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Overview of Systema and its Relevance to Aikido

by Stanley Pranin

Published Online

Seeing Systema for the first time

Mikhail Ryabko
My first exposure to Systema, the Russian Martial Art popularized by Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev, came in April 2001. I was in attendance at the formal presentation of a Shindo Yoshin-ryu Menkyo Kaiden to Sensei Toby Threadgill in Dallas, Texas. At the party following the ceremony, a group gathered in the living room to watch martial arts videos. At least 20 of us—mostly seasoned martial artists with decades of training experience—watched parts of videotapes of several styles and eventually got to one on a Russian martial art that most were seeing for the first time.

The tape featured a certain Mikhail Ryabko conducting a seminar in Russia for a group of visiting foreign martial artists. Mikhail. a recently-retired colonel in the Russian Army, is a short, stout man with incredible sensitivity whose movements seemed more “aiki”-like than what goes on in most aikido dojos. The husky foreign students on the video were obviously strong, experienced people and Mikhail easily dispatched them in a way that might look faked to the untrained eye. We all were captivated by Mikhail’s skills and some very nice compliments were offered by those present. I made a mental note to check out this Systema more in detail at some later date.

James Williams
A few months later I received an enthusiastic call from James Williams of Bugei Trading Company who had visited Toronto to attend a Systema seminar taught by Mikhail Ryabko and hosted by Vladimir Vasiliev. James, as is well-known to many Aikido Journal readers, has an extensive background in both empty-handed and weapons-based arts and is not easily impressed. He was effusive in his praise of Mikhail and Vladimir and went on to say that he had never seen a teaching methodology that could develop skilled students so quickly.

Shortly thereafter, I purchased several Systema tapes featuring Mikhail and Vladimir to take a closer look for myself. What I saw was truly impressive! The scope of the curriculum and sophistication of the techniques were remarkable. Not only did I want to try Systema myself, but I got to thinking that cross-training in this art might be of great benefit to aikidoka so compatible were the two systems. It was a natural jump from there to proposing to James that Systema might fit very nicely with the theme of Aiki Expo 2003. James liked the idea and, on my urging, extended an invitation to Vladimir Vasiliev to join our group of seminar instructors at this year’s Aiki Expo. Vladimir seemed pleased at this invitation coming from outside of the Systema circle and accepted.

Since I still had no first hand knowledge of Systema, I talked with James about going to Toronto to meet with Vladimir in person. James, whose enthusiam for Systema had redoubled after traveling to Moscow to again train with Mikhail, seemed to be looking for a good excuse to go a second time to Toronto.

To Toronto with James to meet Vladimir

Vladimir Vasiliev
On October 10, 2002, James and I boarded a plane for Toronto to spend the weekend training with Vladimir and his students. We scheduled a time to meet with Vladimir privately to conduct an interview and to explain in greater detail the concept behind Aiki Expo 2003. I had high expectations about Vladimir based on what James had told me and my viewing of the Systema videotapes. Vladimir didn’t disappoint. He is one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met and a credit to the kind of person that Systema develops. His skills are astounding and in perfect consonnance with the philosophy of aikido. He never opposes an attack, but blends and leads the attacker into a fall or submission. Vladimir is humble but with complete confidence born of his many years of training and exposure to life-and-death situations.

Out on the mat I found the training in Systema to be very rigorous. It includes lots of pushups, situps, varied breathing exercises, and body strengthening exercises. Since it is so demanding, anyone who seriously trains will become very fit quickly. The techniques themselves are applied with wave and spiral-type motions which can transform into a cascade of follow-up movements depending on the reaction of the attacker. An important part of training time is devoted to light, sparring exercises that are quite enjoyable and constantly challenge you to resist the temptation to use power. Systema techniques performed at the highest level use only the minimum amount of energy and operate largely on a mental/psychic plane. Also, the variety of training scenarios is vast ranging from empty-handed attacks, to the use of various street and military weapons, multiple attacks, car-jackings, bodyguarding work, etc. You name it, Systema has a body of techniques to deal with it.

Vladimir has produced a series of more than 10 videotapes featuring Mikhail Ryabko and himself that are highly recommended.

James and I and two other visiting Americans were invited to Vladimir’s house for lunch on Saturday afternoon. His gracious wife Valerie and their three girls comprise the other members of the close-knit Vasiliev family. We had a chance to talk at length and I found Vladimir to be a deep thinker and, by nature, very spiritual. He also has a terrific sense of humor. Although not at liberty to discuss most aspects of his military career, he did relate a few episodes that underscored the life-and-death nature of some of his assignments.

Like Mikhail Ryabko, Vladimir is also a religious person. From visiting his home it was apparent by the prominent placement of Russian Orthodox icons that religious observances are a daily part of his family’s life. Having an intimate relationship with the Creator is an essential tenet of the Systema philosophy. Here are some quotes from a booklet he published a few years ago that touch on this theme:

Religion is [also] important. Realizing that, despite your skills and experience, you are still below God is essential. Humility must be served. Staying in contact with your “good” side and regular prayer are essential to a true master of the Russian Martial Art…

Certainly, not everyone who practiced these arts became good and respectful of God and nature, but the best masters did. When you reach a very high level of training, you come to understand that there is something beyond you. This understanding brings you to new levels of ability.

From The Russian System Guidebook, by Vladimir Vasiliev

Quoting Mikhail on religion during our conversation, Vladimir also related this semi-humorous and very perceptive remark: “[Mikhail] says, ‘There are no atheists in the trenches. Soldiers think of God ‘just in case.’

About Systema

The Systema that is being taught today to the general public has been refined by Mikhail Ryabko and disseminated by several of his students in Europe and North America. Mikhail Ryabko currently resides in Moscow and is an advisor to the Minister of Justice in Russia. In addition to his military duties and teaching assignments, Mikhail also hosts groups of foreign students who come to him for intensive training in Moscow.

Vladimir Vasiliev is one of Mikhail’s top students and relocated to Canada in 1993. He spent some 10 years with a Special Operations Unit of the Russian Army Special Forces. Vladimir operates a successful school in Toronto and teaches mainly in Canada and the USA.

The antecedents of Systema go far back in Russian history and much of the credit for the preservation of these traditions is due to Russian Orthodox monasteries. Following the Russian Revolution the military coopted these fighting skills and taught them to elite troops. Mikhail states that he received his training from one of Stalin’s bodyguards starting from boyhood. He further refined the knowledge transmitted to him eventually developing Systema into its modern form.

The technical curriculum taught to the Spetsnaz forces is extremely rigorous and designed to eliminate the fear of death in the trainees. Many of the drills inflict tremendous pain and suffering among the men in an effort to harden them for the battlefield and dangerous special missions. The training develops the trainees’ intuition to a high degree and teaches them to act spontaneously when in harm’s way.

Vladimir in action
In reading a description of some of the training exercises these men are put through, one is both shocked and fascinated at the same time that human beings can endure such treatment and maintain a state of mental equanimity. It’s hard to imagine anyone more prepared than these men for the kind of dangerous operations they carry out.

Vladimir Vasiliev’s training philosophy

Here are a few quotes from the above-mentioned booklet that will give some insight into Vladimir’s personal training approach which has been adapted for teaching to the general public:

… [I] try to keep the training sessions fun and urge you to do so, too. You should be serious on the inside, but on the outside look so as to relax your opponent. Again, I must make this point: If you’re serious when there is no threat, when a threat really does arrive you’ll be left with nothing in reserve. You’ve used yourself up and left no more room to make the transition from civilian to warrior.

… to master this system you must also be able to move so that your appendages and the rest of your body can move in different ways simultaneously. It’s a kind of 3-dimensional movement of the body.

All movements should be dynamic and multi-functional. You should never move just for the sake of moving. And at any moment, the whole body should be perceived and used as a complete system. Though one part of the body may be moved while others relax, they should never be cut off or physically or psychologically separated from the actions of the other parts.

… it is also essential to learn what your natural response is so that you can guard against it when in situations where it may be harmful…. awareness of your own body and identity along with what’s going on around you is essential to mastery of the Russian system.

Russian Health Method

Vladimir also practices a Russian health system that was developed by a philosopher named Porfiri Ivanov. This method was also a part of his training while serving in the Special Operations Unit in the Russian Army. The premise of this approach is to anticipate physical problems before they occur and stimulate the body’s immune system to ward off disease. Great care is taken to prevent the body and mind from reaching a state of exhaustion. Special breathing exercises and daily cold-water dowsing are used to energize the body and are important parts of this health method.

Systema and Aikido

Soon after getting my first serious glimpse of Systema, I began thinking that many of the principles and training methods employed by Mikhail and Vladimir might be highly relevant to aikido practice. As you know, the theme of Aiki Expo 2003 is “Realizing Aikido’s Potential.” Basically with Aiki Expo 2003, our hope is to bring to the forefront the martial aspect of aikido that has become rather neglected in the modern forms of the art. I believe Systema can play a significant role in this regard. We hope to have serious aikidoka reevaluate their training approaches and consider bringing their current practice more in line with the techniques and philosophy of Founder Morihei Ueshiba.

Ueshiba O-Sensei was heavily influenced by the Omoto religion during a turbulent time of Japanese hisotry. He emphasized both the martial and spiritual aspects of aikido and considered the two inseparable. Systema was born out of centuries of technical refinement on the battlefield as Russians repelled a multitude of enemies under vastly different combative conditions. It has had strong ties to the Russian Orthodox Church historically, a tradition that continues with Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev. With its dual emphasis on the martial and the spiritual, Systema shares much common ground with aikido. Aikidoka looking to revitalize their training will find in the techniques of Systema a powerful, energizing example. Systema will find in the aikido world a large community of serious-minded and ethical people desirous of impacting society in a positive, moral way.

I am certain that Systema will impact Aiki Expo 2003 in a major way that special weekend of September 19-21. I am equally sure that the interaction between Vladimir Vasiliev and the other Expo instructors and participants will result in the blossoming of lasting friendships and important interactions that will reshape our thinking and practice of aikido.

Stanley Pranin
February 2003

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