Systema (“The System”) is a Russian martial art. It is designed to be highly adaptive and practical, training using drills and sparring instead of set kata. It focuses mainly on the six body levers (elbows, neck, knees, waist, ankles, and shoulders), while also teaching pressure point application and takedowns. Systema is often advertised as being a martial art employed by some Russian Spetsnaz units.

The word “systema” can simply be translated as The System. It’s most well known use in recent years has been through certain special operations units of Russian Spetsnaz special forces, where it has been refined and developed for body guarding, covert operations, hostage rescue and anti-terrorist activities.

There is a reason why Russian Martial Art is called SYSTEMA. It is a complete set of concepts and training components that enhance one’s life. In this case, acquiring the martial art skill is a way to improve the function of all seven physiological systems of the body and all three levels of human abilities the physical, the psychological and the spiritual.

The key principle of the Russian Systema is non-destruction. The goal is to make sure that your training and your attitudes do no damage to the body or the psyche of you or your partners. Systema is designed to create, build and strengthen your body, your psyche, your family and your country.

Systema has another name “poznai sebia” or “Know Yourself”. What does it really mean to Understand Yourself? It is not just to know what your strengths and weaknesses are, that is good but fairly superficial. Training in Russian Martial Art is one of the sure ways to see the full extent of our limitations – to see how proud and weak we really are. Systema allows us to gain the true strength of spirit that comes from humility and clarity in seeing the purpose of our life.

As the roots of the Russian Systema are in the Russian Orthodox Christian faith, the belief is that everything that happens to us, good or bad, has only one ultimate purpose. That is to create the best possible conditions for each person to understand himself. Proper training in the Russian Systema carries the same objective – to put every participant into the best possible setting for him to realize as much about himself as he is able to handle at any given moment.

This can mean that, on first look, comparisons are drawn with other military arts such as Krav Maga, US Navy SEAL training, and so on. However the military application is only one aspect of The System.

In it’s purest form the art has been described as “a system of breathing and movement”. In this respect Systema is infinitely adaptable and can be practiced for many different purposes, from athletic or sports training through to health and well-being.

Our main focus is on applying the principles of The System to modern self defence. This means giving people the means to defend themselves and their friends and family should the need arise. Our work is also geared towards law enforcement and security professionals. As such all our work is practical and takes all the necessary physical, psychological, ethical and legal factors into consideration.

There are no direct sporting aspects to our work (other than enhanced health and fitness), nothing is based on animal stances or states of mind and there is no formalised ritual or pre-set movement routines.

The training methods are clearly thought out and have been developed by professionals in order to impart maximum knowledge in a relatively short time frame – importantly, with no harmful effects on health (in fact there are many health practices incorporated within Systema).

The System draws on the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of Russia. This huge country has, over the centuries, been invaded from all borders. Wars and battles have taken place in all types of imaginable conditions, from the frozen steppes to the heat of the Crimea. Many of the huge number of ethnic groups within Russia had their own fighting traditions. These are the roots of The System, nurtured in tradition and, until relatively recently, held in secrecy by the Communist state. Russia today is becoming a much more open country and we are fortunate that skilled individuals are willing to come forward to share their knowledge for the benefit of all.

A brief history of Systema: There is no historical “real name” for these arts. In many cases, it’s common to simply see “Russian martial arts” used, although that can lead to some confusion. In a sense, the name “Systema” (the system) can be thought of as a generic title comparable to “Kung Fu” (“one who is highly skilled” or “time” and “effort”).

Throughout the history of this huge country, Russia had to repel invaders from the north, south, east, and west. All attackers brought their distinct styles of combat and weaponry. The battles took place on different terrain, during freezing winters and sweltering summer heat alike, with the Russians often greatly outnumbered by the enemy forces. As a result of these factors, the Russian warriors acquired a style that combined strong spirit with extremely innovative and versatile tactics that were at the same time practical, deadly, and effective against any type of enemy under any circumstances.

The style was natural and free while having no strict rules, rigid structure or limitations (except for moral ones). All tactics were based on instinctive reactions, individual strengths and characteristics, specifically designed for fast learning.

When the Communists came to 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 Special Operations Units.

At least in Ryabko’s Systema, “The System” is a reference to the various systems of the body (Muscle, Nervous system, respiratory system, etc) as well as elements of Psychology and the Spirit.

Because there have been and still are a number of different fighting styles common throughout the Russian military and special forces, like Alpha, GRU, Vympel, several other names and nicknames are commonly mistaken for Systema.

For example, some troops and special forces personnel train in “boevoe sambo” (combat sambo), which is a separate art.

Also, troops would refer to whatever was taught as “rukopashka” (Russian slang for “hand to hand”), or “machalka” or “boinia” (Russian slang for “fighting” and “beating”). The name “Combat Sambo Spetsnaz” was coined by the Soviet government to misdirect Systema’s relation to Sambo, and there is little relation between the two styles.

The first Soviet practitioners of Systema were Joseph Stalin’s personal bodyguards. Ryabko’s “uncle” was one of those bodyguards and was his first instructor in Systema. After Stalin’s death, Systema became the style of fighting employed by some Special Military Operations Units for high risk missions in Spetsnaz, GRU and other government facilities. There were and are a number of different combat arts trained throughout Russian special forces units other than Systema. It is due to the Soviet Union’s strict ban on non-sanctioned traditions, and the sensitivity of special forces training, that it was not until after the cold war that Systema became known. Systema’s pre-Soviet Russian heritage is only recently being rediscovered.

Some practitioners claim that Systema’s Russian martial arts heritage dates back to the 10th century and was practiced by the Bogatyr (Russian heros/knights).

Another theory claims that modern Systema is one product of the intensive research and development project carried out by several generations of hand to hand combat instructors at the Dinamo training facility in Moscow between roughly 1920-1980 [citation needed]. If so, that would place Systema in the same stream of military close-combat training as combat SAMBO and related styles.

Ryabko and Vasiliev both claim that Systema is their own creation based upon their experiences. It is likely that the roots of Systema are lost in ancient and family arts, changed by military and contemporary needs and rediscovered and adapted in each instructor and practitioner.

Contemporary Systema: Systema is counted alongside a number of pre-Soviet traditions which are being actively cultivated by the Russian government. In 2004, the Dinamo Sports Center played host to a demonstration and celebration of martial traditions.

It is still a relative unknown, but Systema or relatives to it are being taught by several practitioners inside and outside of Russia. Of particular interest is that different people from different backgrounds were taught subtle variations of Systema.

Furthermore, since practitioners train in their own preferred manner and with their individual understanding, their style expressed in their art is unique to them. This is most readily seen with senior students and other high-level artists.

  • Kadochnikov’s Systema
  • Ryabko’s Systema

As some students train to become instructors in their own right, their understanding evolves and they ultimately teach a personal and more contemporary version of their understanding. In some cases this personal understanding keeps the same name, and in some cases a new name is warranted.

Some practitioners take their understanding, their own preferences and their own arts to create a Hybrid martial art. Others use the experience for cross training, to supplement their own training programs.

Systema comes from a Russian / European background. This means that are many differences from the approach of Oriental styles such as Karate or Kung Fu.

The most immediate difference that people will notice is that there is no bowing and very little formality in the class. Training is usually done in a circle or a group rather than in lines. The teacher has no special title and there is no foreign terminology. Classes tend to be relaxed in attitude, although focused in intent.The second major difference is that there is no training in form or kata. Aside from some of the exercises all training is done either with a partner or in groups of three or more.

The philosophy is that rather than practicing one particular technique, which is then applied into a situation, you are put into the situation and see what movements you can develop out of it. On the face of it this may sound daunting – “how will I know what to do?”. In practice we find that everyone does something! We can then take that natural reaction – e.g. ducking a hook punch – and build a defensive strategy around it. This means that there is no need to learn new movements, merely to adapt what your body already does and knows.

This approach also means that there is no “syllabus” as such. You are not expected to learn certain moves in order to progress or to go through gradings. How do we measure progression? You will measure it yourself, by finding certain things easier, by becoming more efficient and effective in your movements, by becoming a fitter and healthier person.

The third difference is that all training is carried out at full contact. Once again, this sounds extremely daunting to the beginners – “Will I get injured?”. The answer is no – kicks and lunches are not pulled, but the work is carried out at different speeds. It is very important in the initial stages that students work slowly. This has several benefits, including:

  • it allows us to work at full contact without risk of damage
  • it gives students time to analyse their response
  • it means that students can focus on the correct principles of breathing and movement

At this initial skill acquistion phase most of the training is failry slow, to facilitate the learning process. Of course, as skills develop training becomes more intense, with more speed and resistance added in.

The fourth difference is that there are no sporting aspects to the System. This means that there are no forbidden targets or methods. The aim is to survive an incident by whatever means possible, with evasion being the priority in most cases of course. This does not mean we look down on competition – we have former and current sports people training with us and many of the training methods, particularly the exercises, will help in preparation for competition. However it is not our main focus.

The fifth difference is that the instructor will spend very little time “correcting” your technique to look the same as his. In fact one of the bedrock principles is to encourage creativity and free-thinking in the student. This does mean that Systema is not to everyone’s taste – we will not “tell” you what to do, but we will put you in a situation where you can learn for yourself. This means you can play to your own strengths and weaknesses. It also means you spend less time worrying about doing something “right”. Of course the instructor will give you plenty of suggestions and always work to correct your principles, but your methods are your own – part of you.

The sixth difference is that as a general rule, every class is different. By this we mean that there is no progression of techniques from simple to advanced, there is just less efficient and more efficient. It also means that you will be exposed to a wide range of training methods and exercises over a relatively short space of time. This may sound confusing initially, but the important thing to remember is that our aim is to train principles – so whatever form your training takes, be it solo, on the ground, against a weapon, against multiple attackers – you are always working those key principles. This keeps the training fresh and exciting for all concerned, prevents complacency and also adds a touch of uncertainty to the class. This is important, as being “prepared for the unexpected” is an important mental trait in self defence.

The seventh difference is that at the end of class, the whole group sits together and everyone gets a turn to pass comments on the class. This allows any questions to be asked and answered and we often found brings out insights that can be shared with the whole group. It also gives the instructor some feedback for future reference.

Of course there are things that Systema has in common with other arts – morality, respect and discipline both in and out of the class are vital components of the arts. Detailing our differences here is no way to be taken as criticism of other methods – we strongly believe that every art taught with sincerity and respect has something to offer.