The tradition of fist fighting existed in Russia from times immemorial till the early 20th century. Apart from being a sort of sportive folk entertainment it was a peculiar fighting school that developed skills necessary for defense of the native land.
Russia had its own martial arts traditions. The Slavs were known all over Europe as valiant warriors. Since wars were not infrequent in Russia every man had to possess fighting skills. Starting from early age children learnt through various games, wrestling and throwing how to stand up for oneself and one’s family and defend the motherland. When kids grew up games turned into real combats known as fist fights.
The first records of such fights were made by Nestor the chronicler in 1048. Fist fights were often held on the Veliki (i.e. ‘great’) Bridge in Novgorod.
Rules and Types of Fist Fighting
Fist fights were usually held on holidays, with the raging of combats starting during Maslenitsa (Pancake Week). In summer the fights took place in squares and in winter on ice-covered rivers and lakes. Both common folks and traders took part in the fights. Depending on the number of fighters they were of different types, such as single combats, or group line combats: “street vs street”, “village vs village”, or “suburb vs suburb”.
The oldest type of combats was the Russian version of Greek Pankration, mix-fight without rules. It was called something roughly translated as “grappling fight” and “helter-skelter scuffle”. It was the kind tussle when every wrestler fought for oneself and against everybody, without any formation or order. “One had to have not only dexterity and strong blow, but also outstanding composure”, N. Razin pointed out.
The most widespread type of fist fighting was “line to line” battle. The battle fell into three parts: first boys would fight, then unmarried youths and later only mature men. It was not allowed to beat a fighter in a lying, crouching or squatting position and clutch at the clothes. The task of each side was to make the opponent flee or retreat at least. The side that lost “the field” (the area of fighting) was considered defeated. Each of the sides had its leader, who determined the fighting tactics and encouraged his comrades. Each of the teams also had “fighters of hope” meant to break the line of the “enemy” by tearing off several combatants at once. Special technique was applied against such “fighters of hope”: the line parted letting the “hope” inside, where special fighters expected them, and closed up at once, without allowing the enemies line in. the fighters that faced the “hope” were experienced masters of one-to-one combats.
One-to-one combats were the most appreciated kind of fighting. It was similar to the old hand boxing in England. The Russian fighting was, however, milder because there was a rule prohibiting to beat a recumbent opponent (Never hit a man when he is down!), whereas in England this rule was introduced not before 1743. One-to-one combats could be organized by a special person or happened spontaneously. In the former case a fight was appointed on certain time and place, and in the latter case it could burst out in any gathering place, such as fairs and festivities.
If necessary, one-to-one fist fights even served to confirm a defendant’s rightness in a legal case. That way to prove one’s case was called ‘the field’ and existed till the death of Ivan the Terrible. Russian fist fighters used only fist blows and no armament of course. They used three striking surfaces, which corresponded to the three striking surfaces of weapons: capitulars of basidigital bones (like pricking with a weapon), base of the fist on the little finger side (like chopping with a weapon) and capitulars of proximal phalanxes (like hitting with the butt of a weapon). It was permitted to beat any part of the body above the waist, but usually they tried to hit into the head, the solar plexus and under the ribs. Continuation of the fight on the ground was never allowed. There were certain rules that prohibited beating a person that was recumbent or bleeding. Violation of these rules was severely punished. In spite of those strict rules combats sometimes had deplorable results: fighters could get permanent injuries or even die.
Struggling Against Fist Fights
The Slavs venerated Peroun as the patron of martial arts. After Christening of Russia authorities initiated struggle with pagan rites, which included also fighting competitions in honour of Peroun.
In 1274 Metropolitan Kirill with a council in Vladimir decreed among other laws “to unchurch those participating in fist fights and stake fights and not perform funeral services over those killed in such fights”. The clergy considered fist fighting to be a sacriligious deed and thus punished the participants according to church laws. This censure lead to the fact that during the reign of Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich (1584 - 1598) not a single fist fight was recorded. The government usually did not approve fist fights, but also did not prosecute them.
Real limitation of fist combats started in the 17th century. In 1641 Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich decreed: “those people who start a fight in the centre of Moscow should be seized and punished”. In 1686 fist fights were prohibited and punishments were set for their participants: “for the first record to beat them with rods and charge a file, for the second record beat them with whips and charge a file twice as much, and for the third record beat with a whip and exile to remote places for life”.
Nevertheless, in spite of all the decrees, fist fights went on existing, and the participants now started to elect a referee who watched over the observance of all the rules of fight.
It is known that Peter the First liked to arrange fist fights “in order to demonstrate daring courage of the Russian people”.
In 1751 severe fights raged in Millionnaya Street in the centre of Saint Petersburg. After learning about them the Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna tried to cut down the number of dangerous combats and passed a decree prohibiting them in Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Under Catherine the Second, however, fist fights were very popular. Count Grigory Orlov was a skilled fighter and often invited famous fist fighter to try strength against him.
Nicholas the First totally prohibited fist fights “as detrimental pastime” in 1832.
After the October Revolution of 1917 fist fighting was ascribed to vestiges of the tsarist regime and, since it did not turn into an official sport, gradually ceased to be.
The 1990s saw the first attempts to revive schools and styles of old Slavic martial arts, including Russian fist fighting.