Systema (Russian: Система, "The System") is a Russian martial art. It is designed to be highly adaptive and practical, training using drills and sparring instead of set kata. It focuses mainly on controlling the six body levers (elbows, neck, knees, waist, ankles, and shoulders) through pressure point application, striking and weapon applications. Systema is often advertised as being a martial art employed by some Russian Spetsnaz units.


There is no historical "real name" for these arts. In many cases, it's common to simply see "Russian martial arts" used, although that can lead to some confusion. In a sense, the name "Systema" (the system) can be thought of as a generic title comparable to "Kung Fu" ("one who is highly skilled" or "time" and "effort"). The most likely version is that the name Systema was taken from the name given in Russia to a similar martial art before that, the Systema Rukopashnogo Boya (System of hand-to-hand combat).

At least in Mikhail Ryabko's Systema, "The System" is a reference to the various systems of the body (Muscle, Nervous system, respiratory system, etc) as well as elements of Psychology and the Spirit.

As there have been and still are a number of different fighting styles common throughout the Russian military and special forces, like Alpha, GRU, Vympel, several other names and nicknames are commonly mistaken for Systema. For example, some troops and special forces personnel train in "boevoe sambo" (combat sambo), which is a separate art. Also, troops would refer to whatever was taught as "rukopashka" (Russian slang for "hand to hand"), or "machalka" or "boinia" (Russian slang for "fighting" and "beating"). The name "Combat Sambo Spetsnaz" was coined by the Soviet government, even though those are different styles.

Joseph Stalin's personal bodyguards were practitioners of Systema. Ryabko was taught the system in the army by one of those bodyguards. After Stalin's death, Systema became the style of fighting employed by some Special Military Operations Units for high risk missions in Spetsnaz, GRU and other government facilities. There were and are a number of different combat arts trained throughout Russian special forces units other than Systema. It is due to the Soviet Union's strict ban on non-sanctioned traditions, and the sensitivity of special forces training, that it was not until after the cold war that Systema became known. Systema's pre-Soviet Russian heritage is only recently being rediscovered.

It is likely that the roots of Systema are lost in ancient and family arts, changed by military and contemporary needs and rediscovered and adapted by each instructor and practitioner.

Some claim that Systema's Russian martial arts heritage dates back to the 10th century and was practiced by the Bogatyr (Russian heroes/knights).

Another theory proposes that the various forms of modern Systema are evolutions of an intensive research and development project carried out by several generations of hand to hand combat instructors at the Dinamo training facility in Moscow between roughly 1920-1980. If so, that would place Systema in the same stream of military close-combat training as combat SAMBO and related styles such as SAMOZ, which was developed by V.A. Spiridonov. If this theory is correct, the stylistic influences on modern Systema would include numerous national martial arts styles, military close-combat systems and indigenous Russian combat styles as well as aspects of sports science, biomechanics and sports psychology as these disciplines were incorporated into the Dinamo close-combat research and development project during the 20th century.

It has been claimed that one or both of Ryabko and his student Vlad Vasiliev created the art based upon their experiences.


Systema is counted alongside a number of pre-Soviet traditions which are being actively cultivated by the Russian government. In 2004, the Dinamo Sports Center played host to a demonstration and celebration of martial traditions.

It is still a relative unknown, but Systema or relatives to it are being taught by several practitioners inside and outside of Russia. Of particular interest is that different people from different backgrounds were taught subtle variations of Systema.

Furthermore, since practitioners train in their own preferred manner and with their individual understanding, their style expressed in their art is unique to them. This is most readily seen with senior students and other high-level artists.

Influenced by Systema

As some students train to become instructors in their own right, their understanding evolves and they ultimately teach a personal and more contemporary version of their understanding. In some cases this personal understanding keeps the same name, and in some cases a new name is warranted.

Some practitioners take their understanding, their own preferences and their own arts to create a hybrid martial art. Others use the experience for cross training, to supplement their own training programs.

Ryabko's Systema

Kadochnikov's Systema

In culture

William Gibson mentions Systema in his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition and its 2007 sequel Spook Country. In Pattern Recognition, the bodyguards of a wealthy Russian are said to be practitioners of Systema, a martial art that was, to date "...restricted to KGB, bodyguards and the special forces..." and said to be derived from Cossack dancing. One of Spook Country's main characters is trained in Systema and uses it to defend himself as well as ostensibly for other purposes related to self control and confidence. It is made clear however that what he calls Systema is a codified body of skills and knowledge that borrows the name alone from the real-life fighting style.

Ryabko's Systema

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

There exists more than one Russian martial art called Systema, see Systema for an overview.

Ryabko's Systema is a type of martial art headed by Mikhail Ryabko. Ryabko is a Colonel in the Russian military, and has past military, special forces, and traditional Russian martial arts training.

This art is variously called Systema, "The System", "Russian martial arts" and "poznai sebia" (Russian language: discover yourself). Although this art uses the same name as Kadochnikov's Systema, it is different in a number of ways, most notably because it doesn't directly study biomechanics. The practical philosophy, training methods, views on history and many other subtleties are completely different.

"The System" is a reference to the various systems of the body (Muscle, Nervous system, respiratory system, etc) as well as elements of Psychology and the Spirit.

History and Practitioners

Note: The Systema article describes history common to these arts.

The strongest influence of Ryabko's style is from traditional Russian martial arts, originally through a member of Sokoli Stalina (Russian: "Stalin's Falcons" - Joseph Stalin's personal bodyguards.)

Ryabko operates the Systema headquarters in Russia, and continues to train students and military personnel, and also acts as an advisor. Lastly, belonging to the military, he still performs those duties. Students of various kinds travel to Russia to train with him.

Vladimir Vasiliev is Ryabko's senior student, who emigrated from Russia and presently heads the official Russian Martial Art Systema Headquarters outside of Russia, located in Toronto Canada. He has regular classes, and some students travel from international locations to train with him. He travels, mostly in North America to host seminars.

Emmanuel Manolakakis is one of Vasiliev's senior students who also operates Fight Club in Toronto Canada. He also hosts and guests in seminars throughout North America, and has had appearances on television and radio. He has also produced instructional videos. Manolakakis is also one of the first instructors with a youth class.

Systema is taught in Port Hope, Ontario, by Sascha Lutz, a student of Vladimir Vasiliev.

Alexander Kostic is also an instructor who has produced his own video while working with the PTJ (special anti-terrorist unit).

Edgar Tsakouls teaches Systema at Fighthouse in New York, New York. Seminars that Ryabko has taught in New York have been released on dvd.

Although as of 2006 there are students who are three and four generations away from Ryabko, both Ryabko and Vasiliev remain the strongest influences and most capable practitioners.


Training can vary widely between classes or the focuses of each student. For example, instructors may have their own unique preferences and students may have injuries or fears which complicate certain exercises.

In general, though, there is no set curriculum and no two classes even by the same instructor are the same. Commonly, training will include general calisthenics, stretching, breathing and exercises which dramatically enhance strength through body weight and one's natural range of motion. Despite generally being categorized as a martial art, training includes many of these health-enhancing exercises. Some training exercises could be seen as forms of meditation or self-psychology.

Some work could be done alone and some could be done with one or more students. Because Systema's popularity has expanded more than the availability of instructors and classes, solo-work is becoming more commonly seen with those who don't have ready access to an instructor.

Systema is particularly attractive to professionals in the police, military or bodyguard professions, and even to "door men" (bouncers). Because of their special needs, and serious professional interest, their training may be very different from the "civilian self-defence" training which most undergo. The core lessons would be much the same, but specific circumstances and tools would vary. A bouncer may be interested in strikes with slaps instead of fists, a bodyguard would be interested in moving their charge to the ground without hurting them. Defence with knives, crowd or individual-psychology may be particularly important, etc. Work with handguns and rifles, night-work, stealth and espionage or any number of other topics are possible.

Any one exercise could be varied countless ways. Indeed, no exercise is counted and few exercises have more than a nickname to describe them. Most exercises are a description or a demonstration followed by the students trying it themselves. The exercise may be varied or transformed into a new exercise, or the training could progress to a different exercise. In some cases, students will choose to vary the exercise slightly to try something new or to practice something specific. In any case, there are many moments within any particular exercise which allow for variation. Working with a bigger or smaller partner is a notable example how one specific activity can vary widely.

Students attend to each exercise one after the other, without there being a concept of progression through a particular class or between different classes. Each student absorbs the content of their work in a unique way. Each student learns and understands "their Systema" uniquely.

Systema philosophies and practices

Actual practices can vary widely between practitioners, especially for those who come from a different background and continue existing practices and training. Although there is no official "belief system" or philosophy that is taught, most practitioners over time seem to share similar core values, including:

Training should not wear down the body or spirit. When done correctly, training energizes and heals.
This could be understood as relaxedness, confidence, mental fortutide or the like. Every practitioner expresses this in their own individual way.
Systema is also known as "poznai sebia" (Russian language: discover yourself). Everyone is unique and should understand and apply themselves uniquely.

It is because of this personalness in training and understanding that Systema expresses itself uniquely in each person. Ideas and philosophies differ between practitioners.

Other practices include massage and strikes to alleviate stress and tension. Some practitioners douse in cold-water. Typically, a bucket of cold water is left out to chill overnight; then poured over the head while standing outside with one's bare feet on the earth. Some students do weight training with kettlebells.

Article sources

Systema in the media

A number of publications have featured Systema. Here are a few: