Systema: The Little Known Russian Martial Art

If you ask someone versed in martial arts about Russian fighting styles, they’ll probably tell you about SAMBO – the former Red Army and NKVD combat training the Soviet Union’s military forces used since the 1920s. In the past few decades, however, a new type of Russian martial art emerged, called Systema, whose practitioners also claim they use techniques taken from the USSR’s armies. But contrary to SAMBO, the latter one is rapidly gaining popularity as being the most controversial type of martial art on the planet.

What is Systema?

Systema, meaning “system”, is a mixed fighting style that specializes in self-defense and hand-to-hand close combat without weapons. Unlike the case with SAMBO and other foreign martial arts, Systema practitioners can’t compete in big international championships such as the Olympics for two main reasons – it’s not so popular and it’s extremely controversial.

Why is Systema so controversial?

Here’s why the Russian Systema spurs negativity among martial artists and martial art federations all over the globe.

The origin

Systema originated in the 1990s after the break up of the Soviet Union. The Systema teachers that started spreading the word claimed that it was derived from the fighting techniques used by the Soviet armies which were kept under taps during the existence of the USSR. Due to the fact that the Soviet Special Forces’ fighting was kept a secret, nobody can verify that Systema was practiced by them or that the claims of the teachers are true. Almost three decades after the first Systema classes began the martial art’s true origins are still unknown.

The name

If you head over to any club, school or federation that’s associated with Systema, you’ll see that this martial art always has a different name. Every teacher uses his or her last name and names the system after themselves. For example, the popular Systema Vasiliev, Systema Kadochnikova and Systema Ryabko are all different types of Systema named after the head teachers. The fact that new names keep popping up with new training methods and combat moves makes it seem like there is no right or wrong version of the system, which only fuels the controversy that surrounds it.

The actual fighting

While the core of the Systema is indeed a string of combat moves, the actual fighting comes down to one single purpose – self-defense. Martial artists who teach or study other martial arts have labeled Systema as inefficient in real combat due to the fact that it doesn’t teach any type of offense, but rather concludes with the disarming of the attacker. This verdict also refutes the alleged theory that Systema was once used by the Russian soldiers as the self-defense fighting techniques aren’t meant to serve on the offensive line.

On top of that, different types of Systema teach different fight moves and apply different combat techniques. Unlike other schools in the martial arts discipline, Systema has varied names and fighting styles. This paradox alone contributes to a lack of a universal structure – something that cannot be seen in other acclaimed martial arts. And when you bring the questionable origins to the equation, the controversy becomes even more obvious. It still hasn’t been proven whether Systema truly existed before the dissolution of the USSR and whether someone in the Soviet Special Forces used it.

On the other hand, just like any other martial art, regardless of its popularity, Systema can indeed be effective when it comes to unarmed close combat in everyday situations like getting mugged or attacked on the street. But does it have a future as an Olympic sport next to world renowned martial arts? That’s highly unlikely to happen in the near future.

What do you think?

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