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Russian combat fests

This unwomanly Russian fisticuffs

Fisticuffs
Gal's fisticuffs. Compositions by Lillie Lefort ispired by artist Fedot Sychkov

Русская версия


I am going to tell something about Russian traditions of fistfight. I am aware that your resource is dedicated to female combat but it is obvious that Russian traditional combat pastime, especially fisticuffs has ever been considered as purely masculine activity. However Russian women have been somehow involved in that and not only as spectators – I will mention that later on. I just want to share my firsthand knowledge of Russian combat traditions. My ancestors lived in Russian North, in Pechora river area. Being a kid, I had the good fortune to talk to my great granddad, a vivid person who was a hunter procuring furs and established a fur factory. He traveled all over the country and knew its mode of life very well. He was possessed of enormous muscular strength and was a superb fistfighter and wrestler. My granddad, his son, participated in festal fisticuffs as well. I have learned a lot from my granddad and great granddad about fist matters. They appreciated only one-on-one contests while considered mass scuffles like the Russian 'stenka' ('live wall') as brute and primitive pastime.



Nowadays, so-called Russian patriots and national loyalists standing up for revival of the national values, incline to idealize Russian combat traditions depicting them as a noble and popular sport, which supposedly enhances the spirit of the nation. As a matter of fact, the most popular combat activities in Russia were 'flock-grappling' ('one against all') and 'wall-on-wall' (stenka) which represented just wild mass scuffles of drunk bumpkins. The only worthy combat activity was the one-on-one fistfight (inclination bout) which reminded boxing, was a rarity. In fact, there have been no combat schools in Russia – with teachers, training as it was for instance in Japanese budo (jiu-jitsu, sumo, naginatajitsu) or in British boxing schools. From early childhood, rural and suburban boys participated in scuffles and watched adult fights, learning 'trade secrets' as one goes. There were no trainings or works through. Whatever jingoists say, in reality 'stenka' was rarely a mettlesome game – more often it was a drunken showdown – a village-on-village, settlement-on-settlement, factory-on-factory or even ethnic-on-ethnic (lie Russians against Tatars). Such 'entertainments' often grew into brutal beating up with severe injuries; even killed fighters were not unusual. Almost always individuals were found who didn't 'obey the rules' when fighting, for instance, squeezed a weight in his fist or used a brass knuckles. That was one of the reasons why a wall-to-wall fight often transformed into a brutal scuffle and even knifing. Besides, experienced fighters were sometimes bribed by wine or gifts in order to gain them over.

Actually, the tradition of mass fights in Russia is related to the tradition of the commune life – contrary to one-on-one contests in which individual skills better show and which can be much easier to referee.

Now, let's talk about women. The old society considered women as unfit for any combat activities, so women didn't need to worry about asserting themselves as far as physical strength was concerned. Females were ardent fans on the manly events; they inspired fighters and probably a little bit ennobled the wild tradition. Somewhere 'cheerleaders', the followers of the opposite sides happened to get so filled with enthusiasm that started jostling with each other imitating the wall-on-wall fighting. In fact, they usually didn't follow the 'men's rules' and didn't intend to knock out adversary's teeth or mutilate their opponents as drunken men always did. The girls really enjoyed themselves and took pleasure of their youth. Coming to grips, the girls usually preferred pushing and wrestling to punching. Girls contended rarely but if they did, they did that with ardor, heat and squeals. My ancestors told me that contending, the girls grabbed each other by clothing which was unacceptable for men. It was cold at the Pancake week and females wore a lot of clothes, so it was not too much convenient for the girls to wrestle; at the same time, the clothing was a good buffer. If the girls still punched each other they almost never punched to face, while body punches actually had just pushing effect. Married women always tried to avoid such a fun. The ancestors also said that they had witnessed a toe-to-toe friendly bout between two brave girls, daughters of first rate fighters. Those girls even challenged men for belt wrestling and they didn't seem to yield to anyone.

Apparently, female combat was an exception, a rarity and was not a tradition occurring everywhere in Russia.

Alexander Khromov
February 2010

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