In 1751, a massive fist fight took place in the streets of St. Petersburg, prompting Empress Elizabeth to ban the organization of such activities. This is not the first time Russian fist fighting, also known as Russian bare-knuckle boxing or pugilism, was suppressed because of the violence involved. The sport was banned in 1684, 1686, and several more times after that, but it always continued to thrive.

Russian bare-knuckle boxing has been practiced as a sport as early as the 13th century.

Russian boyars, who were members of the aristocracy, used the sport for mass entertainment, with matches often showcasing the best fighters. Peter the Great reportedly took great interest in these fights, and Russian warriors were notorious for instilling fear in the hearts of their enemies with their skills in hand-to-hand combat.

There are three types of fights:

  • singles combat which were one-on-one fights
  • team fights
  • the less popular catch drop.

Apart from entertainment value, Russian fist fighting also served to develop skills necessary for defending their homeland. Children learned from an early age how to defend themselves and their families by playing games that involved wrestling and throwing. When they grew up, these games eventually evolved into real combat.

Fist fights usually took place on holidays with the majority of fights taking place in squares during summer and on frozen rivers or lakes during winter.

One-on-one matches similar to boxing in England were the most popular. Combatants were allowed to strike anywhere above the waist, with the head, ribs, and solar plexus being the most targeted parts.

The Russian proverb “do not hit a man when he’s down” allegedly originates from fist fighting, since hitting a man in a lying, crouching, or squatting position was strictly prohibited.

One-on-one fights were even used to resolve legal disputes. Plaintiffs and defendants were allowed to settle their differences directly, and they could hire more capable fighters on their behalves if necessary.

russian street fight
A big ol' fashioned russian brawl

According to Vitaly Zubtsov’s article from Russia Beyond The Headlines, Russians have been settling disputes with their fists for a long time. This year was no different when Russian football fans fought English supporters and locals at the 2016 UEFA European Football Championship in France.

Team fighting, also known as “line-to-line battles” or “wall-on-wall fighting” was the most widespread, with boys, unmarried youth, and mature men taking turns to fight. Each team formed itself into rows and had a leader who devised tactics and offered encouragement.

The main aim was to bring down a line of fighters and force them to retreat.

Closely resembling military strategies, team fighting was the most spectacular to watch. But it was also the most dangerous since the rules were more difficult to enforce, resulting in many fatalities.

Russian bare-knuckle boxing was so popular that it became a part of Russian folk life, frequently appearing in literature and art. The most famous portrayal appears in Mikhail Lermontov‘s poem “The Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov,” describing an honor duel between a government police agent and a merchant.

In the book Thief by the Soviet novelist Leonid Leonov, one of the heroes said,

“In childhood, it happened, only in fist fights I found real friends…because only in a fight the whole human nature comes out.”

illustation of russian boxing
Russian boxer knockout

Fist fighting was banned again along with other traditions such as Christmas in 1917 by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution. But soon after, a new type of hand-to-hand combat would be created based on the ancient techniques.

It was also combined with other systems like Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, Savate (French boxing), and boxing. This would become to be known as Russian Sambo, which was taught to secret service agents, police, and security officers.

Ancient forms of Slavic fighting are still present at some traditional martial arts studios, and training schools teaching Systema Spetsnaz – the combat form of the Russian Special Forces – is popular in Russia. Despite no longer being practiced in its original form, fist fighting continues to be a mainstay in Russian culture.

russian boxing
Russian boxing image
Read more like this