In the USSR, interest in martial arts and hand-to-hand combat grew considerably in the early 20th century. However, a shrouded history of secrecy, repression and forgotten masters resulted from the state's involvement and control over these disciplines. Through the stories of renowned schools and their masters, state-imposed restrictions and the resilience of the martial arts community in the face of adversity, this article explores the rise of martial arts in the Soviet Union.
The Rise of Martial Arts in the Early 1920s
In the early 1920s of the last century there was a dramatic increase in interest in various martial arts, especially hand-to-hand combat. Although the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) controlled most of them at that time, there were still many martial arts that they could not control. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the best masters were usually part of the NKVD, and only people sent there could be trained by them.
State Monopoly and Secrecy in Martial Arts
Slowly the "secrecy" of the best fighting techniques began. Although at first glance it might seem that only the most perfect techniques were kept secret, the point was something else. Already at that time there was an absolute centralisation by the "state monopoly" and this applied to all manifestations of martial arts. The spread of any hand-to-hand system to the masses was simply not allowed.
Legal Regulations and Restrictions on Martial Arts
From the beginning of 1923, the situation in the country was further aggravated by the issuance of the first legal regulations. According to the regulations, ordinary citizens were prosecuted for "exceeding the limits of protection" (as you can understand, this was just a pretext for restriction). By the end of 1926, even legal parts of the martial arts, including boxing and wrestling, were restricted. All techniques were now only allowed for "official use" and could only be used by "authorised" people.
The Transformation of Sports Schools
Gradually, all sports shools began to take on the character of military organisations with strict discipline. If sports literature had been free and popular until the 1920s, this was no longer the case. Severe punishments were meted out to those who used any semblance of hand-to-hand combat in public.
The Oznobishin School and its Restricted Access
The popular school of Oznobishin at that time remained faithfully open for the longest time, but soon spread only with the stamp "DSP" (DSP - 'for official use only'). The same fate befell the schools of I. Solonevich. Little is known about him, although his school was very popular. Only extracts from 1928 have survived. With the support of the NKVD, A.F. Kiselev, head of one of the departments of the National Commissariat, made the following statement: "Solonevich's technique is a combined boxing and jujitsu". He made extensive use of painful holds, locks and fast throws.
The Mysterious Solonevich School
A.F. Kiselev's Analysis
Although Kiselev was modest about Solonev's technique, he studied it very thoroughly and did not find any jiu-jitsu techniques in it. He also made a comparison between the two schools of Oznobishin and Solonevich. The conclusion was that the schools were very similar in their orientation, ranging from "lever jams" to a clear division of the fight into two and four phases. Both masters tried to consider techniques against an armed opponent with the aim of preventing him from attacking with a revolver or a dagger. The techniques against the knife, however, are somewhat clumsy in both schools. It was assumed that the opponent would only attack with stabbing movements, completely excluding variants of cutting attacks. In essence, both schools were training street fighters rather than real masters, which fully justified the needs of the time.
Comparison with the Oznobishin School
It should be noted that Solonevich had a much better command of French boxing techniques than Oznobishin. Oznobishin, on the other hand, had a head start in the technique of "stopping" leg kicks and had an excellent arsenal of foot fighting techniques.
The Suppression and Forgetting of Great Masters
As mentioned, Solonevich's school was quite serious and mysterious rumours circulated around it, far more so than any other school of the time. Everyone now knows what fate befell almost all martial arts masters. If a school was deemed 'unsuitable', it would disappear in a flash, along with its head master.
Things were so crazy in the USSR in terms of bans that even when the forced sambo monopoly began, all its teachers were afraid to mention their great predecessors. This was the case with the legendary Solonevich: suppressed, classified and then forgotten.
The Persistence of Martial Arts Despite Prohibitions
In spite of all the prohibitions in the USSR, we must not forget that the human will has always played a decisive role, also in the martial arts. Dozens of years after the martial arts were completely classified, young people appeared out of nowhere who were good at the techniques of their great teachers! One conclusion - no matter how hard you try, there will always be people more capable of carrying their knowledge and skills through any "curtain"...