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From stories by old Prokhor

Бой Матрены с Василихой
Drawing by Dmitry Bilyk

Русская версия







I am a long-time resident of Tambov region in Russia. I am in my seventies already. I have seen a lot during my life and I have heard a lot from old people. I have written down some of their stories. Among others, I retained some amusing stories told by our old resident Prokhor just after the World War II.



Prokhor was born in the beginning of 1890s and had very difficult life (like the most of Russian people of his age). But now I am talking not about his life. Prokhor was an excellent pugilist. People loved fist fighting in these places, often as a holiday amusement but sometimes as brutal battle over property boundaries. Despite authorities had banned fist fighting, they accompanied any men from childhood to old age. Prokhor successfully distinguished himself in this activity because he had been taught skillful fighting. There was an educated man in our places, Nikita Dudarev. He was a deep-rooted bachelor and looked like a queer bird then. He had lived in England where developed an enthusiasm for English boxing. Prokhor was helping Dudarev in housekeeping since his childhood and Dudarev shared with him various European wisdoms including boxing. The thing was that our fist fighters didn't know real pugilistic techniques; they just counted on their straightforward bold punches. It was not their practice to use handstand blocks, stepping aside, ducking. Nikita Dudarev was the one who convinced Prokhor of the fact that using right position, body balance and moving out of the punch would allow you to be able to reflect the most of opponent blows and to successfully deliver your own blows. That's how Prokhor from the village of Ilyino became a master in hand-to-hand fighting.

On winter holidays they fought on the frozen and snow-covered local river - at the beginning "slavutniks" (the best combatants) came out for fighting and wrestling one to one - inveterate fighters didn't respect fighting "wall to wall" (team on team). After the fighting champions had finished their battles the "wall to wall" fighting started inspired by them - first young boys came out, then teenagers and at last - mature men. Usual opponent of Ilyno's guys were peasants from Zarechoe, the village located on the other side of the river. Each side had experienced brawlers and Prokhor was the youngest one among them. The skills gotten from Dudarev allowed him to became on an equal footing with local heavy fighters and to have a reputation for being skillful and unbeatable pugilist. Prokhor enjoyed respect from the villagers and he had no end of girls despite he got married very early -- that's how it was customary at that time.

On winter holidays (especially on the Shrove Tuesday) people dressed up and went to the river in bulk where they were singing and then "fists" started accompanied by an accordion. Girls and women loved watching "fists"; all of them from young to old (even breast feeding ones with babies) went to the river to support their men. The truth is though there were not any other fascinating amusements at those times except fists. Women loudly cheered up the fighters, applauded and yelped when passions flared up. Sometimes even girls got worked up, came out and engaged in facetious pushing each other. It even happened that girls and women gathered and held their own "walls" but of course without real face beating, traditional leader or fair formation -- they just shouldered each other attempting to push opponent's "wall" out. At those times women got dressed in a lot of clothing (especially in winter), so it was not easy at all to wave arms to their heart's content. In fact, it was very merrily on that Russian Orthodox holiday. There was a famous pugilist among Zarechoe men (his name was Vasily) who uncountable times knocked out his opponents but since Prokhor had appeared he had hard times. Vasily was in his thirties whereas Prokhor perhaps didn't reach twenty. And Vasily's wife (everyone called her Vasiliha) became angry with Prokhor - it was really annoyed because nobody had heard that a teenager would beat a tough fighter. When Prokhor and Vasily were fighting she tried to say something offensive to Prokhor (like "you fight not like a real man trying to save the face"). Especially she swore at his wife, Matrena and nearly fought with her. She also picked up a brawl with other Ilyno's girls - she was a real bully. Vasiliha was a robust woman and she had malice as a five ones. Prokhor's wife was tall and shapely but she was timid and at the beginning she was unable to answer Vasiliha in dignity. Prokhor got tired of that and he tried to coach Matrena in the fist trade in order to get her to teach Vasiliha a good lesson next time. At once the lessons went unsuccessfully; the woman resisted and refused. But eventually she had a sudden desire for that and already Prokhor had "hard times" training her. By Shrove Tuesday he built special accessories for her made of dense linen just in case to protect her breasts and stomach.

It was sunny on that Shrove Tuesday, everyone was in good mood and as usual Vasily and Prokhor were first ones who engaged in the fist trade. As Prokhor knocked Vasily down first time (and the rule was to fight until three knockdowns or until first blood) Vasiliha literally got mad and screamed that Prokhor violated the rules and that he was not a real man but a sissy and that his wife was a bitch. Matrena just glowed but didn't bring herself to answer until Vasiliha jumped at her. Then Matrena assumed a dignified air, stepped toward Vasiliha and calmly said, "OK, you are good in yelling but why don't you just go against me - one to one." Vasiliha roared with laughter and hardly pushed the opponent to breast, so Matrena stumbled and found herself sitting on the snow. Vasiliha was laughing loudly but the other people quieted down; everyone reached out for the squabbling women and crowed around them. Matrena got up, shook off and skillfully hit the offender to face by mitten as a true man. That was Vasiliha's turn to topple over and she fell flat on her back. The people around shouted "Ah!" and the male pugilists stopped their fights. Vasily ran over to his wife and screamed at her that "fists" was not a women's business. But she answered in tears, "You are a milksop - a minor thrashes you as he wants! Just go and administer a beating to him and I will talk to this … in the women's way." She got red, scowled and began approaching to Matrena. Then she brandished by her arm in an emphatic manner attempting to punch the opponent with all her might but accomplished that too slow, so while she delivered the open blow Matrena managed to dexterously punch her twice - to breadbasket and to chest. So Vasiliha even didn't have a chance to make a reality of her flourish; she backed up, bent over and writhed. Then Matrena offered her peace, "OK, let's finish peacefully, we are mothers all the same, it's unseemly for women to fight like men." Vasiliha was standing writhing and didn't answer. Matrena felt sorry for her and came over to her in order to help. But suddenly Vasiliha jumped at her furiously, embraced her and started pushing in attempt to topple her down. After all, the women began to wrestle in real - a truly "hunter fight" erupted, the spectators became cheerful and the accordionist opened his instrument and kept playing. "Trash her! Down her!" - Men shouted. "Shame!" - Women shouted but looked quite fascinated. Two well-made women got locked in iron grip and nobody was able to topple the opponent. The Matrena's kerchief slipped out of her head and Vasiliha grabbed her hair and tried to pull her head down. However, it was not handy to firmly grasp hair by mittens, so Matrena managed to release herself and walloped the rival in the chin; the blow was so strong that it was heard even by the rear spectators. Vasiliha drew back and began disorderly hanging about but Matrena "helped" her by hitting her puss sharply one more time. To the sound of enthusiastic men's yells and denouncing women's groans Vasiliha collapsed to the snow like a bag and was lying there motionless.

Matrena surprised everyone then by her fighting skills - instead of slapping as it was customary among women she well poked Vasiliha's mug as it was customary among men...

Inspired by the convincing victory of their villagers, Ilyino's people plunged into a wall battle. Our guys whipped Zarechnoe's guys pretty well then. Besides, following the example of Matrena and Vasiliha some Ilyino's girls began hailing girls from the rival village for the women's "wall" and organized confused but ardent crush of females. Ilyno's gals pushed their opponents out of the circle and gave them "friendly" wallops and slaps in addition. Moreover, some girls and women engaged in one to one duels and punched each other with an ardor and also involved in wrestling - no laughing matter. After a while, knocked down girls were lying scattered about and wrestling pairs were rolling over the smoothed down snow. It was a lot of screech there… After all, the holiday was a great success. Especially the Ilyino's villagers were happy about productive beating their opponents from across the river.

Everyone was impressed by the battle between Matrena and Vasiliha, so talks and gossips didn't die down for a while and some local girls even asked Prokhor and Matrena to teach basics about how to deal with fist fighting and wrestling. And guys egged on their female members of their families to participate in amusing fights, so during a couple of following years the female villagers more actively amused themselves in wrestling and fisticuffs. Perhaps, this fun would take root in female gender but the World War I began and people were no longer in the mood for amusements. And then one trouble after another pounced on our country… While Prokhor wandered from one front to another Matrena died of typhus, so he remained a bachelor for the rest of his life. He died in the end of 1950s…

Not only bold amusement traditions have gone but also age-old way of life has been lost in these parts (whatever primitive it was). And it's unclear when it will be reborn…



Matvey Domrachev

February 2004

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Fisticuffs
Sketch by Lilly Lefort






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