Stenka na Stenku – Medieval fighting with fists started by Slavic Kievan Rus tribe

Stenka na stenku / Photo: wikipedia

Stenka na Stenku – Russian fist fighting (Russian – Кулачный бой Kulachniy boy “fist fighting, pugilism) is the traditional bare-knuckle boxing of Russia. The earliest accounts concerning the sport date to the 13th century. [1] Supposedly,[by whom?] fist fighting was practiced even prior to the Christianization of Kievan Rus’, at celebrations dedicated to Perun.

Metropholite Kiril, in 1274, created another one of many personally-instituted rules, declaring expulsion from Christianity for any of those who fist-fight and do not sing a prayer or hymn at the burial of someone who died during a fist fight.[unreliable source?] The government itself never supported, but also never opposed fist fighting.

Russian boyars used the sport as mass entertainment, and acquired the best fighters for competitions. The fights most often took place in holiday times and in crowded places. In winter it took place on ice. First the young children fought, then every pair was more grown up than the previous, the last were the most notable fist fighters. In two orders released in 1684 and 1686 fist fighting was forbidden, but the sport continued to live.

All regions had their heroes at the sport, but the region with the most famous ones historically is Tula. There are documents saying Peter the Great liked to organize fist fights “in order to show the ability of the Russian people”. In 1751, a mass fist fight took place on a street in Saint Petersburg, about which the Empress Elizabeth of Russia found out. After that the Empress forbade the organization of fist fights on the territory of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

During the reign of Catherine the Great, the popularity of fist fighting was growing again, and it is said that count Orlov was a good fist fighter himself and even invited notable fist fighters to compare powers. In 1832, Nicholas I of Russia completely forbade fist fights as “harmful fun”. As for centuries fist fighting was so popular and was such a part of Russian folk life,[20] it occurred frequently in Russian literature and art.

The most famous portrayal of a Russian fistfight is in Mikhail Lermontov’s poem, The Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov. There, the fistfight tales place as a form of honor duel between an oprichnik (government police agent) and a merchant. It is notable that, according to Lermontov, both characters use combat gloves (‘rukavitsy’ — reinforced mittens). Though it may be an example of poetic license, the poem states that the first connected blow by Kalashnikov bent a large bronze cross hanging from his opponent’s neck, and the second fractured the opponent’s temple, killing him. The fight also features in the opera The Merchant Kalashnikov by Anton Rubinstein (1880).

In the 19th century Sergei Aksakov watched famous fist fights in the Kaban frozen lake in Kazan, and later wrote about them in his “Story about student life”. Some decades later, at the same lake, the young future opera-singer Feodor Chaliapin took part in a similar fight: “From one side came we, the Russians of Kazan, from the other side the Tatars. We fought hard without feeling sorry for ourselves, but never broke the historic rules of not to hit one that is already down, not to kick, and not to keep iron up one’s sleeves”.[21] Later, the young Chaliapin was attacked in a fight over a girl, but thanks to knowing fist fighting he won. He wrote: “He jumped to beat me, and even though I was afraid of the police, learning fist fighting at the frozen lakes of Kazan helped me, and he humiliatingly lost”.[22]

The Russian poet Sergei Yesenin in his autobiography notes “About myself” told that his grandfather taught him fist fighting.[23] One of the heroes in the book “Thief” by the Soviet novelist Leonid Leonov said: “In childhood, it happened, only in fist fights I found real friends… And was never wrong! Because only in a fight the whole human nature comes out”.[24] There was a claim brought up that the Russian nobility preferred fistfights over duels, but the scholars show that the nobility actually were against fistfights and preferred weapons.[25] The title track of Stenka Na Stenku, a 2011 EP by Russian pagan metal band Arkona, is about the wall-on-wall fighting. The band has made a video for the song, in which a fight of this type is shown.

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