At a Systema seminar in Phoenix, Arizona, ICSA Founder the late Brandon Sommerfeld and his senior combatives Instructor Kwan Lee seized a rare opportunity to quiz two masters of Russian Martial Art SYSTEMA - Vladimir Vasiliev and Konstantin Komarov. Brandon and Kwan caught up with these fascinating masters of combat during some seminar downtime and they generously agreed to wax lyrical on everything from faith and fighting spirit to the changing face of modern military combat. Enjoy.
Brandon (B): Thanks for agreeing to the interview - I’ve been looking forward to it.
Vladimir (VV), Konstantin (KK): Our pleasure.
We have ten or so questions for you. The one I’d like to start with is: what would you consider to be the most important virtue of a warrior?
VV: Calmness and faith, connected together. If you believe, then you are calm. If you don't then you are full of haste.
B: Okay. Now what would you consider to be the most important skill or attribute of a warrior?
VV: If you have spirit, then skill will come. You cannot focus on skill alone - if you do, it will be empty, incomplete, and not productive or practical in reality. But if you have real substance and spirit, then skill will just be built naturally upon it.
KK: I would add the skill of knowing why you're doing what you're doing - what it is for. You have to understand the underlying principles. The real skill is in understanding yourself - then things become clear.
VV: It is very difficult, because soldiers should not think too much, they just need to do.
KK: But thinking is one thing, and understanding yourself is quite different.
VV: This is true. A soldier needs enough skill and understanding to carry through his mission and come out alive. That's it - just protect the country and stay alive.
B: What are some of the changes you have noticed, if any, in comparing modern-day military combatives with those of the past?
KK: Before, it was more shoulder-to-shoulder, fighting together. Now people are further apart, it becomes more difficult. People used to love their motherland more in the old days. You cannot fight for money, only for an idea. If it's for money, you're not willing to go to the end, you're not willing to die. (or, who's going to enjoy the money that you earned..?)
KK: Now it's different also because of the development of technology. It used to be more face-to-face; now it's ever more distant. You shoot, and you don't really see the person. Before, in the old days, if there was something rotten inside your fellow soldier, it would show immediately during battle. Now, with technology, he can live with this rotten approach for a much longer time.
B: Were you initially attracted to the combative arts, or was it something you were simply assigned to?
KK: I liked them from childhood.
VV: I always liked it, my whole life. It was a true calling!
B: What do you consider to be the major difference between military combative arts and civilian martial arts?
VV: You can't even compare - they're not even standing next to each other.
KK: In military arts, you have to achieve your goal in the shortest amount of time, with the smallest amount of means, whereas with civilian arts it's a whole process... it's very long.
VV: In the military, you learn to kill. The whole idea is to kill. Not to "fight" - that's different. Special Operations Units, they study more. Even within these Special Ops Units, people usually come with some sort of background in boxing, grappling, ground fighting, and they use this. But to give the solider the idea to "fight" is wrong. It's completely wrong. He cannot fight. It's impossible. If he's "fighting", it means he's not ready. If he's not ready, it means he will not survive.
KK: Sometimes Spetsnaz has both. It has the ability to perform a variety of work. For example, when the special units have to capture the opponents alive and do specific work with them.
Kwan Lee (KL): Specifically for hand-to-hand combat, at what point is the soldier or operative expected to come up with his own way of fighting?
KK: If there’s a need for it. First, you need to look at the question of why do you need an army? It’s not to defend the motherland. The army is needed so that a young person matures. So that he stops being infantile and grows up. And you have to understand this; otherwise you get a weird view of the purpose of military training. Hand-to-hand combat is needed not to solve problems, but to make a person into a person, in the full sense of the word. So that a man becomes a man. That’s a more global and complete challenge, compared with just beating someone up.
KL: So ideally, they should be working to better themselves and to develop themselves from the very beginning… But I was thinking more of the military combatives that we’re trying to drill into the lower-level soldiers. There’s a certain point, you have said before, when there’s a need to transcend the basics and move to more advanced work.
KK: In Russia, the way the military structure was built, it was not important to have these things – it was more for bringing people up. The army is just an excuse to make men go through this “manly” training. Of course, you also learn things, and become more capable to defend the motherland. But that was secondary. Only when a man matures can he develop his own style and techniques.
B: How important is faith for the warrior?
VV: It's the foundation.
KK: In challenging times, you must have faith. And there are different levels of faith. There is faith in God - that's the highest one. Then faith in your country, then maybe faith in your commander would come next... it's different for every person, but you must have it.
VV: It is the fundamental point of origin, this faith. Sometimes you will lose it. You know, in Russia, during communism, people lost it. But there was a point that connected even people who didn't formally accept faith. They still had that connection, because they were ready to die for their motherland, or for their loved ones. And that's close - it connects to God.
B: I like the saying that "there are no atheists in foxholes". You know, that's true. I know I've seen it in myself - and in other people - when it's time to go to war, they all start praying every day. I know I did. Every day, right away...
Okay - next question: what makes Systema unique compared to, maybe, Combat Sambo or to other fighting arts around the world?
KK: All the other martial arts have a specific goal: achieving victory in a certain competition, or achieving a certain technique or level of skill. Systema is very wide - from Systema, you can go into any martial art. It's like you're up at the top of the hill, and you can go down in any direction. But notice that it's a going down process.
VV: It's hard for people to understand or accept Systema sometimes. Because the primary thing is to work on yourself, and people don't usually like that. It means facing their laziness, pride, and other things.
KK: First of all, Systema is victory over oneself. When you can overcome yourself, then you can fight other people.
B: Systema places a huge emphasis on proper breathing. Why is this so important?
KK: Because the internal processes of the body cannot be controlled by any other means. We cannot consciously control our internal organs. There is no other key to our subconscious and nervous system, other than through breathing. And if you cannot control your nervous system, you cannot do effective work.
B: My last question - where do you see the future of Systema heading?
VV: Well, we're building a new, website with enhanced training opportunities and have moved to a new headquarters gym. In a wider sense, strong people should be holding Systema. Unfortunately, there are not too many of them. Weak people take Systema apart, bit-by-bit. If strong people could hold the whole thing - that would be ideal.
KK: We can talk about ideally where we'd like to see Systema, and then realistically where it's likely to be. Systema carries within it a fundamental background for any athletic preparation, and that's where we would like to see it. Also, Systema has huge potential for working with youths - especially difficult, challenging youths. I have been working with groups like these for a while. Also, Systema has huge potential for helping ordinary people deal with everyday stress. Really, Systema can answer all of the challenges a person faces in everyday life, because it makes a person calm, able to think clearly, and able to see things clearly. But here is the challenge - and this goes back to what Vladimir said about strong people - not everybody is able to make the sacrifice, accept it, and work on themselves. It's a big thing to digest. So here we are, working from an ideal situation and facing reality...
B, KL: That’s it from us. Thank you very much. Those were some great answers.
VV, KK: You had some great questions! Thank you.
About the Authors:
Brandon Sommerfeld was a Systema Instructor certified under Vladimir Vasiliev. Since 2002, he had been training with Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Ryabko and teaching Systema at his school, Russian Martial Art West Point located in Virginia. Brandon Passed away 13 January 2013. Rest in Peace Sir.
Kwan Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is one of the most experienced instructors of Systema trained by Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Ryabko. Kwan is a structural engineer for military aerospace. Currently residing in Seattle, Washington, he teaches classes and seminars for professionals as well as the general public.
This article was published on April 19, 2011.