THE RUSSIAN MARTIAL ART
By Trevor Robinson
British Systema Association
Originally published in Combat Magazine
On the 10th of June 1999 I was waiting at Manchester airport for a flight to Toronto and had time to reflect on what had been an eventful six months for me. For Christmas 1998 a friend of mine had given me a video of "The System", by Vladimir Vasiliev, and asked what my opinion of it was. I told him I couldn't comment on it until I had actually tried it and in my next lesson I used some of the techniques from the video and they worked. A few phone calls later and I had more videos and by the 20th of February I had become the first person in this country to be affiliated to Vladimir's school. So it was excitement tinged with fear as I waited at the airport, realizing that I was the first Englishman to go to train in the Russian Martial Art called "The System".
Vladimir Vasiliev studied at the Moscow Spetsinstitute, with ten years extensive military experience with the Special Operations Unit in Spetsnaz. He is a former trainer for the Russian Paratroopers, Swat Teams and Elite Bodyguards. The Russian style of Martial Arts dates back to the 10th century and throughout the history of this huge country, Russia had to repel invaders from all sides. They all attacked with distinct styles and unique weaponry, the battles fought on different terrains during both freezing winters and sweltering summers, with the Russians often greatly outnumbered by their opponents. As a result of these factors the Russian warriors acquired a style that combines strong spirit with extremely clever and versatile tactics, practical and deadly against any type of enemy in any circumstances. The style is natural and free, it has no strict rules, rigid structure or limitations (except for a moral ones). All tactics are based on the instinctive reactions, individual strengths and limitations and is specifically designed for fast learning.
When the Communists came into power in 1917, they suppressed all national traditions. Those practicing the old style of fighting could be severely punished. At the same time, the authorities quickly realized how viable and devastating the original combat system was and reserved it just for a few units in Spetsnaz. Spetsnaz, or Voiska Spetsialnogo Naznachenia, stands for the Russian Special Forces. Within this highly acclaimed military organization there are a few Special Operations Units used in the highest risk missions. These professional went through severe training in all three levels of human ability; the physical, the psychological and the psychic. They became true masters of the old Russian system, further perfecting and continuously using it, in covert military operations and at the top levels of close protection.
What stands out in The System is the ultra fast learning curve, the incredible simplicity of the techniques, complete freedom of movement and the emphasis on continual attacks as well as economy of motion.
Unpredictable moves against single and multiple opponents in any situation, in any environment. The best part is that you are also able to integrate this into your own art and use its relaxed and circular movement, which is similar to jiu jitsu, aikido and other arts.
When it comes to defense against weapons The System is in a world of its own, it's simply the best knife defense I have ever seen in twenty three years of Martial Arts and I've studied ninjitsu, jiu jitsu, and jeet kun do. I've also seen Philippino knife work and this beats the lot. When it comes to multiple opponents, I've never seen an art that can deal with it the way this one can. In Japanese Martial Arts most people are given a system of theory and hope for the best, but the Russian System actually delivers. I've seen footage of Spetsnaz troops fighting up to twenty-four people at a time. My own training has now changed so much that I usually fight up to three people at a time, since coming back from Vladimir's school.
Vladimir Vasiliev is a native of Tever, two hundred kilometers North East of Moscow. He opened his school in November 1993, three years after emigrating to Canada. He and his physiotherapist wife, Valerie, took six months to recoup the initial $10,000 investment. Now the school is grossing more than $5,000 a month. The school is located in a cinder block industrial building in Thornhill, Ontario. The first thing I noticed at the Toronto airport was the heat. I walked into a thirty-four degree wall of heat, a startling change from the seventeen degree wall of cold I had left in Manchester. The first culture shock was seeing a policeman with a gun at the airport but I was also in for a surprise because I didn't realize that the airport was air conditioned, so when I actually went outside it was incredibly hot! I got a taxi and made my way, about eleven local time, to Vladimir's school, about ten miles from the airport.
When I got to the school it was everything I'd thought it would be (I had seen it on the video). I climbed the iron stairs and entered through the glass door which simply had "Russian Martial Art - The System" printed on it in white letters. Inside it had white walls, simple matting, and mirrors down one side. There was a throwing board for knives and the flags of Canada, Tsarist and Post Communist Russia as the only decoration. The gym had a changing room but no showers, this was not a place for poseurs and a class was already in progress. Vladimir turned around and with a great big smile on his face approached me, ready to shake hands. He said thank you for coming, I said thank you for having me, but he insisted "no, no, no, thank you for coming!" With that we shook hands and he led me into the main classroom where I sat down and watched the lesson.
The first thing I noticed was that these guys were big and this was mentioned to Vladimir who just turned and laughed, saying "it doesn't matter." There were several overhead fans which cooled the room slightly and this was appreciated by the students as they were absolutely streaming sweat. There were some pretty hard punches and kicks going on, this was a serious sweat session and these guys were really going for it. I thought this is going to be a serious two weeks, very painful, and I was right!
The class ended in a strange way as everyone sat down in a large circle and commented on what they had gained from the class and the way the lesson was taught. (When I got home I incorporated this into my own school). Vladimir came over at the end to ask if I was training that night. I nodded. He smiled, punched me on the shoulder, and said "good lad". I didn't feel good, I actually felt extremely tired because I'd been up for 30 hours but I thought I couldn't say no after that.
I did my first lesson at 7:30 that night and it started like any normal lesson, although some of the warm up exercises were unusual. The System uses a lot of shoulder movement which is not apparent in Japanese Martial Arts. The movement is undulating, almost fluid and the shoulders are used in circular motions. In Japanese arts the back is held very straight and the shoulders don't move much but in The System, the shoulders are actually used for blocking techniques, so the hands can be kept low to protect the groin. If the punches come to the face they can be redirected using the shoulders and the chest.
This was one of the most unusual things to learn, coming from a Japanese Martial Arts background. One of the first things pointed out to me was that I was "defending the air". In The System, most of the punches and kicks are blocked very close to the body. In the Japanese arts they are blocked at least two feet from the body, and this is what he meant by defending the air. He then said to bring an opponent to your technique, rather than you applying a technique on them. The System is radically different in that it is based on body movement rather than technique. Vladimir told me this is why I was in Canada, to learn the movement. I already had more technique than I needed, but once I moved the way they did, I would understand. He was confident that I would pick it up within the two weeks.
Near the end of the lesson we sparred. My Martial Arts background is pretty substantial, having trained since the late seventies and being a Shukokai black belt and having studied judo, boxing, jeet kun do, tai chi and aikido, I felt I was well prepared for someone like Vladimir. After all, he had only done some Karate in his early days and and his Spetsnaz training. It was with great horror that I realized it was taking everything I knew just to stop this man from beating up on me. In fact, he kicked my arse! Even with 23 years of training, he hit me at will. I couldn't stop anything he was doing.
In fact, I hadn't a clue what he was doing. I had never seen movement that was so deceptive before, even coming from a background of ninjitsu. Vladimir embodied deception. When I thought he was going for the leg, he'd hit me in the head. When I defended the head, he would kick me in the groin. When I started to realize it was double bluffs going on, he'd do something else and hit me again. Everything I did was useless and I'd not been in this situation for decades. My students describe fighting me as stepping into a bear trap, but this man was able to step between the teeth and hit me at will. It was nice to know that there is always a bigger fish out there. All my teachers had told me "have the mind of a child, so you can always learn." I didn't take it as an affront, I took it as a challenge and felt privileged and happy that after training so long there were still people who could teach me something.
The next lesson was on a Sunday afternoon and one of Vladimir's students, Randy, took the lesson. Randy had seen fighters from all over the world come to Vladimir's dojo, men who were world champions in their own art, and Vladimir had just played with them. I could understand why after my Friday night sparring session. On the Monday I had the unique opportunity of training with a man called Vartelli. I had seen him on Vladimir's knife video, throwing knives from 20/30 feet, into the throat of a target, and now I had the chance to spar with him!
Vartelli is about 240-260 pounds and he moves like the wind, preferring spinning and whirling techniques. This guy was so fast and it took every thing I knew just to defend from the onslaught. We fought for about ten minutes and I was almost in a state of grace, I hadn't had such a good sparring session in many years. Later someone told me that he was a jiu jitsu champion and that his past was so secret that even Vladimir didn't talk about it, other than that he had been in the Russian Special Forces. After I had survived his onslaught, Vladimir spoke to Vartelli in Russian and Vartelli answered in the same language, before adding "perfect". Vladimir then came up to me and explained that he had asked Vartelli if I was any good and he had replied "perfect". It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
We started to do some knife work and what happened next was mind blowing. I learnt some of the most vicious and terrible knife techniques I've ever done in my life. Vartelli enjoyed teaching me because I was picking it up so quickly and some of he techniques were horrific, involving cuts to the wrist, stabs to the elbow, cuts to the throat and slashing movements that would open you up like a stuck pig. When you realize that this was used by Spetsnaz in combat the reality is unmistakable, you're straight in there cutting someone to ribbons. Vartelli also showed me the defenses to the defenses, the counters to the counters, which was even more interesting from my perspective as a teacher.
Vladimir claims The System makes no distinction between blocks, strikes and holds, believing that every movement is multi functional, but he taught us tremendous mobility during the execution of techniques. He did this by utilizing the principle called flying center of gravity, in which the exponent's body sways up and down, enabling his pelvis and shoulders to spin on their axis during punches. The System's sliding footwork is similar to skating and the power of the strikes comes from the hips. The arm is relaxed as the punch begins to move towards its target, but the muscles are gradually tensed as the technique approaches the point of contact. Upon completion of the technique the arm is quickly retracted and muscle tension decreases.
The overall effect of the punch is a whipping action that carries great force at the moment of impact and this motion can be used to deliver short punches called "Tichok", side strike elbows called "Podchlest", face slaps known as "Opleucha", limb entrapment strikes "Oplet", with the inner portion of the arm, or elbow strikes delivered with the entire forearm, which is called "Obuch". Other hand techniques in The System include a short quick fist to the face called "Gichok". The System rarely kicks over waist height, as Vladimir clams that low kicks require less time, energy and flexibility to execute and do not leave you unsteady and vulnerable to a counter attack on completion of the technique.
Over the two weeks I think I picked up more bruises, to my legs, my knees, my arms and my chest, then I have ever done in my entire life. One of the interesting things about the Russian System is its use of what the Japanese call "ukemi" or receiving techniques. One of the first things I learnt was that The System has a great defense mechanism in that it absorbs kicks and punches by keeping the body very fluid. You actually teach each part of the body to defend itself, each part of the body learns to "escape" by fear. It's the most natural defense in the world because if you're afraid of getting hit, you move that body part away. By the second week I was picking up far less bruises because I was learning to "go with" the technique in a way I had never done before. In Japanese Martial Arts you are taught to avoid strikes by use of footwork, but there is very little footwork in The System. When you think about it, sometimes you can't get out of the way, in a confined space, or against a wall. Then you have to learn to move the body and this became a great part of the training, how to absorb punches.
I felt the fourteen days were soon over and I stayed at Vladimir's house the last night, enjoying a nice warm bath, which was great, because I had never felt so sore in my life but I had received incredible training. Vladimir's wife, Valerie had made sure I was well looked after and his students were both skilled and friendly, and my thanks goes out to them all. The Canadian people were so hospitable that my stay there was so pleasurable, apart from the pain of course! Vladimir is a humble, friendly, engaging person, with a very pleasant and outgoing personality, a sharp contrast to the Special Forces killer you might have imagined. I thank him wholeheartedly for his patience, his time, his great generosity and friendship. I can't wait to train with him again.
He was absolutely right, I came back to England twice as good as I left. My students of three of four years standing noticed the change straight away. My senior student had got so used to my movement that he could predict just about everything I did but on the second night back I sparred with him and what happened to him was almost a carbon copy of what happened to me in Canada. He simply couldn't stop what I was doing, I hit him at will and he had no idea what was happening to him. Now, after a month of training with me, he is learning just as much himself.
"The System" is an incredible art and I would recommend it to any Martial Artist in Britain. I am now the official System instructor in this country and anyone wishing to know more, or train with me in this brilliant art can contact me on the following phone number or at the following address.
Trevor Robinson: Tel - 01229 430 529
Address: 53 Longway, Barrow in Furness. Cumbria. LA13ODP
One of the most unique things about "The System" is the use of psychic energy, a fascinating topic that deserves to be looked at in depth, which I intend to do in my next article for "Combat".