The Stigma Behind Systema: Russia's Obscure Martial Art
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Health and Wellness

The Stigma Behind Systema: Russia's Obscure Martial Art

An Interview with an Instructor

The Stigma Behind Systema: Russia's Obscure Martial Art
Andrew Carper

I interviewed Andy Carper, a good friend of mine, about the Russian martial art, Systema, which you've most likely never heard of, and neither had I. He often goes through phases of total dedication and infatuation as most of us are guilty of, as well, but I wholeheartedly believe, especially after this conversation, that Systema will remain in his life for quite a while.

When we first met, he had aspirations of becoming a great, famous musician, as did I. After coming to college, he and I both realized that wasn't an attainable future. So, I started writing and he did his thing, as you will find out soon enough.

Here is that conversation:

So, we’ve known each other quite a while, I think.

It’s been a few years, yeah.

I knew you all through elementary school, but I’m not sure if you even knew of me.

I remember seeing you. I mean, shit, you lived right across the street from Krout. Elementary school, junior high, but I don’t think we spoke until junior year.

No, but there was one point when I was a freshman, I had this guitar I was working on in shop class. I went through the sophomore hall, I think… ugh, someone took a shit.

Yeah, Jasper’s got farts.

But everyone was making fun of me because I had this crappy, wooden guitar in my hands. Then you said, oh, that looks pretty cool. I’ve always remembered that. Then, what, a year or two later, we started playing in a band together. You were pretty dead-set on becoming a musician at that point.


You were into The Eagles, Tom Petty, Pink Floyd.

Still am, that hasn’t changed.

Goddamn, that fucking fart, man. It’s getting to me.

That’s the dog for ya.

As we all do, you have a lot of spurts of things you like doing. Like, specific things.

You know, it’s funny… oh, god, that is a potent fart. Let me get some spray. Jasper, you little butthole! That’s disgusting.

With that being said, what made you take on Judo?

It was something I had wanted to do since I was a kid. I never got into it as a child. There were a couple things that held me back. I always had an interest in martial arts, though. Not only did it look cool, but I always wanted to learn some form of self-defense. I never wanted to be one of those people that felt vulnerable.

Did you ever take Karate as a kid?

No, and I know every kid did. And I don’t know if it was the fact that my mom thought it would be too dangerous or what. I wanted to, but felt like I didn’t have the opportunity to do so.

That shit’s expensive, too.

Yeah. All in all, I’m glad I didn’t do it. The things I’ve started to learn from the people I spend my time with…I’ve just kind of figured out that everything happens for a reason. The path that I’m on right now, there’s a reason for it. And it was just by happenstance that I signed up for Judo. Freshman year of college, Mitch, a guy on my floor, and I had talked about signing up for a Karate class on campus just because. We had similar interests as kids. The Karate class wasn’t open that semester, but the Judo class was. Mitch didn’t do it. I don’t remember if he pussied out or it didn’t fit his schedule. But, that was the class. That was how I got hooked into it. The first day, he had us throwing each other, rolling around on the ground, and I thought, man, there is definitely something to this. It was pretty fucking cool.

You were into it. It was your life for a while.

It was my life. I think it was about three consistent years, taking one summer off. Three to five days a week either in a class, or teaching through the university as a teaching assistant. I definitely went into it full bore.

Then you got out of it because of some personal and political shit.

There were a lot of reasons why I left. They didn’t become apparent until I had met Matt McCormick, who we both know. Dear friend Matt. I started to see how people train Systema. It showed me that a lot of characteristics that I had taken on had controlled my personality. It wasn’t good. I turned into an asshole, you know? I got cocky, egotistical. We were going to these Judo competitions and kicking ass. We went to State, fighting black belts. Winning competitions. We went up to Niagara Falls for the first international competition ever. I didn’t do great, but I brought back a medal. All these things started to build up my ego. Because what Judo is today, in America and the rest of the world, is a sport. When it was first founded by Jigoro Kano in the 1800s, it was not created to be a sport. It was created to be a defense system for fitness and discipline. That’s what it was all about: discipline and, at the end of the day, learning to defend yourself. As time progressed, it was brought into the Olympics and the original meaning and the essence of what it was just disappeared. It was forgotten, turned into an ego-fest, a meat-fest. Who’s the strongest, the fastest, the best. Just about winning. After I spent some time with Matt and learned how Systema was trained, I understood a lot of things about myself and what made Judo the way it was. I realized it wasn’t healthy for me.

Then you moved on to Systema. I know little about it, but would you want to explain it?

Sure. It wasn’t an immediate transition. It took me about six to eight months. The first time Matt showed me some videos, I thought it was a crock of shit. When I was working in the office, I watched Judo videos and mapped out the combinations for the class I was going to teach later. I didn’t know Matt too terribly well at that point, but we had chatted. I knew that he was an intelligent guy; well-versed, educated and a martial artist. And he walks up to me and says, oh, what are ya watching there? Some Judo videos? Ever heard of Systema? No, what’s that? It’s a Russian martial art. Type in Zettler Systema Twins. Okay. This video clip pops up of these twins and it looked like they were dancing with each other. It was ridiculous. You look at these videos and see one guy waving his fucking arms, something you’d see in a car commercial. One brother was dancing around the other and he kept falling, but it didn’t look like anything was going on. I gave Matt a look. He said type in Vladimir Vasiliev. So, I pull it up and he’s at a seminar with a group of people and a guy comes at him with a knife. He kept disarming him, but it looked like the guy was just falling to the ground without being touched. Matt, what is this you’re showing me? Then I pull up Mikhail Ryabko. He is the grandmaster of Systema. He’s a big, fat guy who has to be over three-hundred pounds. He keeps barely hitting this guy in the chest and he collapses to the ground. The guy’s having trouble breathing, holding his chest like he was writhing in pain. I say to him what is this crap you’re showing me? This isn’t real. I just sat there and humored him.

That’s what I do when you show me videos.

I know. He said, come over to 330. I wanna show you some stuff. So, we go to the multi-purpose room. Mind you, I had just gotten back from the State competition in the black belt division as an orange belt. I fought a guy who had twenty-two years’ experience and beat him. I was on cloud nine. Full of myself at the time. So, I walk into this room and Matt’s standing there. And you know Matt. He’s about seventy, like five-foot-six, maybe one-hundred-and-thirty-pound little man. He tells me to grab ahold of him. So, I think to myself, alright, old man, being the cocky guy I am. As I walk over to grab him, before I could touch him with my hand, he hits me eight times, all over my body and didn’t see a single one. Next thing I knew, I was in a pretzel. Matt has his knee on my chest. There was no aggression, no anger. It wasn’t violent, but it hurt like hell, dude. I’m pinned. Then I get up, shake it off, act like what he did didn’t hurt at all. And I think, okay, that was a fluke; there’s no way. Let’s try that again. So, I reach out and he does the exact same fucking thing to me. I’m tangled, but he’s gliding. That was the moment that my ego had gotten out of control. This 70-year-old, little old man could put me on the ground with absolute no effort. From that day on, I kept training with him, two to four days a week. And I was still teaching Judo. It was weird because I had this battle going on inside of me. I had been putting so much time into Judo. It was a part of me, it was there. But I saw what Systema offered. All these health benefits. At the end of the day, it’s more of a healthcare system than it is a martial art. There’s combat and defense, but it was offering me things that Judo couldn’t. In Judo, I was getting beat up, dude. You get thrown, you get injured. I dislocated my thumb, blew out my knee, fucked up my toe a couple times. I found that when training Systema, I felt like I was getting healthier. It was equally effective without the aches and pains. It made sense.

In a sentence, what is it?

It’s not just a martial art, it’s a lifestyle.

That was my next question. At any point did you or still believe that it’s just a hobby as opposed to a way of life? But as you said, it is a way of life.

For sure. And I don’t want to bash Judo by any means. It just wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted something that provided discipline. There are a lot of things you can take away from Judo in terms of self-defense. But at the end of the day, it’s a sport. My instructor was a former Olympic alternate, training Kayla Harrison. A badass. He knows his stuff. But it wasn’t what I was looking for. I allowed my ego to spiral. I was training for all the wrong reasons. To fight rather than to survive.

So, it’s not just a physical thing, but psychological as well.

More psychological than physical.

How likely is it that you’d use this in normal, everyday life?

I hope I’ll never have to. When I was into Judo, I always had this hope inside me that someone would try to start a fight with me. Attack me in the alley, or whatever, just so I could kick the shit out of them. That’s not a healthy mentality. I didn’t realize it until after the fact. That all stemmed from fear. One of the pillars in Systema is to acknowledge aggression and face fear. You can never eliminate fear, but you’ll always have the choice: are you going to let the fear control you or are you going to control your fear? That was a pinnacle moment for me in my training. I feel more capable of handling any situation that comes my way, whether it’s a knife, a gun, multiple people, or running under that rape-y bridge with the gang signs and graffiti. I don’t hope that happens, but I know in my head that I’m prepared. We prepare for every possible scenario. The psychological training is key. You can be the toughest motherfucker around, but if you can’t have a sound mind, be relaxed, you’re not going to survive. You’ll forget everything you learned. You must learn to stop the adrenaline from kicking in. Then you can pay attention to what’s happening and be aware of your surroundings. Survive and prevail.

It sounds like you have to be in a certain mindset to do this.

You should be free of any negative emotion. They almost describe it as being “cold.” And it’s not that you’re heartless, you’re just not letting fear or aggression guide your decisions. You’re just free and relaxed. From there, you’re able to act soundly.

Is it for everyone?

I honestly think so. Even if you never get into a physical confrontation in your life, and I hope no one ever does, there’s so much more to be taken away from it. It’s not just physical, it’s the psychological, as well. And I’ve noticed that it’s creeped into every aspect of my life. And that’s why I say Systema could be for everyone. I used to be an aggressive, little shit when I was a kid. I never knew why, but I was always so tightly wound. My mom always told me that. I never understood it until I knew what it was like to be relaxed. I’ve noticed that I react differently to every situation now. Before you came over, I broke a bowl. Me five years ago would’ve flipped shit. Goddamn, son of a bitch, aghhhh! Just pissed off. Not just to say a word, but all that emotion and anger behind it. That kind of thing is gone. I don’t feel angry or pent up hostility in my life, or even a need to. Even if I get in a fight with Nichole, it’s not something that lasts. My disagreements aren’t fueled by hateful thoughts. I can’t get angry anymore. It’s weird.

Do you miss it?

No. I feel so much better. And the thing is, I’m only at the beginning stages of this journey. I said it’s a lifestyle. You’re never going to stop learning or making improvements. I’m aware of a lot of my faults, you know? I tend to overthink, especially in relationships. I have a hard time admitting when I’m wrong, apologizing sincerely. But I’m aware of it and it’s something that this psychological training has showed me. Every day, I feel like I’m making steps toward the person that I want to be. In no way is it becoming a new person. It’s finding who you are and unlocking what makes you a human being. Allowing you to be yourself. Not having to put up a façade or illusion. It allows you to let go of anything unnecessary and see the light. Not to sound too spiritual. And you know me. I’m not a religious guy, whatsoever. I don’t drink the Kool-Aid. But there is no doubt something beyond the physical and psychological with this. Not a god or all-powerful being, but just peace and harmony. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is something I experience while doing Systema that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. I feel like I’ve finally found what I’ve been looking for.

To me, it seems like the only thing people care about are aesthetics. They care about the numbers on the scale and having a six-pack. They care about how much weight they lift. That’s cool and all, but at the end of the day, is that functional? I mean, what does a six-pack do for you?

Gets you chicks.

It gets you chicks, yeah. But Systema training, with the Russian style, gives you the drive to be as fit and healthy as you can possible be, physically and mentally. It doesn’t mean you’re going to have giant muscles. It’s all about strengthening your joints and breathing properly. The will to push on and prevail. All of that goes hand in hand. There are no techniques taught. The principle Matt taught me is called learning by osmosis, where you have something done to you enough times that you learn how to do it yourself. There are four principle techniques: movement, relaxation, breathing, and posture, in no specific order. In our Western society, we’ve neglected a lot of what our bodies are capable of. If you’re sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day, you’re not tapping into those things. With those four pillars, you can learn, or perhaps relearn, what your body can do. You want to be in a healthy mindset, free of mental or psychological tension. Once you can control yourself, you learn how to control other people. In our minds, we hope that if an attack happens, we are in our living room with a shotgun in our arms, but, realistically, it happens when you least expect it. That’s the style in which we train; we prepare for every possible scenario. All the training we do and drills we go through are all tools to look at yourself outside of the box. Why you look at certain situations the way that you do, and how you handle and look at yourself. People are critical of Systema because the videos do look ridiculous. I told you what I thought of them when Matt first showed me. It’s something you have to experience for yourself. It’s not just a martial art; it’s a way of bettering yourself not only physically, but molding and shaping you into a much better person. I don’t know if that summarizes that for you or not.

No, man. That was great. You wanna plug your thing?

Sure, man. So, not only am I teaching classes through the Wright State University, I’ve also got my own club that I’m working on, Systema Self-Defense & Health here in Dayton. I can work with anybody of any age, any experience level. Everyone is welcome. I do think that there is something for everyone in Systema. Anything you’re looking for regarding self-defense, I can help you find it. If you just want to be healthier or if you’re a fearful or aggressive person and looking to make some changes in your life, it’s definitely something I can help you with.

For more information on Systema or his program, you can contact Andy Carper at

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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