The story of SAMBO started...

The story of SAMBO started in 1914 as Vasili Oshchepkov moved from Japan back to Russia and opened the first Judo class in Vladivostok.

Vasili Oshchepkov has had the black belt of the 1st dan (out of the five at the time) from Jigaro Kano Kodokan institute (three years later, in 1917, he returnd back and received his 2nd dan).

It was beginning of the new era in Russia and Vasili Oshchepkov, willingly or not, took an active part in it.

When talking about Vasili Oshchepkov, I’m making use of biographical information published by Mikhail Lukashev [en][ru], article by Boris Hramov [ru], and article by Aleksandr Kulanov [ru]. Dispute of some conflicting statements in those sources (mostly timing of his military service in years of the Russian Civil War), the general Oshchepcov’s life-line is mostly cleared from cloud of unknown. According to Lukashev and Kulanov, Oshchepkov spend the first violent years of the Russian Revolution in Vladivostok working with the new Bolshevik government and the new Red Army (from 1921). Oshchepkov was conducting military intelligence missions in Japan and China under the cover of cinema distribution business (growing up in Japan, even getting Russian–Orthodox education, he knew classic Chinese which in Japanese education played the same role as French and Latin in Europe; he also knew English). Then Oshchepkov moved to Moscow where in the early 1929 he teaches Judo in the newly established Institute of Physical Education. Then, in 1937, he vanishes in the wave of Stalin’s Purge. The official indictment was for spying for Japan (see article by Aleksandr Kulanov [ru]). The official October 1937 death certificate is stating probable cause as a cardiac arrest (see article by Aleksandr Kulanov [ru]; Mikhail Lukashev’s published translated version stating “angina pectoris”).

According to Kulanov’s article (of 2007) the personal folder of Vasili Oshchepkov in Russia’s military archive has been classified as a secret (again).

Before going on with the role of Vasili Oshchepkov and his untimely death in the development of Judo in the former Soviet Union and creation of SAMBO, I would like to put his life into context of the Time and the Place.

As Vasili Oshchepkov was residing and teaching Judo in Vladivostok after his return from Japan in 1914, he found himself in the Far East center of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War, Japanese military intervention (as a part of Antanta forces sided with Wight Russian forces of Admiral Kolchak), violent establishment of the Soviet authoritarian rule. He accepted Soviet Authority and sided with it. He enlisted into the Red Army and become a “commander” (commissioned officer). Been multilingual and acting as a military interpreter and an intelligence officer for the young Red Army and due to his prominence as Judo expert, Oshchepkov was in contact with the high ranking officers of Far East (when in Vladivostok) and Siberian (when in Novosibirsk) Military Regions. Then, by invitation from Brigade Commander Boris Kalpus, he moved to Moscow.

When Vasili Oshchepkov moved to Moscow and became head of the newly established Judo department in the Institute of Physical Education, he was seen as the one from Far East or Siberian “military camp” (I don’t want to address the social structure of the Red Russia in 1930th at this place, it's a plenty of information exists, the important point is that it was no social mobility for individual without power structural support and Red Army was one of the most powerful structures along with CheKa/NKVD and Communist partisan bureaucracy). The following years the lucky stars of many military, intelligence, and political careers failed from the sky and broke into the smelly dust of GULAG and execution chambers. It was many reasons for Vasili Oshchepkov to get on the repression target list, but his Judo not likely been one of them (in different years of his prior life he has been no-commissioned officer in Tsarist Army counter-espionage division, interpreter in Japanese Imperial Army, commissioned officer in the Red Army military intelligence in the region, suspected for infiltration by Stalin’s ideological enemies; see article by Aleksandr Kulanov [ru]). In the “culture” of “guilty until proven innocent” Vasili Oshchepkov becames one in the long list of names…

According to “The Gulag Handbook” by Jacques Rossi, a “medical diagnosis” of “rapture of the coronary muscle” was used in the cases of death under interrogation… However, according to to Aleksandr Kulanov it may not be the case, and Vasili Oshchepkov more likely died in the custody from his pre-existing health condition cause even before formal interrogation started and this may likely spare his wife from GULAG and his personal property (including his archive) from confiscation. Unfortunately this excellent article (witch includes even copies of the original documents) not available in English translation (as of mid-July 2009; link to “Google Translate”version should be treated with reservations due to interpretation errors: as an example, the title of the first section should read as “Top Security Clearance” instead of “Zero tolerance”).

Vasili Oshchepkov was a good pupil of Kano and Judo, he use to teach in Russia, was no different from the one he practiced in Kodokan. He left Kodokan in 1914 and received his 2nd dan during a short visit in 1917, so “Judo Kyohan” by Sakujiro Yokoyama and Eisuke Oshima, first published in Japan in 1908 (and in the English translation in 1915), would most likely be the closest description of the original Oshchepkov’s style.

Dr. Kano himself was anything, but orthodox. He kept his personal diary in English, he promoted baseball in Japan and Judo outside of it and, in the isolationist culture of his native land, he was able to rise to high prominence at home and get high respect from abroad.

In line with this Kano’s personal tradition and with revolutionary spirit of the day, Oshchepkov doesn’t restrict himself to formalities. He filtered out overcomplicated and hard to learn techniques and dropped formal kata training. He allowed his students, that came from devised wrestling and social backgrounds, to use their familiar technique not restricted to approved “Judo techniques”. He encouraged cross-disciplinary study... And it was not just Oshchepkov: at about the same time Maeda started what becames Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

One of Oshchepkov’s pupils in Moscow Institute of Physical Education was Evgeni Chumakov. Pre-WWII champion of the Soviet Union who kept on this title in the after-war years as well, the Distinguished Master of Sport of the Soviet Union in SAMBO Dr. Evgeni Chumakov becomes the first and only (as of 1989) PhD in Education with subject of study “SAMBO”. I was lucky to know and to learn from his student – Stanislav Ionov -, long time the Head Coach of the SAMBO team of the Soviet Union in 1980th.

As Ionov told me, on the question what he practiced before and after 1938 (the official year of establishing of SAMBO Wrestling as a sport discipline under the name of “Freestyle Wrestling”) Chumakov’s answer was “Judo”.

As Vasili Oshchepkov disappeared from the face of the Earth in 1937 (his wife wasn’t informed of his death until two years later), his Judo students had some very hard choices to make. In the height of Stalin repression’s “witch hunt” it becames inherently risky to be associated with “enemy of the people” Vasili Oshchepkov and his “imperialistic” Japanese military teachings of Judo. It was even more highlighted by military confrontation developed into short but full fledged war between Red Russia and Imperial Japan in Manjuria. Soviet anti-Japanese propaganda got to its heights. Even popular songs were written to confront “Japanese Samurais”. Keeping practicing Judo as-is in those circumstances was the suicidal lose-lose proposition.

Among Oshchepkov’s pupils in Moscow Institute of Physical Education were a few people who become instrumental in Judo’s survival in the Red Russia and in creation of SAMBO. Lukashev is listing names. Most important among them, from the historical prospective, became Nikoly Galkovski and Anatoly Kharlampiev.

In his late years, Vasili Oshchepkov, as the lead expert on Judo in the Soviet Russia and head of the Judo department in Moscow Institute of Physical Education, worked on instructional and methodical materials for his students. He published some (hard to find nowadays) articles and been preparing a manuscript. He created numerous photographic illustrations that have been partly presented by Evgeni Chumakov on the meeting in Moscow in commemoration of 50th anniversary of establishing SAMBO in 1988. After Vasili Oshchepkov failed victim of Stalin’s repressions in 1937, his uniquely valuable material had no way to be published under his name. So, it was Anatoly Kharlampiev and Nikoly Galkovski who got those materials from Oshchepkov’s widow, Anna Oshchepkov. Nikoly Galkovski replaced Oshchepkov’s photographs with his own, made it into a book, and published it in 1940 under his own name and the title “Freestyle Wrestling”. This book historically became the first book on SAMBO Wrestling in an open publication (book by R.A.Shkolnikov, other student of Oshchepkov, was published in Ukraine a half year earlier, but it was a small number of printed copies and it wasn’t known to the ‘outside world’). Anatoly Kharlampiev published his well known book “SAMBO Wrestling”, that heavily based on this Oshchepkov’s archive, in 1949 under his own name as well.

Accounts and judging on Nikoly Galkovski’s conduct in this affair are differ. One the one hand, he preserved Vasili Oshchepkov’s heritage and even said to pass to Anna Oshchepkov part of the royalties for the book. Also, he reportedly, never tried to present himself as more then he really was. On the other hand, he went to separate himself completely from his teacher and even cut out Oshchepkov’s face from the group photograph of Oshchepkov with his students that included himself (which was common practice at that time and place), and he has been said to take advantage of the tragic situation of Anna Oshchepkov more then he should. I don’t feel to have rights for my own judging…

After conclusion of the WWII Soviet Union entered into international Olympic movement. This marked the first start of introduction and development in the Soviet Union of the Olympic Freestyle (American) Wrestling. The Soviet Judo ceded its “Freestyle Wrestling” name to the Olympic newcomer and along with it also a part of its best coaching and wrestling stuff (it was politically important to the Soviet rulers to succeed in the upcoming 1952 Summer Olympics in Rome and the move of stuff into the new Olympic sport disciplines from the none-Olympic has been mandated). The name “SAMBO Wrestling” has been created and Nikoly Galkovski continued his career as a prominent Olympic Freestyle Wrestling coach (and later he also returned to Olympic Judo).

The role of Anatoly Kharlampiev in Soviet Judo-SAMBO is hard to underestimate. He put a significant effort to make sure he will never be forgotten. Anatoly Kharlampiev is tagged as the “Father of SAMBO” and kept tight on this title. Mikhail Lukashev is addressing this in length in his article.

But the role of Anatoly Kharlampiev also should not be underestimated. It was only about a year after arrest and tragic death of “Japanese spy” and “enemy of the people” Vasili Oshchepkov, when Anatoly Kharlampiev was able to turn the tide and call all-Russia meeting that established the “new” sporting discipline of the “all-Soviet” “Freestyle Wrestling” on the painfully hidden politically deadly Judo foundation. To do this he created an urban legend about him going around and collecting folk wrestling techniques on advice of his father, which became his trademark. Oshchepkov’s Judo got the new name, the new “history”, and the new “founding father”. Oshchepkov’s name has been erased, but Anatoly Kharlampiev saved Oshchepkov’s archive (Kharlampiev’s son Alexander still keeping on it with preventing public access) and preserved work of his life. It also has been said that, unlike Nikoly Galkovski and many others, Anatoly Kharlampiev kept Oshchepkov’s pictures and didn’t cut out his face from the group photographs.

In all this the story of SAMBO is just a small snap-shot of Russian history of the time…

Anatoly Kharlampiev was a good administrator and under his leadership and protection SAMBO survived all those year against all odds, even when its adored rising star sibling, Olympic Judo, came along with its inclusion into the upcoming 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. There were voices among Soviet sport bureaucrats that it's no need for two very similar jacket wrestling styles and that non-Olympic SAMBO should be dropped altogether in favor of Olympic Judo. The largest part of the credit that it didn’t happen is going to Anatoly Kharlampiev.

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