I was fascinated by your "Stories by Old Prokhor" and reminiscences by Lillie Lefort. On my part, I am going to share the stories by granny Praskovia which seem to be even more interesting than Prokhor’s stories.
A few words about my ancestors. Praskovia was a grandma of my grandma. She was born in 1880s and died in 1860. My grandma, Daria (1931-2001) was an accountant and kept a diary during all her life, part of which has survived. So, she told me according to Praskovia’s words about everyday life of rural areas around 60 miles North-East of Moscow at the edge of 19/20 centuries. Inter alia, there was an interesting story about traditional festive events, particularly about the favorite fun – Russian fistfights which turned out to be not quite exclusively male activity. Just informing skeptics right away that peasant around Alexandrov settlement where my ancestors were living, have never been serf slaves as the most of Russian peasants have been before 1961 – they were so-called “state peasants” who were considered as practically free citizens at Russian rates. This special status was granted by Ivan The Terrible who made Alexandrov settlement his country residence (in fact, the temporary capital) in the XVI century. Traditions and conduct of life of the “state peasants” were quite different from serf peasants including more freedom for women emancipation. By the way, Lillie Lefort who told about female “Sambo forerunners” seems to descend from the same area. Thus, let’s start the stories one after another.
Ruins of Trinity Church in Gorki village
Photo by E. Kovalev, May 30, 2004
My ancestors lived in a big village Gorki (which in English means “hills”) at the high right bank of Kirzhach river. At the opposite side, another village located, named Novinki Gorskie which actually was a newer continuation of Gorki village (it’s very name means “new Gorki’s continuation”). At the highest point of Gorki, the Church of Holy Trinity was situated. A few other big villages with churches located in the walk distance from Gorki. Gorki and its left-bank part were connected by a dam with a watermill; The dam was regularly destroyed by spring flood, so they had to restore it jointly almost every year. Mutual relations between the two river banks were not easy. Since the old times, the neighbors vied with each other even though they often exchanged with brides and grooms. However, they united when they had to fight against rivals from other villages. And nonetheless, impromptu fights and regular fisticuffs were usual things between Gorki’s and Novinki’s inhabitants. In winter Orthodox festivals when “wall-to wall fistfights” were held, both villages constituted one “wall” against neighboring villages.
So, let granny Praskovia talk – from the words of my grandma Daria who memorized a lot of stories and wrote down the most vivid dialect and obsolete expressions of Praskovia; I tried to keep them.
[Note by FSCClub: since there is no adequate translation for dialect and obsolete Russian words used in this story, we translate them into contemporary English, except some cases when we replace tham with English slang.]
Vicinity of Alexandrov Settlement, map
Now, Dasha, I will tell you about our festive fistfights, this brute but fascinating tradition. This is not about ordinary drunken fights but about age-old traditions which nowadays are linked to winter Cristiane Orthodox holidays. These festive gatherings include arranged team fistfights - wall-to wall battles. Literally all male population participated in these fights from teenagers to old men. Not without reason is it said: "No good holiday without a good fight." By tradition, on the Feast of Theophany, men from Gorki and Novinki tested their strength and skills between them – in order to mark out the best fighters and by the Cheese Week, they formed one unified 'wall' to battle against neighboring villages – Nikolskoe, Andreevskoe and Sokolovo. There was a traditional venue for these events – on the frozen pond. We, girls and married women tried to keep 'seats' on the hillock from which the whole battle scene could be well seen. We held our breath watching the wall battles and man-on-man fights; we worried about our men. Although my dad and older brothers were good experienced fighters, I had a hard time seeing them in battles. We sang and dance in a ring – in order to bear up our fighters. Our father had a menacing reputation for his fighting skills, strength and intrepidity. He would often thrash several men – one after another – whoever volunteered to fight against him. But he was of a meek disposition, kind, not bloodthirsty; he just loved hand-to-hand combat. And my mother was the match for him; she was sensible, well-built and able to stand up for herself. I also had a younger daughter, Agrafena (Grusha), expeditious and nimble girl, which I was very close with.
It is said that our girls and women had been having fun friendly wrestling each other since olden times. Testing strength and dexterity was to their liking. Not in vain it is said, "Men fight detached; women fight attached." This means that females used to fight without blows as males often do but wrestled for having fun and for spirit. Recalling when I was about six, I accidentally witnessed how my mom artfully over wrestled a beefy neighbor girl. She gripped her by her jacket's flaps, tilted her to one side, trapped her leg and flipped her over onto her back. Then I realized that it was a friendly strength test rather than a fight. I was very proud of my mom – she was stately, crafty and strong. And that scene has been engraved in my memory. Later, I would wrestle with other girls for sheer fun. However, I had never thought I would fight not just for fun but for real with fists like a true man. In fact, fist fighting is a primordial male activity; women always stood aloof of it but sometimes otherwise happened. Will tell all stories in turn.
A girl band of squabblers had organized in Novinki - don't get into the hands of them - contrary to us meek girls. For some reason guys liked tomboys. One girl was exceptionally bestial, being a thorn in the side of other people - her nick name was the Scrapwood – her blond curly hair reminded shavings - she often cut a dash being with head uncovered [which was not done in Russian villages - FSCClub]. She often used to come across and to push you down by her paws; then you found yourself on the ground while she loudly laughed at you. Every girl in our village was careful not to meet her. The other times, she comes unexpectedly to our village in the middle of a round dance and cows girls: "Hey tart, take your interjection off – I am gonna slap you in the ear!" Once, she made up her mind to grapple with a tubby guy – he barely beat off. In holiday of Epiphany when men from Gorki and Novinki engaged for festive hand-to-hand contest, the Scrapwood with her girl band incited disturbance and turmoil among our girls, rushed at us and involved us into hurly-burly. They picked on us egging us on to fight. We used to be quite timid and unaccustomed to such things – we just scattered from them in all directions. It seemed to be playful but it distracted our guys from the battle and inspired Novinki's guys. Once in the midst of the 'wall-to-wall' fist fight, the Scrapwood started grappling with our dandy who was busy playing accordion for inspiriting the fighters. While he was holding the accordion in his right hand and holding back his fringe by the left hand, she wrestled him down. So, there was no keeping these bullies in check.
After all, my sister Grusha and I lost all patience and complained to our mom who unexpectedly advised us to make it hot for the Scrapwood and her girls. She advised to punish Scrapwood and her band by ourseves. This is what she said:
- You are a picture of health! You carry logs on a par with men. I will teach you some basic fighting secrets and you will share them with other girls. You must become a skilled hand at fighting. Skills and experience is the essence of this science. Never tell your dad about this, he considers fighting as unwomanly activity and he won't approve this. Don't tell anyone else either, because Novinki's girls could learn about this and prepare – we must take them by surprise.
Now, the time has come to tell you an old story which I have never told to anyone. It was long ago, something 15 years ago; you were babies at that time. I was coming back in the twilight from picking up mushrooms in the woods and met Efrosinia, the Scrapwood's mother. I had known her from our childhood – she was always a Bunny boiler and later started bearing malice against me because your dad always overpowered her husband in one-on-one fights. She had the nerve to grit on me and blocked my way. I tried to calm her down: "Froska, don't pick on me, let's settle this peacefully – it is not appropriate for mothers to engage in fighting." But she put her basket on the ground and pushed forward at me menacingly: "You Gorki's chicks are cowardly and your men fight like Chickadees!" The blood flushed in my face: "Wag you tongue, stop lying! My man has knocked down your man many times!" She answered: "OK, Domna, let's test our power now to see who will be knocked down." She kept pushing forward. Froska was big and tall but it doesn't help too much in a brawl. Thank to your dad, I knew something about fistfighting and was not scared at all. I clinched my fists and adopted a posture as a male fighter before a fight. Froska swung her arm and attempted to strike me in the head. Too slow though and too stagy – while she was doing that I managed to bend down, dodged a blow and gave her a thumper just under her nice boobs with all my heart. As she clutched at her belly and bent I well domed her. She managed to remain on her feet but began sniveling and asked for mercy: "Let's stop this fight and conclude a truce." But I had to bring her down in order to avenge insult on our men. I decked her last time knocking her down; she dropped like a heavy sack right to a roadside puddle. It was good nobody saw that shame: one lass wallows in the dirt; the other one lost her bast shoes with her sarafan on one side. I finally said to her: "You Froska are a clumsy oaf, you are a master of twaddling but you are unfit for fist fighting which is different from chattering like a magpie!" I grabbed my basket and left the battlefield. I am sure Froska nursed a grievance against me and transmitted it to her daughters. That's why they pick on you. The girls seem to inherit their mom's pugnacity. They should be given a good lesson! So, go and train secretly, prepare to the winter fisticuffs. Don't discredit our family! The following is what my mother gave a talking-to us:
I am gonna tell you basics you must know about hand-to-hand combat – I often used to hear instructions when your dad taught your brothers, he revised every instruction several times, so I have memorized every single one; and you probably heard some of them too. Besides, I have seen a lot of fist fights, feel like I participated myself.
If you grapple with a girl friendly, for fun, never hit her, just wrestle. The principal idea in wrestling is to upset her balance. In order to achieve that, you can trip her legs or lean your hip against her body and then pull her forward and aside – then it will be easy to take her down. It is handy to wrestle coat unbuttons and grab each other by lapels. In fact, wrestling is a special science, we concern not about trifling matter now. If you fight for real rather than for amusing yourselves, don’t stand too close to the opponent, don’t throw your arms around her body and don’t let her do that. Act by fists instead; if it comes to the push use knees and legs. If she pushes forward, step back or to the side; attempt to hit her whenever she tries to grapple. Don’t let her stick to you, if she persists, grab her by the advanced arm or leg, pull her arm or leg and step back. If her face is within reach, hit her in the mug but not with the fist but with palm or elbow. Jump aside and push her from behind to get her to fall face down. You should learn stepping back and to the side – this is the best way to keep off her blows. Not without reason is it said "Real fighter is the one who managed to evade a blow rather the one who managed to deliver a blow." Practice in it. One more thing: when fighting, don’t bustle about; always control what you are doing.
You should learn how to properly clench your fist and how to direct it for delivering punches. Don’t keep your thumb on the side of your index finger. Instead take your thumb and wrap it down across the bottom of your curled fingers. When punching, only first two knuckles should hit the target – they are the main tool of a fistfighter. Try not to punch an opponent in the face by bare knuckles if you don’t want to damage your hand. To protect hands, put on mittens, even two pairs if intend to fist fight. Proper hitting her in the body is effective and safer for you than hitting in the head. If hitting her in the body sides, aim under ribs; if hitting the belly, aim the solar plexus. When hitting the body, try to punch with all the strength in order to break through seven opponent's clothes. Punching in the breasts is the last resort – only if you really can't do anything else. Striking breast is like striking man's genitals. Not good or fair.
Broads often aim at hair pulling – never do that and never let anyone do that. Otherwise, a confused fuss with a lot of screech. Tighten both - your hair and a scarf on your head, so nobody could reach your hair.
Advice to you, daughters: prepare a spot in the chamber or in the backyard, put on shabby clothes, tie up a small pillow to your belly under the boobs, put on two pairs of mittens and try to punch each other - just to learn what is it to punch and to be punched. The chief still is to evade blows – learning to step back or aside.
That's it. This is enough to know in order to punish the troublemakers and discourage them from bullying. Now you should get the hand of fighting. Go and train hard to become skillful and bold – the fist art is tricky. Also involve your girl friends. You are strong, clever and bright! Be ready by the winter fisticuffs. Nobody should know about that. Meanwhile I will 'reconnoiter the enemy capabilities'. I know a rumor-monger in Novinki, she is gonna tell me everything we need to know! Scrapwood must be taught a good lesson.
Grusha and I were amazed how our mom made up her mind.
In a couple of weeks, our mom calls us and tells what she has found out about Scrapwood and her relatives. Scrapwood turned out to be a strong and skilled in grappling but unpretentious and uneducated in proper fighting – not without reason is it said that 'strength destroys mind'. In fact, she has the cheek to attack someone as long as she knows they won't fight back. Actually, you can knock her down by one proper punch. However, her younger sister, Glasha, is the real instigator even though she looks as if butter would not melt in her mouth. She can catch hold of you with a death grip like a real wolfhound. I apprehend more danger from her. The Wolfhound is the one who rules the roost there. She picks on other girls forcing them to wrestle with her. Their girl band is quite bellicose, so you must prepare well to skirmish against them. I guess, you Parasha, should take on the Wolfhound whereas younger Grusha could well manage Scrapwood.
Grusha and I were practicing the hand-to-hand game with pleasure – it turned out to be absorbing and interesting; we really got the hang of practicing it. It's a pity; girls are usually not enthusiastic about such activities. However we convinced a few girls to practice with us. Although they were not too diligent, they still had learned something and would not be taken by surprise if came to fists.
So, the winter holiday of Theophany was coming in, when first festive fisticuffs begin. As men were preparing the venue, we girls looked forward to being involved in the fun. As guys gathered for the event, our girls began singing and dancing in a ring as a diversionary move – we stared fixedly at the Novinki's riverside waiting for their band arrival. As they appeared, Grusha blocked the way to Scrapwood and shouted:
- Hey bully, wanna step?
The Scrapwood answered smoothly:
- Come on, loaded tart, get lost or I am gonna beat the hell out of you! I'm gonna whup you, destroy your grill, demolish your dome! – She yelled. Saying this she advanced her arms and approached to Grusha intending to push her away. But Grusha was well prepared to this turn of event – she just run aside and gave her a thumper in the solar plexus. The Scrapwood bent down and retreat continuing yelling:
- Now, you're gonna ride the beef, broad!
But she was unable to draw herself up because of heavy breezing. Girls from both camps gathered around the pair wondering: how extraordinary! – Girls fight toe-to-toe. Men start coming up distracted from their business. Shouts were heard:
- Deck her!
- Slug her!
- Twat her!
Then Grusha contrived to punch the rival just under the ribs. The Scrapwood staggered trying to seize on Grusha's clothing but Grusha promptly jumped back. Then Grusha kicked dizzy confused The Scrapwood in the wide ass. The Scrapwood crashed face down on the snow as a sack of potatoes. Spectators cried blue murder. In fact, Scrapwood grossly disgraced oneself – it was a good lesson to her.
All the sudden, Glasha appeared out of nowhere and yelled appealing to her band: "Come on, gals! Let's bust on Gorki's chicks!" As we had settled with our girls, it was my turn to engage with Glasha. I got crunk with her and we instantly rushed at each other - provoked and excited by the previous fight. We both lost contact with reality and fought with self-forgetful inspiration. Then other girls started fighting – real female wall-to-wall. Fans from each side thronged around and shouted:
- Screw her dome off!
- Crack her melon!
- Bring down her balcony!
- Punch her in the snot locker!
Being seized with fighting passion, I forgot mom's instructions, Wolfhound managed to seize me by my coat in attempt to trip and overturn me – she was good in wrestling. Then I recovered my wits and recalled mother's advice – do not approach an opponent too close. What to do? In a flash, I just remembered an advice given by a boy to kick in the middle of a shank – it hurts. Then I kicked her in the leg by the boot, then kneed her in the stomach and managed to leap back. The Wolfhound stumbled, her foot slipped and she fell. I didn't attempt to finish her being down. On this our duel finished. And the other Novinki's girls retreated from the battlefield. The Wolfhound and the Scrapwood dragged themselves along back where they came from. Our mom called after them:
- Train better and welcome for the next fisticuffs!
Instigated by our unexpected victory, our guys whipped Novinki's guys. The holiday turned out well! After, our father came over to us and said: "Well, girls, you gave it hot to them!" We were particularly happy because our involvement in a fight didn't cause dad's concern as our mom apprehended.
That Theophany put the beginning of the new tradition of the girl festive fights. In the Pancake week, Grusha and I joined our guys to engage in fight with Nikolskoe's guys. We egged their girls on to measure strength in fist fun – exactly as the Scrapwood us a few months before. They looked scared and embarrassed at first as we has been before. But then a lad volunteered to fight any of us. Grusha was younger and she took up the gauntlet. They entertained the spectators wonderfully well. The boy attacked her nimbly but Grusha defended skillfully and successfully. "Draw!" shouted a man. The duelists excited the fighters like hand-to-hand combatants and before a battle. The wall fight turned out to be good...
All the sudden, Grusha and I began feeling substantial change in our life – we became kind of local celebrities - guys began dangling after us. They vied for us and even fought over us. Chaps followed Glasha in flocks as well. We reconciled with Glasha – she probably was thankful for my magnanimity when I didn’t finish her off when she was fallen. Now, if we fought, we competed for fun and training. If we wrestled, we didn't grasp each other by both arms in a masculine way; we grasped each other by coat edgings as my mom did – it was a convenient tool for taking an opponent down. The Scrapwood had not shown up for a while since her shameful defeat. Next year, on the holiday of Theophany, our and Novinki's gals fist fought and wrestled as true guys – with ardor but without harboring a grudge against each other. They let girls go prior to guys to give guys more juice. Girls from other neighboring villages also learn from us something about the fist science but never managed to overcome us; they always were defeated. Good heavens, the Scrapwood was noticed during one of the following hand-to-hand event – she took it into her head to wrestle a big filly named the Muffin from Nikolskoe. Both stately girls in opened fur coats are wrestling. The Muffin turned out to be nimble – she pulled the Scrapwood by the coat-breast and turned her down onto the snow. At that moment the wall-fighters appeared around and marveled at the wrestlers. But the Scrapwood didn't cave in; she stood up and attacked the Muffin again. Two big young chicks let themselves go – they both were absorbed in wrestling. They pushed and pull each other with a huge energy, hard panting doing that. Guys around advised:
- Help yourself with the leg!
- Throw her over the thigh!
- Break her down!
But the Scrapwood seemed to know better than guys how to over wrestle a stout girl. As soon as the Muffin became out of breath, the Scrapwood hooked her by the fur coat edge, rest her ass against the opponent's shed, pulled her ahead, overturned and threw her down like a sack. Spectacular! A fine kettle of fish! To throw over yourself more than two hundred pounds! That's was real fun! Since then the Scrapwood was always on our side but she never used fists, just wrestled. And we stopped calling her the Scrapwood but by her real name Alevtina (Alka). It must be admitted that she wrestled very adroitly; she over wrestled girls all over the neighborhood who dared to come against her. However, there was just one buffy who Alka was unable to manage – a real 'guy in skirt', even guys kept away from her. So, mom's informants were wrong saying that Alka was clumsy – she turned out to be a real sharp gal. Moreover, her rough manner turned out to be affected, just because of her lack of self-confidence.
In a couple of years, girl tussles gradually subsided -all ringleaders got married – Grusha, Glasha, Alka and myself. And other girl fighters quickly matured...
After expressing our great appreciation to Ksenia for this extremely interesting story, we asked her about the fate of the settlements she mentioned in the story. This is her answer.
What has happened with them? The same what has happened with all Russian rural areas: Bolsheviks made a serf of all peasants, both - descendants of serfs and descendants of free peasants. Villages and farms have been destroyed, the churches demolished. the traditions wrecked. Now, chaotic townships of summer bungalos appeared at the place of the big prosperous villages I have described. You can find the photos in the web...
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