Special Feature: Systema (Russian Martial Art)

(Picture source: Vladimir Vasiliev/RMA. Re-used with permission)

I'd like to introduce to you the style of martial art which I have practised for ten years. I plan to feature the style in the book, and with respect to one character in particular (I won't say which one at present!) As you might recall from a couple of posts back, I have recently been working on a scene whereby two persons engage in hand-to-hand combat to resolve a long running dispute. This post carries on that theme a little further.

'Systema' (which translates from Russian literally as 'The System') is indeed special – it's from Russia (hence the reason why it is often called 'Russian Martial Art', or RMA for short) and is used by the Special Operations Units in Spetsnaz, the Russian Special Forces. The style is 1000 years old and was developed over the centuries as a result of all the various foreign incursions into Russia. All the invader cultures which the Russians encountered brought their own particular style of martial art and the Russian experience was to learn and adapt techniques from them. From this, they created their own style of fighting. As the style spread, practitioners and teachers of the art became established across Russia, many of whom were strongly linked with the Orthodox Church.

However, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 saw the suppression of everything linked with the old Tsarist regime, including the traditional fighting system. In spite of this, Systema did survive and live on, first of all being utilised by Stalin's bodyguard and later by Spetsnaz. After the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Systema began to spread out of Russia to the west. The man most attributable for the style's export is ex-Spetsnaz soldier Vladimir Vasiliev (pictured above, demonstrating a defence against a stick), who emigrated to Canada in the 1990s. After arriving in the country, Vladimir set up his own school of RMA in Toronto, and from there it has thrived in popularity, with many schools having been set up in a number of countries across the world. My own involvement with the style began in 2000, when I attended the newly opened club in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, established by David Flaherty MBE, of the Cheshire Budo Federation. Prior to that, I'd trained in styles like Karate and Kung-Fu, however I soon found that RMA was something different and became hooked!

What is it that makes RMA so different? The main reason is the versatility of the style. As one of the top RMA instructors, Martin Wheeler (also an experienced MMA fighter), commented in a recent e-mail from the RMA website, Systema is 'designed for real life application'. Unlike many of the other martial arts (and this is not meant to be showing any disrespect to the many excellent styles which are out there), Systema does not follow any rigid pattern of technique and doctrine. Neither is there any formality as such.

RMA is primarily a battlefield orientated system (similar, in many ways, to the Israeli style, Kapap) which is adaptable to the street and everyday life. Instead of teaching specific techniques and stances (of which there are really none of the latter), the style focuses on body movement, relaxation and, most importantly, breathing. From this, the defender can become flexible in his or her responses to an attack, in whatever form the assault may take place. The basic principle is to keep moving and breath all the time, thus allowing the defender to relax whilst in a stress situation, and reduce the possibility of 'clamming up' due to too much adrenalin release.

The principles you learn when practicing defence and offence do not have to be too complex to be effective, which is one of the strengths of the style. A few years ago, an experienced self-defence trainer (who also happened to be doing a psychology degree, as well as training in RMA regularly) explained to me why it worked so well. The reason was that many of the moves Systema uses effectively are Gross Motor Movements, which are the usual defensive reactions that most people demonstrate when their adrenalin levels are in high stress mode, for example, using the forearms to protect the face from punches. During Systema training, most people, when they are relaxed, are in a lower training zone, where their heart rate and pulse are at a lower level than when they are in a higher training zone. During this phase, they are able to practice what are highly effective extensions of their natural reactions, and this builds up their 'neural pathway' responses (the fibres in the brain which strengthen every time an action is repeated). Therefore, in a real-life stress situation, they are able to respond effectively with gross motor movement-type responses in an efficient and relaxed manner. The great thing about this is that this type of training does not need to be intense and can be learnt quite quickly, unlike a lot of other traditional martial arts which rely on techniques based on 'complex motor skills'. To become proficient at the latter requires a lot of practice and repetition, as well as dedication.

I'm not saying that it's easy to become a master of RMA quickly, and that you are going to become Bruce Lee overnight once you start training! However, it is a simple yet highly adaptable style to learn and use, and is also great for helping you to learn to relax. It can also become addictive, and I can tell you that there has been many a time when I have come to the end of an RMA session and wished that it could carry on! As well as teaching 'empty-hand' style, Systema also teaches defences against weapons such as knife, stick and firearms, again all of which I've found enjoyable. Defence against multiple opponents is another concept Systema teaches in its own unique way.

Over the years, I've been to many training sessions, as well as seminars with the Masters of the style such as Vladimir, Konstantin Kamorov (a fascinating man in himself), and the top Master, Mikhail Ryabkho. These are all rewarding experiences, which I can highly recommend. RMA has also run some great events in the past in Moscow and Canada, including a fantastic Summer Camp I attended in 2005. The sort of things covered included combat in an urban environment, fighting in the wilds and even in water (a somewhat dampening yet fun experience!)

All in all, because of the effectiveness of the style, I believe it could be natural for somebody with good fighting skills derived from Systema to utilise it in the scenario depicted in the book, as well as provide an entertaining hook for the reader. The main challenge for me is interpreting that which I've learnt (and am still learning) into vivid, descriptive text. I know it's one I'll enjoy!

If you're interested in RMA, and want to find out more, follow the link below to the RMA website. There, you'll find out more about the style, details of any clubs/schools near to you, all future seminars and events, and an excellent range of DVDs featuring all the RMA Masters. I'd find it hard to recommend any one of these in particular, because they are all superb (though the recent 'Beat the Odds' DVD is particularly good, as this, for me, sums up everything Systema is about!)

Owen Law



About Owen Law

My pen-name is ‘Owen Law’ (real name: Nicholas Davies.) I’m a science fiction writer specialising in dystopian/apocalyptic visions of the future. I’m from Shropshire, England (on the borders with Wales) and I’m in my forties. I have a background in public services and training. I’ve been working on my first novel, Dragon Line, since 2008. I’ve also written several short stories, one of which you can find on this blog (‘Matilda Leviathan‘). I now reside on the border of Shropshire and Wales, and my interests include writing (of course!), current affairs and environmental issues.
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