Russian fist fighting has existed since the times of Kievan Rus', but has since lost much of its popularity in the 20th Century. Besides being a popular entertainment, Russian traditional fist fighting was a peculiar military school. Fisticuffs in Russia had variety of names – kulachki (fists), boika (battle) etc.
Usually, mass fistfight festivals were held in holidays; the main events took place during the Pancake week (Russian Shrovetide). In mass fisticuffs, usually battled street on street, settlement on settlement, village on village. In winter the battles occurred on frozen rivers and lakes, in summer – at road crossings. Commoners and merchants participants of those events
The oldest type of Russian fist fighting is so-called 'sceplyalka-svalka' (scramble one against all). It was a chaotic scuffle in which each fighter fought for himself.
The most popular and famous type of Russian fist fighting was 'stenka-na-stenku' (wall on wall). It was a battle between two teams formed in two ranks (walls). The team was considered as a winner if it managed to force the opponent team out of the circle or to force them to stop fighting. In other words, either side aspired to put the opposite side to flight or to retreat. Usually a battle had three stages: boys came out first and started fighting, and then unmarried men came into the circle and, in the climax of the fight, mature men interfered. The team having lost the field (predefined territory) was considered as defeated. The rules were simple: don't hold a hard weight in the fist; don't hit an opponent when he is down; don't hit from a side or from behind. A sat fighter is considered as a captive. Griping an opponent by clothes was prohibited. Despite so strict rules, they were not always followed. Suspicion in dishonesty could transform the game into a brutal knifing.
The highest valued fighting style was a one-on-one fight ('hunter battle'). The 'hunter' fistfight had had two varieties: until a fighter is knocked down and until first blood.
A rare modification of the one-on-one fight was a "fight in turn", in which each fighter punched his opponent in turn until knocking him down or his submission. A punched fighter was nit allowed to dodge a blow – he was allowed just to protect the vulnerable parts by arms.
Experienced fighters often contended in the ancient Russian form of grappling – 'hunter wrestling'. A fighter could grip his opponent by caftan's sleeves or by the scruff of the neck or by the belt (girdle). They grappled using one or two arms. The favorite technique was the throw over a leg: bending an opponent aside, the wrestler struck his legs by toe and threw him down (ankle trip). The bout lasted until one of the fighters managed to throw his opponent down. In order not to tear the clothing, fighters sometimes girdled themselves by a sash which was flung over their shoulder.
As a matter of fact, the 'hunter fight" was a sport of the select few, whereas widely popular mass fisticuffs were participated by almost every male folk.
In fact, there have been no combat schools in Russia – with teachers, training as it was for instance in Japanese budo (jiu-jitsu, sumo, naginatajitsu) or in British boxing schools. From early childhood, rural and suburban boys participated in scuffles and watched adult fights, learning 'trade secrets' as one goes. There were no trainings or works through.
The 'stenka' fist festivals shouldn't be idealized – it was rarely a mettlesome game – more often it was a drunken showdown – a village-on-village, settlement-on-settlement, factory-on-factory or even ethnic-on-ethnic (lie Russians against Tatars). Such 'entertainments' often grew into brutal beating up with severe injuries; even killed fighters were not unusual. Almost always individuals were found who didn't 'obey the rules' when fighting, for instance, squeezed a weight in his fist or used a brass knuckles. That was one of the reasons why a wall-to-wall fight often transformed into a brutal scuffle and even knifing. Besides, experienced fighters were sometimes bribed by wine or gifts in order to gain them over.
Russian literature has a lot of mentions about the popular fisticuffs and its brutality. .Ivan Bunin in the novel "Village" writes: "He grew up in the 'Black settlement', where they still kill each other in fistfights, among awful savagery and rank ignorance. Belarus writer Vladimir Korotkevich in his historic novel "Weapon" describes 19th Century mass fistfights: "… fullers from Nosov [fought] against weavers from Guchkov … about two thousand people from either side. Real war!.. After the last fisticuffs, it was ten killed, twenty beaten an inch of their life and thirty two disfigured beyond recognition. Not to mention broken jaws, eyes and teeth.
Austrian diplomat, baron Siegmund Freiherr von Herberstein reported in his memoirs "Notes on Muscovite Affairs" published in 1549: "In holidays, boys and adult males gathers in public places which can fit big crowds. A whistle signals for fighters to come into the circle and to prepare for the battle. As soon as they form two lines (walls), the fisticuffs begin. After a short while, the fighters get furious and go so wild that strike their opponents with arms and legs targeting the face, belly and other vulnerable parts (including genitals). It quite often happens that fighters lose life during these fights whereas the victors are praised and appreciated."
A holiday mass fisticuffs were usually accompanied by singing (sometimes to the accompaniment of accordion) – so called "combat chastushka"). Before the fist festival, the fighters themselves sang and during the event, women did. Main bulk of spectators was composed form girls and women. Females were ardent fans on the manly events; they inspired fighters and probably a little bit ennobled the wild tradition.
At the very heat of the fight, female followers of the opposite sides happened to get so filled with enthusiasm that started jostling with each other imitating the wall-on-wall fighting. In fact, they usually didn't follow the 'men's rules' and didn't intend to knock out adversary's teeth or mutilate their opponents as drunken men always did. The girls really enjoyed themselves and took pleasure of their youth. Coming to grips, the girls usually preferred pushing and wrestling to punching. There is a proverb in the famous old Russian explanatory 'Dal dictionary': "Men fight in a wide scope; women fight in tightness". In other words, men fight swinging arms, i.e. punch each other whereas women fight at close quarters, i.e. grappling rather than punching.
While boys and men didn't have any choice but to participate in fisticuffs (a coward was alienated by the society – a man must be ready to war), females were free from such requirements. That's why if they amused themselves in combat-like fun, they did that as a sport, with all their heart and ardor. They didn't have a stimulus to win at any cost, they rarely were drunk.
Girls contended rarely but if they did, they did that with ardor, heat and squeals. Interestingly, girls often took each other by clothing; not only by the scruff of the neck or shirt sleeves as men did but also by coat flaps. So, long before Sambo was invented and Judo spread, Russian rural women applied clothing grips in wrestling practically. It was cold and windy at the Pancake week; females wore a lot of clothes, so it was not too much convenient for the girls to wrestle; at the same time, the clothing was a good buffer. In fact, the clothing of a Russian female peasant in old times was long, loose and "multilayered" (perhaps, there was some similarity with Japanese combative kimono). If the girls still punched each other they almost never punched to face, while body punches actually had just pushing effect. Married women always tried to avoid such a fun.
Apparently, female combat was an exception, a rarity and was not a tradition occurring everywhere in Russia.
A 'seizure of a fortress' was a favorite holiday Russian fun, in which girls and even married women participated. Here is a description of this fun: "An imitation fortress is built on the top of a hill – in summer it is made of pieces of wood, in winter – of snow (snow town). The fortress defenders are females who reside inside the 'fortress'. Male participants form pairs of 'horses' and 'riders' who strive for making through the formation if the defenders and capture the colours. The attackers must keep astride; if a 'rider' has fell or has been dragged from the 'horse', must be out of the game. In order to prevent attackers form getting into the 'fortress', the defenders use quite impressive weapons: sticks braided with fells, sacks stuffed with haulm; in winter also snowballs. The game lasts until the attackers seize the 'fortress' or give up or have all attackers out of the game. Usually, the game takes long because a successful invader who manages to capture the colour will get a valuable prize – he will be allowed to kiss all the defenders."
Lilia Belyakova (Lilly Lefort), a native of North-East Moscow region, recalls :
Aunt Tonya told me about her great grandmother who was famous for her strength and bravado in her young years. According to Tonya's family legend, her great grandma not only skillfully wrestled and toppled opponents of both sexes but also would come out for fistfight in men's wall-on-wall lines during Maslenitsa festivals (Pancake week - the only purely Russian Holiday that dates back to the pagan times - translator's note). I learned just out of those legends that in old times peasant women not just occasionally wrestled but grabbed each other by clothing - probably because close body contacts in front of people were not allowed by the strict traditions (even for woman-to-woman). Thus, grabs by clothing were used by Russian peasant women long before judo developed in Russia or Sambo was invented. I keenly imagined a confusing wrestling match between women dressed in a hundred loose long clothes. That's actually, where my subjects came from. I even created a cycle "Sambo precursors."
This is another sketch of the author:
Aunt Tonya ran toward the girl, caught up with her again and said, "OK, let's wrestle to determine who is a chicken and who is a granny!" The girl cackled again, "Well, tetya Tonya, I don't advise you to mess up with me - I could administer a beating to you" The girl was robust, a pure filly. Everyone around got excited and quiet. Tonya grabbed hold of the flaps of the girl's unbuttoned padded jacket and the girl seized her by the sleeves. While spectators were just getting ready for watching the match looking forward to it, the big filly suddenly found herself lying on her back, helplessly kicking her feet. Here is what happened: Tonya stick out her hip, adroitly pulled the girl by the jacket's flaps over the placed hip slightly twisting her body. So, the girl elegantly flied and landed perfectly on her back (when she was flying, Tony even held her preventing from an injury). That time I didn't know anything about judo or Sambo but when I saw the sports after years, I just realized that the Tonya's throw was a judo technique of the first order. (Definitely, Tonya herself had never heard such words - it was just her natural instinct and physical skills.)
In the essay by Matvey Domrachev "Russian fisticuffs" (from the cycle "Old Prokhor's stories") a female 'wall fisticuffs' is described (happened in Tambov region in the early 20th Century):
[In full play of a of men's fisticuffs], some Ilyino's girls began hailing girls from the rival village across the river for the female "wall" and organized confused but ardent crush of girls. Ilyino's gals pushed their opponents out of the circle and gave them "friendly" wallops and slaps in addition. Moreover, some girls and women engaged in one to one duels and punched each other with an ardor and also involved in wrestling - no laughing matter. After a while, knocked down girls were lying scattered about and wrestling pairs were rolling over the smoothed down snow. It was a lot of screech there… After all, the holiday was a great success. Especially the Ilyino's villagers were happy about productive beating their opponents from across the river.
Old Prokhor also tells how two mature women had a fist fight during men's fisticuffs:
"…Matrena assumed a dignified air, stepped toward Vasiliha and calmly said, "OK, you are good in yelling but why don't you just go against me - one to one." Vasiliha roared with laughter and hardly pushed the opponent to breast, so Matrena stumbled and found herself sitting on the snow. Vasiliha was laughing loudly but the other people quieted down; everyone reached out for the squabbling women and crowed around them. Matrena got up, shook off and skillfully hit the offender to face by mitten as a true man. That was Vasiliha's turn to topple over and she fell flat on her back. The people around shouted "Ah!" and the male pugilists stopped their fights. Vasily ran over to his wife and screamed at her that "fists" was not a women's business. But she answered in tears, "You are a milksop - a minor thrashes you as he wants! Just go and administer a beating to him and I will talk to this … in the women's way." She got red, scowled and began approaching to Matrena. Then she brandished by her arm in an emphatic manner attempting to punch the opponent with all her might but accomplished that too slow, so while she delivered the open blow Matrena managed to dexterously punch her twice - to breadbasket and to chest. So Vasiliha even didn't have a chance to make a reality of her flourish; she backed up, bent over and writhed. Then Matrena offered her peace, "OK, let's finish peacefully, we are mothers all the same, it's unseemly for women to fight like men." Vasiliha was standing writhing and didn't answer. Matrena felt sorry for her and came over to her in order to help. But suddenly Vasiliha jumped at her furiously, embraced her and started pushing in attempt to topple her down. After all, the women began to wrestle in real - a truly "hunter fight" erupted, the spectators became cheerful and the accordionist opened his instrument and kept playing. "Trash her! Down her!" - Men shouted. "Shame!" - Women shouted but looked quite fascinated. Two well-made women got locked in iron grip and nobody was able to topple the opponent. The Matrena's kerchief slipped out of her head and Vasiliha grabbed her hair and tried to pull her head down. However, it was not handy to firmly grasp hair by mittens, so Matrena managed to release herself and walloped the rival in the chin; the blow was so strong that it was heard even by the rear spectators. Vasiliha drew back and began disorderly hanging about but Matrena "helped" her by hitting her puss sharply one more time. To the sound of enthusiastic men's yells and denouncing women's groans Vasiliha collapsed to the snow like a bag and was lying there motionless… Matrena surprised everyone then by her fighting skills - instead of slapping as it was customary among women she well poked Vasiliha's mug as it was customary among men..."
Since fighting was considered in Russia as unwomanly activities, women's showdowns sometimes took places in private; for instance in village bathes as it is described in the story "Bath" by Sergey Velikanov (two 11-year-old boys peep at women washing in a batch).
[The women] both were quite corpulent, wide-hipped and busty… The scene seemed to be really frightful - their fist looked robust and I imagined them as female giants from a fairy-tale; I was even frightened; I noticed Vaska also held his breath and stared wide-eyed. Suddenly, the one who was closer to us, mannishly punched her opponent in the belly as mightily as she could - as the result, her rival folded up and clasped her arms under her bosom. I can't forget the sight: one woman stands triumphantly placing her fists on her hips (we saw her from behind)... The other one faced us half shielded by the first one. Hair stick to their faces and bodies intensified the tension of the situation and passionate hatred of the rivals… In a moment, the second woman instantly straightened up and smacked the adversary in the face in full strength. Actually, we didn't see the blow - the first one shielded the picture but it was obvious that she punched from below - the head of the punched woman abruptly jumped up and she leaned back and bumped in the sealed door (which we watch through) almost breaking it in. It was like a good knockout in boxing. For a few moments nothing was seen – silent changed to loud blows, screeches and wails; then we saw the instigator crawling toward her opponent in attempts to grip by the leg and overturn her. The standing one turned out to be defter - she managed to lay hold of the arm, twisted it behind the rival's back and treaded on her nape of the neck. I felt greatly relieved - I ached for the one who eventually emerged the victor. The defeated one screamed: "Release me, bitch!" and the other one left her alone…
In the story "How Cossacks chose brides", Peter Loboda tells how his ancestor chose a bride long ago. It was a big shortage of women in a Cossack settlement in Caucasus and a group of migrant girls arrived there for mating. The sequence of girl selection was established by the results of single combat between aspiring Cossacks. It was arranged as a festival. This is what happened then.
A stately girl was called in the circle and the challenger asks her what her skills are. Unexpectedly, she blunted out: "As you just managed to overwrestle your opponents, I can overwrestle any girl or woman here". People around livened up and became noisy and the Cossack offered: "Are here brave girls? Let you challenge her!" At first, the girls looked embarrassed but soon a girl stood up and a few more followed her. The Cossack chose the one who looked more solid and offered her to contend the daredevil girl. Girl wrestling was really an exoticism! But the girls were not mollycoddled at all – they were used to hard work. And they put up a good show, they wrestled well – both turned out to be daring. Well, the first courageous girl won, but her opponent made her sweat for it! After that, all the sudden, one of the volunteers boldly and persistently challenged the victor. Although she was tiny she looked bold and bright. The Cossack was forced to agree but told her: "OK, go but be please don't take it amiss if you are given a sound thrashing". It was not too fair because the first girl was a little out of breath after her tough bout whereas the challenger was fresh. Actually, the small girl turned out to be deft – she deliberately exhausted her bigger opponent by making feint moves back and forth forcing her to chase and waste energy. After all, the sharp lass ducked under the exhausted opponent and pulled her by legs to the back – without visible efforts. The spectators yelled and the Cossack, without a moment's hesitation, chose this lively tomboy as a bride (what she actually desired). The name of that Cossack was Loboda, he became a founder of a big clan – many people with this last name have spread all over the world…
Strong boisterous women always come across in Russia, which are inferior to no men. Mikhail Sholokhov in the novel 'Podnyataya Tselina' (Virgin Soil Upturned) wrote:
[Lubishkin] recalls an incident he witnessed one day in the Tubyansky mill – Marina took it into her head to wrestle against a fellow strapping in appearance, a Cossack from the other side of Don river. To cap the spectators' joy, she dexterously took him down, found herself at the top and pinned him. She thrashed him not just physically but also by a witticism. Taking breath she told him scornfully: "You shouldn't bother to be on top of a woman. With your strength you would rather lie at the bottom and snuffle". She stood up and moved away tidying her hair disarranged during the grappling and pulling her dress down into shape. Lubishkin remembers how the downed guy blushed for shame when getting up and shaking himself from flour and manure. He raised his hand and said to her: "Don't mess with me, I am gonna make mincemeat of you! Get out of here!" In response, Marina raised the hem of her skirt for a second and exposed the mat skin of her round pink knee and other parts of her solid powerful body…
This is a testimony of our contemporary, Eugene Z, who described a Pancake week fistfight in Izhevsk (Ural, Russia).
Yesterday, I was on the Pancake week street festival. Just was wondering how our old tradition looked like. While they were warming up, a tall robust guy attracted my attention, with hair plate. I even mocked him to myself – a fighter, indeed! Looked hard – the guy turned out to be not just female but a chesty one! Vigorous one, with the height something 6 feet. Being quite big she didn't look fat as big women usually do. The muscles are visible and no bulging belly. Just milk and roses. Her sweatshirt reminded a kimono. Loose pants didn't hide her big thighs. A strapping girl, all the same! After the warm-up, the fighters formed two teams. When the two walls engaged in the battle I lost sight of her. When the fighters came right, forming fighting pairs, I noticed her fighting a taller guy who looked a little puny as against her. It was a really hard-fought no-holds barred fight in semi-gloves! I enjoyed it very much! Poor guy! She literally beat him up but he was up to the mark and managed to rebuff. Finally, they engaged in a close-in slugfest intensively smashing each other's body until the guy fell to his knees. Then she stopped. The rest of the pairs continued fighting for a short while. A lot of sniffles and blood was on the faces! Even the snow was pink. As soon as the slugfest was over I approached to the fighter girl – a simpleton with a sulky look. Her lip was broken and her vis-a-vis held a cloth to his bleeding nose…
Finally, Batyr's selection "Strong women in the past" of historical data about Russian combative women in the old days. The most of the facts are taken from Mandzyak's research "Slavic military traditions".
In some Ukraine regions, girls participated in mass fisticuffs and brawls. For instance, in Lvov, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, hoodlum gangs called 'batyars' were famous as inveterate street fighters. They took girls to their showdowns in which the girls fought on a par with guys.
In some places in Saratov province, women's fights were a custom there. For example, women of the village of Okatnaya Maza gathered on the top on a local hill for hand-to-hand contests. Usually, two instigators began a single combat. Then other women joined the two and a heated battle started.
Perhaps, the tradition of women's combat was related to ancient pagan superstition that a female fight (as other women's physical contests) in the Pancake week increases chances for a good harvest: 'flax will grow long and good'. Flax and hemp picking was the women's destiny; that's why strong bold women had a high value.
Another known form of female combat was a girl VS. guy fighting or wrestling.
In the early 20th century, wrestling contests between girls and guys still was current during the celebrations of St. Peter and St. Paul holiday.
Interestingly, a web resource dedicated to the origin of Russian names says: "Mikhail's father was a mill owner and was a first-rate wrestler who competed with other men and always won until a woman defeated him and then became his wife.
Russian folklore contains a few songs having a similar plot: a guy challenges a girl for a fight and the girl eventually wins. Having won, she deliberately soils his clothing. Probably, this detail helps to believe in the indisputability of her victory.
These are two folk songs:
He wants a girl to wrestle him,
But all the girls just ran away,
Scared of his strength and valor,
Just Dunyasha was not scared,
Making up her mind to fight,
Managed over wrestling him,
Trampling on his girdle and cap…
A chap comes out of the gate,
He calls a daring girl:
- Come the girl out of the gate,
Let's wrestle with me, a nice guy.
Here's the girl who over wrestles him,
Rolled his blue caftan in dirt,
Tears his pink shirt apart,
Tears down his morocco boots,
Tousled his blond hair.
Perhaps, these are echoes of the ancient tradition tracing back to Scyths: a girl put a guy to the test challenging him for a fight. Such a story was described in the old Russian epic poem about the famous Russian hero Dobrynya and Polyanitsa (strongwoman) Mikulichna, who over powers him in combat and then marries him.
Dobrynya takes it into his head to attack her,
And he rides just into bold Polyanitsa,
And he blows her by his heavy club -
Directly to her turbulent head;
But she sits stock still on her war-horse,
Looking at the Russian hero wondering:
"I thought it just Russian mosquitoes bit,
But it turns out to be Russian hero snaps".
Then she grabs Dobrynya by his yellow curls
And resolutely dismounted him down…
Exclusive of the "Female Single Combat Club"