Slavic martial arts. Alexander Shevtsov

Since ancient times in Rus, martial arts have been an integral part of one’s lifestyle and they were one of the elements of daily training. From historical viewpoint, Slavic martial arts is about very broad and complex concept.

In order to understand what the Russian (Slavic) style of martial arts is, in February 2018, the research institute “Research Institute of World Martial Art Traditions and Criminalistic Research of Weapon Handling” conducted a study of this phenomenon in the framework of an international scientific marathon “Mysteries of Russian Fencing School”. One of the experts who took part in the scientific project was the historian, doctor of psychological sciences, professor, researcher of Russian hand-to-hand combat – Alexander Aleksandrovich Shevtsov.

Researcher of Russian hand-to-hand combat Alexander Shevtsov


Alexander Shevtsov looks at the Slavic martial arts as a fairly broad concept which encompasses both military and festive (everyday) martial arts. Previously, this was a real martial art.

According to the expert what we can see today in the world of martial arts is a mixture of ethnographic (collected martial arts) and self-made (art) systems of different quality. In addition, widespread self-made systems created by illiterate people, fantasy schools, in which only a few fictitious names exist from the Russian style. Alexander Shevtsov drew attention to the fact that one of the main signs of forgery of this kind of a school is the usage of words such as “energy”, “energy of a person”. These words are used in the physical sense, which is an imitation of the science.

Another type of self-made schools, according to the expert, are schools that were created by people literate and versed in martial arts, as well as by those who are masters of sports and masters of international class.

In the 90s of the XX century in the Russian style, there were many schools based on ethnographic knowledge, but there are few of them now.

They positioned themselves as schools on the basis of which there was a knowledge of special forces training (SMERSH and NKVD), but in practice there was no similarity to the training system in these schools.

When we speak of the history of the Slavic martial arts, Alexander Shevtsov noted that “wall fights” existed until 1914. Later on they started disappearing in the Russian Empire, as young men were drafted into the army. And this kind of a fight did not exist before 1920. He explains this by the fact that in the first years after the end of the war, there was hunder everywhere, and it was not up to celebrations. Mostly it was all about the agriculture. And only after 1920 “wall fights” started reviving together with their foundations.

The foundation of such fights was a youth rural watagi (“gang”). It is believed that the roots of this tradition go back to the time of youth initiation, when adolescents aged 12 to 16 years (in later times and to 18 years) were conditionally expelled from their settlement as a youth initiation into a forest hut (according to the tradition of many cultures – in the “men’s house”), where they went the training process, similar to an army one.

Watagi, according to the expert, served as a police force supporting the rural world, headed by the elder and corresponding people that were “elected”. The head, or leader of watagi was a respected person, like a real ataman. And in certain situatiow he could have taken the band and become another “Ermak” or someone who seemed to be robbing, but at the same time he was supposed to be a defender of people. All authorities and representatives of the criminal world had an ambiguous “defence”, but they took upon themselves and the right to judge. The age of young people in such a band gang was from 14 to 16 years, and it had to happen before their marriage.

In all traditional societies, bands were gathered and sent outside the settlement to a an outer world – to the forest, to the outskirts of those places which were not trusted to create a family. There they were rigorously tested, their fellow villagers and relatives conducted those tests. On the one hand, it was enough to find the bestial spirit in each of them, but in reality, from the viewpoint of deep psychological preparation, the community was convinced that this person will accept the laws of the world in which he lives, the laws of the community and will not betray them.

For example, the heroes of fairy tales and the epic are teenagers in their most uncontrollable age, and not in pitching 140 kg of weight. They were teenagers supposedly at the age of puberty. The pattern of behavior of such a teenager was unpredictable sometimes. You could say that it was more like the reaction of an animal. Therefore, in many Indo-European societies such ungoverned adolescents were called “wolves”. For example, in the epic there are myths about Volkh Vseslavich, who was called the “wandered the wolf” and it was told that he “collected a certain squad of seven thousand” such fine fellows and went to conquer the Indian kingdom.

Volkh Vseslavich


It has quite definite historical prototypes in the form of Scythian young men who also gathered for a similar type of initiation in other Indo-European societies and went to conquer Minor Asia. They entirely ravaged the local states and built empires, settling there as a new nobility. Thus, for example, the Greeks conquered the Balkan Peninsula (more precisely, its autochthonous population) and became a military aristocracy there. This was the way military aristocracy was born.

The emergence of a military aristocracy is always a revolution, matriarchy, when a woman is a goddess (mother), and she, conditionally speaking, defines this world. She was not stronger, but she the head of the kin. In that society, it was difficult to identify a father, but the woman was always in sight. And, accordingly, at that time the priest was in charge (in the Indo-Aryan society, the brahman). With the advent of India, the brahmanas are pushed to the background, and the main ones are the kshatriyas, that is, the military aristocracy. The same thing happened in Greece. The mythology of Zeus is the mythology of the conquest by the new gods (military aristocracy) of the old gods (titans).

The entire society of Indo-European origin, in particular all Slavic societies, repeats the common archetype – the main myth of Indo-European society.

Certainly, there are versions of the myth that distort information. For instance, the myth of a thunderbolt with a serpent is rather a controversial one. But the fact that a man had to prove the right to have a family and become a member of society, having previously won military conquests, or defeated another country of opponents, or by defeating himself and assuming a dispensation, certainly has a mythological basis and often seen as the main myth. In here, one can see the changes in the soul, and one had to work to achieve this state.

Ethnographically, these traditions survived until the XX century. As early as the beginning of the XX century we saw the last youth initiations. This is directly visible in the watagi. It was this kind of band that was gathered by Volkh Vseslavich. Similar groups left to Khortitsa from suburbs of Rus of those times to conquer other kingdoms. This group was completely responsible for the lives of all who were in it, and they were ready to swear an oath to death. This is a real martial art.

Considering the Slavic peoples as a nation, the first thing we should pay attention to is that nations don’t appear from nowhere, that is they don’t become big in their numbers that easy. Eastern Slavs have become such a nation, despite the losses that they have borne throughout the last centuries, which is a historical confirmation that these are very ancient peoples who managed to survive and occupy the common part of the Earth. Hence, they have a very high level of martial art preparation.

At one time commander A.V. Suvorov said the following about Russian miracle-heroes, referring to the peasant preparation for the bayonet battle: “The bullet is a fool, the bayonet is a fine fellow.” In the bayonet battle, Russians (implying all the Eastern Slavs, who had this concept in their ethnic composition, including, Rusyns and other kins, which are no longer there) defeated any type of troops. The reason for this, according to Alexander Shevtsov, is the training which initially was learned by bands in the wall fights.

A wall fight is a battle of several kinds, by and large, it is a large wall that approaches like a tsunami through a settlement, and the second wall moves towards it, and they collide. Every year for each holiday the groups used to gather and gain a spirit. But an important aspect was also the fact that inside of such groups there was an individual martial art for each fighter. Many fought like real fighters, while others worked very cleverly, using techniques which are now incomprehensible (for example, they “pulled out” the enemy, etc.). In such battles they used common strength and tactics (tactical actions were developed), but of course the duel fighters also took part. At the celebrations such fighters were the center of the program as the best spectacle. These battles were not real, although real fights also happened.

Wall fight


Anyone who became a part of the wataga was “at a break” (scientifically “marginals”). A person could return to this world, and he was allowed to marry. Thus, a man became a family, a member of the adult society, a full member of the community. But if he hesitated to make a decision he could became a bandit. So there was also a criminal world, but initially in Rus it developed as the concept of the state. A crime culture which existed in Rus (now this culture is almost extinct), was not peculiar to other countries.

Returning to the theme of the Slavic martial arts, Alexander Shevtsov mentioned that earlier while mastering the martial art, apart from the technique itself, students were explained the way a human being is constructed, what the surrounding is mde of, one had an understanding of what the “outskirts” meant and they learned how to see an “intention to strike”.

He explained that before you even study the strikes and, especially, the combination of punches, one has to figure out and understand how to defend yourself and how to enter the battlefield without missing the blows.

If you have entered a fight, it’s better that you strike, and not that you are strikened.

According to Alexander Shevtsov, most of current fights are developed mainly on the basis of English school of boxing, where you need to “dance” in front of each other. But “dancing” before the flying fists is dangerous, because no matter how many times one dodges, at some point he will get that blow.

Alexander Shevtsov emphasized that according to the history, there were no high kicks in Russian martial arts, and now, if the reenactors show something like karate, then it is a fraud.

In the ethnographic space of the criminal world, many concepts that existed in the martial arts were preserved. Feet are the “lower world”. A real warrior was not allowed to kick, because thereby he lowered his opponent to the “lower world”. Today it is consonant with the word “humiliate”. Initially, within the framework of mythological thinking, this lowered the person to the “lower world”.

Warriors were taught to fight on an equals, so that the warrior could be proud of his victory. Regardless of whether he was an opponent or an enemy, he was respected as a warrior for his skill. “To lower into the lower world” meant “to kill a brother”. In this case, one might have kicked legs, as the footsteps were always used. Mythology is superimposed on the culture of the criminal community, and it is not by accident. Russian criminal culture was born when centralized power was established, princes appeared who took power from local princes, and those who were “thrown off” became criminal authorities. The knyaz power was built on the seizure of power from local aristocrats (the local tribal aristocracy).

The very notion of “lowering to the lower world” is fundamentally important for understanding martial art culture, since those who were allowed into the lower world were “lowered.”

A knife is a weapon of a noble man and it is a sophisticated martial art. Not all had the knowledge of its possession.

Handling a knife in any of its form cannot be mastered without demonstrations. This art cannot be mastered in sports. It is passed from a master to a student. For example, Spanish masters passed the knowledge in the field of fencing to their mentees. It is a historical fact. Fencing is a martial art, very spectacular from aside.

When a master handles a knife in the battle, the size of his knife doesn’t matter. It can be even a kitchen knife or a tiny household kitchen knife. It becomes a terrible weapon, but it is great as a master.

“When a jul’ is handling a knife (a big knife) he knows one thing: because of his ruthlessness and keenness, all mistakes are his.”

During the demonstration in training, if the student did something wrong, the price of his mistake is not big and he can try again. But if a real knife is used in a duel and if a person got cut, it means that he was not right. If it was a real fight, the other man would be dead.

Duel with a knife. Lubki Fighting


Let’s consider some examples of hand-to-hand combat, knowledge of which has reached our days.

Jul’ suit is a kind of action in the form of a hand to hand fight. It is not meant to cut, but to create an exalted state of mind.

When old men come to Lyubki who don’t really want to fight anymore, for certain reasons, start teaching young people, all this happens in a playful way, with jokes and tricks. The principle is based on the selection of force, and this is done in such a way that a person who is strong and ready to fight is selected to fight with the enemy, since he is put in a position where he needs to fight earthly gravity. And while he is busy with this, he has no strength against the enemy. Knowledge of this hand-to-hand fight is rooted in the annals of the past.

The notion of “standing on your feet” is at the core of the whole hand-to-hand system.

Lubki is the use of hand-to-hand fighting for a holiday. In Lyubki the techniques are the same as in the hand to hand combat, but it is done in a different spirit. It’s probably more for fun. It is important to have a festive spirit as during the holidays it is about the cleansal and renewal of one’s spirit.

Lubki Fighting


In Slavic nations the fight during holidays symbolized the opposition of the forces of dying to the forces of life on the principle that our people fight against the death, just as in the struggle of Tormoha.

The Tormoha is “lyubashnaya” fight with special, strange grabs. These grabs are depicted in old illustrations. For example, criss crossed grabbing when a hand comes upright or on a straight arm, or from a simple grip to a wrist capture. Tormoha is a very difficult art.

Tormoha Fighting


In Tormoha fighting women also took part and they fought very well.

People who passed on this knowledge were descendants of skomoroh (at least, they considered themselves as such). Skomoroh were fertility priests, they regarded this world as a game. In view of this, they even called women or girls the “toys.”

On one hand, in Lyubki it was important to show skilfully the “grace” of men, and on the other hand how they were as defenders. This is the essence of Lyubki.

The concept of “grace” in its modern sense appeared only in the XIX century. Prior to this, “graceful” man of XVI-XVII centuries was meant to be a “rich man”, and in the times of the myths around the X-XI century, the expression “graceful man” meant “particularly a strong person.” For example, Ilya Muromets was a “graceful” man, because the etymology of the word “grace” is “withdrawn from the series”, that is, “outstanding”, and if he was outstanding in strength, he was “graceful”. (Note: the etymology holds true for Russian word)


Author: Sergio Kaz