The 'mysterious' Russian
Combat SAMBO

This is a bit of mix-up with terms “ Combat SAMBO ” and “Sport SAMBO”.

SAMBO stands for Russian “SAMosashita Bez Orushia” - Self-defense Without Weapon. So, if it for self-defense, it is always “ Combat SAMBO ” and term “Sport SAMBO” become misnomer. Add on top of this that last two decades saw start of sporting competitions in “Combat SAMBO” in parallel with “Sport SAMBO” and the words looks like loosing any meaning.

Common encyclopedia entries usually just adding to confusion (see Wikipedia entry on " Combat SAMBO " as example).

I will try to clear the picture and to examine what Combat SAMBO is and what Combat SAMBO isn’t.

When Vasili Oshchepkov moved from Japan back to Russia in 1914 and opened the first Judo class in Vladivostok, he became the first truly qualified Jujutsu-Judo expert in Russia, but not the only one. By that time Japanese jujutsu already made inroads to The West. Traveling jujutsu prize-fighters amazed people in marketplace shows. Some of them even offered classes. Books ware published in the western languages, including Russian.

Victor Spiridonov was a low ranking commissioned infantry officer in Russian Czarists Army, survived the front lines of the Russian-Japanese war of 1905 and the German war theater of WWI. He had decorations for bravery. Russian infantry was renowned for its fierce bayonet charges. Even Russian standard infantry Mosin-Nagant rifles where zeroed with their long spike bayonet attached.

Based on available references, Victor Spiridonov is believed to be proficient in bayonet techniques and tactics as in “military-applied gymnastics”, the generic term that covered all physical skills that soldier should posses. He self-studied jujitsu in the form it’s appeared in the West from Russian and, possibly, other Western publications.

In the mid-1990, after demise of Soviet Union when hand-to-hand combat skills lost its “secret, for internal use only” subtitle, I ran across a re-print of Russian jujutsu book from 1905, possible one of the titles that Spiridonov might used. This book was nothing of interest for me (at the time I didn’t know that I’ll try to author this page) with drawn sketch figures in Western suits doing throws with one hand. Later I found reprint of book from 1909 “Jujitsu” by Kapa Ashikago (translation from English). It is not mach better, but showing the basics (even sacrifice throw). Better books had appear in other languages (for example: "The Complete Kano Jiu-Jitsu (Judo)" by Irving Hancock and Katsukuma Higashi in 1906 and “Judo Kyohan” by Sakujiro Yokoyama and Eisuke Oshima in 1915), but I’m not aware if Spiridonov had access to those publications.

Spiridonov accepted the Russian Bolshevik Revolution and from 1919 working with the Read Army. In 1921 he is starting development of the new hand-to-hand combat system “combined of the best techniques of already exiting systems”. A few years later it will become known as SAMBO.

I was lucky to hand and brows the original brown hard cover copy of Victor Spiridonov’s 1927 book “Self-defense without weapons by system of Jujutsu” published with “for internal use only” designation by OGPU . It was in the late 1980th... When my coach, who owned the book, gave it to me, he warned: “You won’t like it – it has almost no throwing techniques”. He was both, right and wrong: I was amazed by this little, pocket size format with just about 100 pages, book with high quality old style monochrome tan photographs of its author technical demonstrations and it has only four (4) throws (in no particular order) – (1) throw over shoulder with elbow lock, (2) throw with grapping both legs under knees, (3) sacrifice wheel throw, and (4) shoulder ‘wind wheel’ throw. Rest of the book described joint locks, punches, low level kicks, a few disarming techniques, and the street fight tactics with retrospect to everyday activities of the intended reader – catching well armed foreign spies on the crowded streets of peaceful Soviet cities.

A few years later I bought reprint of a two volumes manual “System SAMBO” by V. Volkov published in 1940, witch has no Spiridonov’s pictures, but almost full content of his book (and probably his later books from 1928 and 1933 that I never saw) combined with Oshchepkov’s Judo … Spiridonov sue Volkov over this book for plagiarism, but lost in a court due to quotation been less then a third (as one version of the formal reason that I heard, but indeed more likely because of the ignorance for "intellectual property" and for bias of the hearing that has been headed by his ill-wishers). However, I didn’t see yet materials of this law suit that said to be included in ‘System of SAMBO (collection of documents and source materials, 1933-1944)’ book, published in Russian by Alexander Kharlampiev in 2003 based on personal archive of his father, ‘Father of SAMBO’ Anatoly Kharlampiev ( this archive has more then just ‘true personal’ archive ).

Spiridonov has been highly regarded by his contemporaries and contributed not only to NKVD hand-to-hand combat study curriculum. He introduced training free-style fights (a.k.a. “randory” in Judo) and the first in Russia put attention to the timing of execution of technical elements. He called his system “SAM”, “SAMOZ”, and finally made up a word “SAMBO” that after 1946 became the name of the “ingenious Russian” Judo version that formally combined his style with Oshchepkov’s Judo without really mixing it (it worth to mention that in his lifetime Spiridonov was stanch opponent of any effort to such combination). So, Spiridonov’s part of SAMBO become known as “ Combat SAMBO ” and was taken over by the general leadership of Anatoly Kharlampiev.

From our, Judo, perspective we can formally see “ Combat SAMBO ” as modern jujutsu school with strong link to Judo because of using randory as a training method. And this last point is of critical significance: Spiridonov’s introduction of a randory training and competitions (including international: friendly match with German “proletarian” jujutsu masters has been won by Spiridonov’s team 2:1; this German jujutsu was more likely been of the Judo type) effectively removed the notion of “asymmetric warfare” and made his system de-facto into a Judo style. Wikipedia description (witch I see as a ‘community common wisdom’) is differentiating between ‘ Combat Sambo ’ and ‘Self-defense Sambo’. It looks artificial for me, but if we’ll take this classification as given, then Spiridonov’s SAMBO is a root of ‘Self-defense Sambo’ while ‘ Combat Sambo ’ is a different development, rooted in works of Nil Osnobishin and Ivan Solonevich not less then in Spiridonov’s.

Nil Osnobishin and Ivan Solonevich are another theoretics and practitioners of close-quarter-combat system of 1930 in the Soviet Union. As in case of Spiridonov, those books have been published by NKVD (at the time when it was law enforcement structure and therefore primarily targeted criminal investigators) and became reintroduced into the public domain only after demise of USSR and its Communist system.

Osnobishin’s approach is a truly synthetic and based on use of a handgun as the far line of defense (about 20 meter – 22 yard) and progressing to use of strikes at the short distance and arm-locks in the direct contact. He also advocates difference between military and police applications witch was revolutionary at the time.

Solonevich based his system primarily on boxing combined with arm locks.

Nowadays in Russia you will find numerous schools that stating linage from original Spiridonov and Osnobishin works. Some are claiming to be ‘authentic Russian’, some are ‘synthetic’. All those schools oriented toward military (predominantly) and police applications and I’ll refer to them in “Sport, combat, and self-defense” section .

Nowadays adepts of Spiridonov’s system often saying that its softer then Judo and more of the Akido style. However, prevalence of the arm locks vs. throws in his 1927 book is the only and insufficient argument for this. Even more, static over-shoulders throw (“wind mill throw”) used as defense against handgun pointing to the chest, by no chance can be attributed to Akido style.

On the other side, Oshchepkov’s disbarment demonstrations in the old documentary showing excellent dynamic balance control and precise circular movement, witch are trademarks of modern Akido techniques.

As to modern competitive ‘ Combat SAMBO ’ that it is a differently named MMA (Mixed Martial Art) style with its own ranking and symbols that allows veteran SAMBO coaches to earn a better leaving.


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