I recently participated in a training course on journalistic writing. The final assignment was to write a short piece suitable for a newspaper or magazine. This had quite a short deadline, so we were allowed to “just make it up” if we wanted, given that all the participants had a day job, and hence no time to do real-world research, interviews, etc. I decided to use as my source the material I had for my Q&A with Andrey Karimov a couple of years ago, plus other recollections from my visits to his classes in Russia. So, for your interest, here’s my piece:
Whip-wielding Cossacks have a bad reputation these days but, to Andrey Karimov of the Siberian Cossack group, the traditional nagaika whip represents life as well as death.
When I walk into Andrey Karimov’s school of the Siberian Cossack System in the small town of Tsarskoe Selo, just south of Saint Petersburg, I am surprised by what I see.
In a class dedicated to the fighting arts of the Cossacks, I am expecting to find only aggressive young men. Instead, Karimov, a jovial man in his late forties, is playing a balalaika and singing whilst groups of men, women and children dance traditional Cossack dances.
Later, the group divides. Some go with Karimov’s wife to study traditional healing arts; others (including most of the children) join Karimov to train in combat techniques. We practice rolls, and throws; defences against holds, and other fighting skills.
I am surprised again: adults and children train together. According to Karimov, this helps to restore the connection with past times, and between generations – which heightens a healthy sense of personal identity.
Adults throw children from kneeling positions; children throw their adult opponents (with perhaps a little assistance from rolling techniques). It is striking how confident these children are. While I am struggling to throw an adult partner, a ten-year-old boy strolls over to correct what I’m doing. His instructions are spot on, and I start doing the throws properly.
Eventually, Karimov issues everyone with whips. A nagaika is a short, thick whip made of braided leather, traditionally with a lead tip, though ours have soft pads instead. They were used to control Cossack ponies instead of spurs – and to kill wolves. In turn, we walk between parallel lines of plastic water bottles, striking at them with a nagaika in each hand.
Karimov, a clinical psychologist, explains what it all means. Why singing, and dancing, in what is supposedly a martial art?
The Cossack system is about more than fighting, he says. It helps people develop integrity, confidence, and self-realisation. The tools of traditional culture do this well, by encouraging participants to fully live in each moment.
“The cultural aspects help the combat applications,” he tells me. “Students develop better coordination, and absorb things more rapidly. It teaches continuous movement, different types of movement, and breathing. It is also a social psychology – teaching methods of interaction, and soft ways out of conflict.”
The Cossack System is designed to build strength and resilience not just for individuals, but for communities, I realise. And the whips?
“The nagaika bites like a snake; it is difficult to block. It teaches the method of relaxed motion, using the wave principle. Nagaika exercises use special voice techniques, and develop a level of inner strength. The whip can tone massage points, and can treat prostatitis, colds, anaemia and other illnesses”.
Once more, what seemed to be a weapon has healing aspects. ”It’s all interconnected. This is learning to understand life and play an active part in it”, concludes Karimov.
Image credit: supplied to me by Andrey Karimov for the original Q&A.