milos. Please, be my guest.

  3. Very nice written Spyro, interesting aswell!