Systema and the zombie apocalypse (giving you what you need)

I mentioned in my last post that I was hoping to get to Andrey Romanov’s Systema Ryabko school. Well, nope, didn’t happen.

The company where I’m working on those evenings is high-security, and I have to be escorted in and out of their offices. This means that I don’t actually leave the building until 19:45, with the classes starting at 20:30 in a completely different part of St. Petersburg. There’s supposed to be a marshrutka taxi going from the offices to the Yacht Club, where the lessons are held, but I’ve waited in the cold and rain on two evenings, and haven’t seen it. The people I’m working with in the company say there is no such taxi (despite it being listed on the St Petersburg travel information sites), and I must say that the evidence supports them.

So, I can’t get to any systema classes of any kind. And you know what? I’m fine with that. Recently, I’ve reached a kind of clarity on what it is that I’m trying to do here, and it isn’t necessarily about systema.

To explain what I mean, I want to give some background.

First, let’s talk about “Systema”. Since arriving in Russia, I’ve trained with Andrey Karimov, of the Siberian Cossack System, and with Vitaliy Denisov of ROSS. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to train with the Systema Kadochnikova and Systema Ryabko schools. Elsewhere, particularly from Paul Genge’s Combat Lab, I’m learning about many, many more schools of Russian Martial Arts (RMA).

Back in 2007, when I first heard the name, “systema” meant the Vasiliev school. Then we learned about Mikhail Ryabko. Soon after, we learned about the Kadochnikov school, then Retuinskih’s ROSS. More recently, the others. There are intricate familial relationships between some of them; others seem to be completely stand-alone. More interesting, most of them seem to be evolving, hybridising, and adapting to the local cultures where they are taught. In fact, I can only compare it to what happened in Chinese martial arts after the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, as the monks’ knowledge spread across China and was adapted by local schools according to their needs.

‘Systema” no longer seems to describes any specific school or body of knowledge – if indeed it ever did. So… what was it that I was trying to learn? These RMAs seem to have some common characteristics – specifically Russian weapons… flexibility, and wave-based movement… errrmmm… Many schools derived from systema Kadochnikova seem to emphasis chain-breaking, and physics-based principles, but others don’t. Some focus on breathing, but others don’t. Some put a lot of importance on groundwork, others don’t. Some have a strong element of psychological work; others don’t. What I’ve observed over the last few years is that a number of schools are introducing elements from this list which they didn’t originally feature. So, again… I thought when I came to Russia that I wanted to learn ‘systema’; but the term doesn’t mean anything any more.

But, then… I was exchanging emails recently with Andrey Karimov. I was letting him know that, due to my work schedule, I won’t be able to get to his classes until next spring at the earliest. He mentioned in passing that I should get in touch with someone in Texas: Olivia Overturf. He didn’t explain why, but just gave me her contact on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. So, I got in touch.

Olivia runs a systema blog: Cowboys and Cossacks. Since then, we’ve had an almost continuous conversation going. I can’t speak for her,  but I’ve found it to be extremely interesting and informative – and extremely challenging and thought-provoking.

One of the things I’ve learned is that systema in the UK and systema in the US appear to have very little in common.

The schools in the UK that I’ve encountered directly, those of Mark Winkler and Jeff Faris have been calm, respectful, and strongly aimed at developing the whole person. Other schools are much the same; the workshop I attended had people from Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and all of the attendees (many of whom were very scary-looking) all behaved like gentlemen; there was no ego, no macho posturing. Even if I did get a bust rib, it happened because my training partner was inexperienced, and I should have spotted this and been more alert.

Olivia has described something quite different in the US: much more macho, much more about testosterone and pushing oneself to extremes: totally different to the British scene. This would seem to be another example of “Systema” hydridising and localising, in the way I mentioned above.

In a recent exchange of messages, she described how her instructor was shot multiple times in a training accident. To me, this was incomprehensible. Attitudes on gun ownership are radically different in the UK and the US, of course, and I don’t want to get into that debate here. Even so, training a martial art – with guns loaded with live ammunition? Incomprehensible. I could only assume that the participants actually wanted to win a Darwin Award. Olivia commented that the mindset was “you train with live guns… you know… for practice… in case of the zombie apocalypse…“.

With that, things came together in my own mind, and I stopped worrying about not being able to get to systema classes. It became clear what I wanted to learn – and why Andrey Karimov’s school is the one that’s most important to me, even if I can’t get there for now. The zombie apocalypse metaphor is great.

Back in March, this thought process was already forming, and I wrote a post questioning why we train in martial arts, but I didn’t really get to the nub of what was on my mind. As a result, I didn’t express myself clearly: although I discussed “community”, some people who read it thought I was talking about a sense of community within their school. That isn’t what I meant at all; I meant the community within which the school exists, and from which the students are drawn.

I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of “The Walking Dead” so forgive me if I’ve not understood it correctly. Anyway, the central premise is typical of the genre, and so it can act as a useful metaphor: a heavily-armed group of survivors, travelling around searching for $Objective, for any given value of $Objective. Here you have a group that can defend itself. However, this group can’t sustain itself. It can’t produce anything, and living on salvage has a finite time scale, because eventually everything is spoiled, used, or inaccessible. This group can’t reproduce itself; even if there are some couples who have children, their survival is unlikely, and certainly won’t reach replacement rates. Also, no matter how good the group’s skills, there will be casualties, and these will be difficult, if not impossible to replace. The group may also encounter a larger, better-armed, and more desperate group, which would probably end badly. So, as I wrote in that earlier post, the idea that you’ll learn martial arts to protect you and yours only works under a specific set of circumstances;  in a catastrophic situation where everyday rules no longer apply it’s basically an unrealistic fantasy.

A separate kind of fantasy, one that I have some personal experience of, is the Transition Towns movement. It’s motivated by worthy sentiments: faced with the prospect of a general economic and social crisis (eg a zombie apocalypse), TT aims to develop a resilient, low-energy community; one that produces enough resources to survive, albeit at a far simpler level than today’s society. Of course, this is the opposite of the first scenario: this community can sustain itself – but there’s nothing in the concept about defending itself. So, when the zombies come shambling over the horizon, the community is screwed.

Of course, you will say, zombies aren’t real – so this is entirely hypothetical. Not true, I reply: which is why government and military agencies are preparing for them. Of course, ‘zombies’ are a stand-in for some other kind of catastrophe. Can we expect one?

Yes. I have no doubt about that. Ebola is out of control in West Africa; perhaps it’ll be contained, perhaps it won’t. Islamist violence is raging from Boko Haram in West Africa to Al-Qeda in the Sahel and Arabia, to ISIS in Mesopotamia and the Levant, and onwards to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Southern Europe is in social and economic crisis. Internationally, the banks are still sitting on vast amounts of debt that can and will never be repaid. In the US, climate change has pretty much eliminated agriculture (with global consequences), and people are already predicting population evacuations. The oceans are almost dead. The oil companies can’t make any profits, and the fracking bubble is set to burst soon. When that happens, the money invested will be lost and, since a lot of that is borrowed, we’re looking at a financial crisis, in a system that’s far more fragile than 2007. I could go on. In essence, after looking at the data, and reviewing global trends, I am forced to the conclusion that a major crisis is unavoidable in the Western economies.

For background, this is a good article on the relationship between oil and debt: it explains a lot of what we see around us, and it does a good job of pointing out why inequality and insecurity are rising in Western societies. Update: Gail Tverberg provides a detailed explanation of why oil prices are falling, and why this will lead to economies shrinking. Following that, blogger escapefromwisconsin explores the question of ‘Will a Shrinking Economy lead to chaos?” His conclusion is “Yes”, and I agree. Another blogger, John Michael Greer (aka JMG), recently made a very pertinent point:

If a rising tide lifts all boats, as economists of the trickle-down school used to insist, a falling tide has a much more differentiated effect, since each group in a declining society does its best to see to it that as much as possible of the costs of decline land on someone else.  Since each group’s access to wealth and privilege determines fairly exactly how much influence it has on the process, it’s one of the constants of decline and fall that the costs and burdens of decline trickle down, landing with most force on those at the bottom of the pyramid.

He’s pointed out some of the symptoms of this, such as the way – visible in both the US and the UK – the police (citizens in uniform) are being transformed into a gendarmerie (a military force with peacekeeping duties). In the UK, crime victims are being asked to solve the crime themselves, because the police don’t have the resources to do this any more.

The problem, then, is that our societies are running out of resources, and the strains are very visible now. Different classes and groups are mobilising to protect their own privileges, at the expense of others if necessary. Moreover, the whole economy is highly complex, and very brittle – and very vulnerable to sudden shocks. Those shocks will come, I think, and possibly soon.

When that happens, it may be bad. It may not be, of course; perhaps everyone will pull together. I’m not optimistic, though. So, as I mentioned in my previous post on the topic, lone wolves won’t get through it. Planning to survive social and economic trauma is a job for communities: communities which can both sustain themselves and defend themselves.

In the discussion on JMG’s blog, I came up with a checklist:

  • Are you in a community? If not, how do you become a member of one in good time?
  • Is your community able to defend itself against predation? If not, can it develop this ability? If not, can it hire someone to do the job? If so, who, on what terms, and how are they to be controlled?
  • Does your community have strong, resilient, internal structures? If not, how can these be built, in a relatively short time?
  •  Is your community economically secure, to at least a subsistence level? If not, how can this be achieved?

To which I would add:

  • Is your community politically influential?

The best example I’ve discovered which can check all of these boxes is the case of the Cossack communities of Russia. That’s what I’m really here to learn about.

This whole train of thought originally began when I saw Andrey Karimov’s videos on YouTube, and I saw how he and other Cossack groups integrate men and women, children, and the elderly, in their activities. When I realised that for the sake of my health I had to leave the UK, I came to Russia, and to St Petersburg, because he was here.

However, as far as I can tell, he’s the only example of Cossack culture in St. Petersburg. There were two Cossack shops, but they’ve both closed down. There’s a Cossack cultural organisation, but they seem to be entirely virtual, with no premises and no classes. Of course, St. Petersburg isn’t traditional Cossack territory, so it’s hardly surprising; for that, I would need to go south, to the regions of the Don, Kuban, or Terek.

Even with Andrey, and I mean no disrespect at all here, the strength of his system is, for me, also one of its most problematic areas. By this I mean that his school is intensely Russian, and very authentically so.

The combat techniques alone are great; his work with psychological techniques is fantastic, and the weapons work is great. His training methods, especially the integration of children (which Olivia writes about here), is awesome. All of these things can be taught anywhere – as Andrey is showing with his international seminars.

On the other hand: the songs; the dances; the Russian Orthodoxy, the balalaika – all of which are important to the classes as I’ve experienced them here in Russia – these don’t translate to classes in other culture. If I or Olivia, for example, tried to set up schools and teach these things, it wouldn’t work.

So, I realised, this is what I wanted to do: to learn what I can from Andrey and those like him, but also to evaluate what can be transferred as is, and what is culturally specific… and how those could be substituted with elements of a local culture to the same effect… To systematise it, perhaps… in order to build individuals and communities that can both defend and sustain themselves, against both criminals and predatory elites….

Image credit: Zombie Apocalypse, by user Stephen Dann on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. It’s well-known that underfunded police – or gendarmes – “fund themselves” using the power of their position. It’s certainly a common problem here in Russia. Supporting my argument that police forces, as a powerful elite group, will look after themselves at the expense of others is this article: Canada warns its citizens not to take cash to the USA – because the American police… just steal it.


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