RCM: zombies on the horizon. Strategy vs tactics.

Two weeks after the UK voted to leave the European Union, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Wuhan, sipping green tea, and mulling things over. Does this have anything to do with Russian Martial Arts? I think it does, and specifically with Andrey Karimov’s Siberian Cossack Systema, and some of the reports that I’ve seen coming out from the seminar in May. And zombies, of course.

So, to begin with, let’s have some explanations, clarifications, and context-setting. Bear with me as you read this, because it is important, and please keep in mind that this post is largely me thinking aloud to clarify my thoughts.

I’ve been working solidly for the last half-year. Most of this has been spent on the road: I’ve been working in Beijing, Jinan, Shijiazhuang, Taiyuan, Hohhot, Changchun and Lanzhou, in most cases repeatedly. Right now, I’m in Wuhan. I was supposed to be in a different city today, but Wuhan is experiencing floods after torrential rain. The roads around the hotel are a metre deep in water, the railway station is submerged and the metro system flooded and, as I watch CNN, a “super typhoon” is headed our way via Taiwan. So, my team are going nowhere until tomorrow at least, and I’ve got time to write. During these months, training in systema/RMA just hasn’t been an option; I’ve instead been focusing more on baguazhang, for the reasons I set out here. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to training systema in due course.

As for Brexit, things are currently in a “phoney war” stage. Britain is in political chaos, with no leadership available to address the consequences of the ‘leave” vote. Politicians and the media are more focused on the infighting in both political parties, and in the final release of the Chilcott Report into the invasion of Iraq. Article 50, the mechanism for leaving the EU, hasn’t been invoked yet, because there’s no-one to do it. Scotland is heading towards a fresh independence referendum, the value of the British pound is collapsing, and the financial sector on which Britain’s economy depends is preparing to shift to other countries. As yet, things still feel largely unchanged, though.

This, I believe, will change later in the year, once the political parties have their leadership conflicts sorted out, and Article 50 is activated. The departure of the UK will see the most deprived parts of the UK losing millions upon millions of pounds in EU support. Infrastructure development, agriculture, apprenticeships, scientific cooperation and university projects, and many, many, many jobs will be axed. The UK will lose access to many markets around the world. I see no possible way in which this will not happen. The current slide in the pound is likely to be just a foretaste of what will happen once Brexit begins in earnest, which will have a huge impact on people’s standard of living. At the same time, the UK will likely have a fervently right-wing Conservative government which will have a free hand to slash public spending and cut public services, meaning yet further decreases in employment and living standards.

Hence, zombies. This is the insight I had almost three years ago, which really helped me understand what Andrey Karimov is doing, and which I started writing about with Systema and the zombie apocalypse, and why I started thinking in terms of a Resilient Community Manual. Zombies are a useful metaphor for a general, widespread crisis, as the US government agency FEMA realised when they told us “If you’re ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you’re ready for any emergency”. That kind of crisis is what the UK is facing. When I first started using the metaphor, the zombies were still far away, a future threat. Now, we can see them on the horizon. They’re coming.

I’m old enough to remember what a deep recession feels like, and it’s ugly. There will be many, many people facing desperate poverty, facing the loss of their jobs and homes and self-respect, and angry at what the political classes and thirty years of neo-liberal economics have done to them. Perhaps I’m wrong: of course, I hope I am, but it’s best to face up to the possibility of this outcome. (And, as I pointed out in that earlier post, even if it doesn’t happen just yet, it will happen anyway at some point in the near term, because climate change and resource depletion mean that our current way of life cannot continue as it has done). The weather that has trapped me in Wuhan is, itself, an indicator of the changes in global climate, and the chaos that they will cause, in the years to come (consider, for example, the way India is heating up)

So. If you’re a martial artist, and you know this is coming, what are your options? This a matter of strategy versus tactics. This is why I keep being impressed by Andrey’s work.

Most martial arts classes are, by definition, tactical:

of or relating to tactics: as (1) : of or relating to small-scale actions serving a larger purpose (2) : made or carried out with only a limited or immediate end in view

Thus, when you need to defend yourself, you need to be able to do it well, so that you can escape. This is people’s immediate concern, and this is what martial arts classes are almost exclusively concerned with. Of course. And that is where most people, and most martial arts teachers, begin and end, because in our contemporary society, that’s all people have control over.

But what about when the threat is not immediate and local, but enduring and widespread? A tactical mindset is not the tool that is needed; a more strategic view is required.

Decisions or plans designed to impact favorably the key factors on which the desired outcome of an organization, game, system, venture, or war, depends.

A beat cop heading out into a riot needs to excel at a tactical level. The police commander trying not just to control and end the riot, but to prevent further riots, needs to be thinking strategically as well.

Which brings me back to Andrey Karimov, and his Cossack systema. I’ve heard a few different responses to the workshop in May, and it seems to me that the difference in views comes down to this difference between tactical and strategic needs.

Andrey excels at the tactical level, as anyone who’s trained with him knows. This is why he’s in such demand internationally to deliver seminars and training. The seminar in May, though, wasn’t really about that, though, and here I lean heavily on Olivia’s report from the seminar, as well as some private exchanges with her and other participants, plus my own experience of training with Andrey and his group.

Some key points for me from Olivia’s report are:

  • This year’s event seemed to heavily focus on music and singing lessons.
  • This event is not for everyone. I have stated this publicly many, many times. Some people come to just to learn combatives with Karimov or Sheshukov and that is NOT what this event is for and that is not how it is taught here.
  • There were blocks of instruction that I wasn’t really interested in or felt like since I do not actively train as a stage performer in the US.
  • Know yourself- many people know Karimov’s style as very strong and powerful and this also segues into his psychological critique of both your emotional blocks and weaknesses, to help you understand how to move and perform more freely. At a few points in the seminar, it seemed a little too much for instructors to muster, but again…this is the Russian way (I am told).
  • A lot, if not all consistent attendees are the same group who frequently tours together, it is building annually for Karimov’s main instructors to take their skill set to the next level. […] In short, Karimov and his group, will NOT sell out to make it a cushy and soft event for YOU.

All of this shows that Andrey is thinking strategically. I’ve made the point before, but Olivia’s points highlight the process.

So: the seminar was really for, and about, Andrey’s own Russian group as part of their development, and visitors from abroad were there to fit in as best they could. It wasn’t a stand-alone event developed for foreign students. This could and perhaps should have been highlighted more clearly; I was originally hoping to go, and was following the communications about the event quite closely, and even I hadn’t really understood this. I think at least some of the people who attended felt it wasn’t what they had been expecting. Others, of course, were very happy with the experience.

However, as a project, I find it extremely impressive. Andrey is building a strong community, in which most of the members are skilled at the tactical level. More to the point, the community is developing tightly-knit personal bonds, both between people in the same city and people living across Russia. There’s a strong emphasis on values, and on culture: the ties that bind people together in hard times. In the kind of hard times that I see coming for the UK, I would expect most martial arts clubs to fall apart. I see Andrey’s students standing together and looking out for each other, not just in moments of immediate danger, but in life lived in a time of uncertainty and general risk.

As Olivia says:

Is the build up of the games something that can be done internationally? Yes. Is there theory behind the methodology? Yup. Can this be broken down into different languages and cultures? Yes. Does it work? Yup….I’ve seen it with my own two eyes,for long term purposes and consistency, it is a valuable and crucial part of his work.

This is what has most excited me about Andrey’s work. I don’t know what his analysis of future threats is, in the way that I’ve hinted at mine above, but, as I’ve previously written, I’m sure that he has the Russian experience of being invaded, and being subjected to a total war of extermination, in mind.

The tactical-level element in RMA/systema is important to me, and I do intend to return to train in, because it has elements I haven’t seen anywhere else… BUT I could focus entirely on baguazhang, and that would suffice.

I don’t have to train in Cossack dance, although it’s very functional because it’s the equivalent of karate katas (plus – I think – it’s cool)… BUT most or much of its purpose could be substituted with Welsh folk dance, or breakdancing, or whatever was culturally appropriate for a local group. The purpose is to build bonds.

The extent to which Andrey and his group are developing into a performance ensemble is extremely interesting, and not something I’d thought about until Olivia mentioned it. It makes sense, though: this is a channel for spreading the word, and promoting the group’s values.

What are those values? Well, in the first seminar of its kind, Andrey and Yuri gave a lecture on “Russian Social Values”, a model which they have been developing for many years. This lecture is available as a series of downloads from Olivia’s site, and I’m gradually acquiring them; I hope to review them here soon.

Critically, though, to return to my metaphor, the zombies are on the horizon. They’re getting closer, and they’re going to be around for a long time. Life will not be the same, and we need a strategy for a different future.

If that’s too poetic: here’s the reality. For those of us in the UK, Brexit means that world in which most of us have lived our lives, since we joined the EU in 1973 – that’s almost my entire life – has ended. Very soon, we’re going to be living in a new and unfamiliar world. That’s a fact. It’s reality now. I fear that this new world will be much harsher, much poorer, and far more uncertain that what we’ve experienced before, and we need to be getting ready. The state is retreating from daily life; the resources we’re used to being able to access to protect us and to sustain us are increasingly not going to be there. Living our lives as disconnected, atomised, individuals is going to be much harder. We need people who’ll be there for us, not just in an emergency, but all the time. We will need a strong community. In my view, Andrey Karimov’s Siberian Cossack System is one of the few transferrable models for achieving this in a relatively short time.

Image credit: Zombie by user David Simmonds on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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