Vladimir Vasiliev’s new book “Strikes: Soul Meets Body” is the best text on Russian Systema out there. I write this with intense enthusiasm, because honestly, I was reluctant to put faith in it. I am the kind of reader who wants to hear it straight, and frankly “Let Every Breath,” by the same authors, left me with too many questions. I saw a book filled with interesting exercises, legends of Ryabko and Vladimir, testimonies of the power of breath, and little more. “Let Every Breath” has value as an introductory text, but failed to really get to the point-at best it was suggestive of something beyond itself. When I picked up “Strikes”, my reluctance disappeared.
“Strikes” provides a complete and accurate overview of Russian Systema in all aspects; the material is about strikes only on the surface. Most importantly, however, the book gives demystifies its greatest teachers, Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Ryabko.
Scott Meridith played a large role in this review, I believe, because he did a terrific job organizing the material. Scott knows what it is like to be a student seeking answers, striving to do what his instructors ask, and wondering about the masters; “Strikes” reflects that understanding. He supplies the right material at the right time and leaves the book feeling complete and satisfying. Never once, did I get the impression that I was missing something. I felt the same way reading his Tai Chi novel, “Juice”, which I now count as one of the greatest contributions to martial arts along side “Strikes”.
Scott gives it to you straight in “Strikes”, giving Vlad a steady platform to speak for himself. Vlad’s own words are honest about his experience and reveal the human nature of Systema, which is not only satisfying, but also necessary for readers like me. I love heroes, but I don’t think you should put your heart into them, as Mikhail might have said. Heroes have their place in myth and history, to teach us about hope, faith, and courage, they even define virtue for our culture. Perhaps we need heroes, since we seem to have an innate longing for them; but heroes are not helpful teachers…we need something more real to fulfill that role. I am reminded of a novel titled “Oman Ra” by Pelvin, a must read for students of Russian culture. In “Oman Ra” the protagonist prepares his whole life to become a hero, in the end when you learn that it was all for naught, you notice that his memories and past life only succeeded in perpetuating a myth. I often wonder why we do not have the same kind of heroes today as we did less than a hundred years ago. It is probably because people face higher scrutiny today, but also because not enough time has passed for generations to perpetuate the myth.
Scott is great, but his depiction of Mikhail and Vlad is often too grandiose. I cringe when I hear students and teachers talk about Vlad or Mikhail as if no one will ever reach their skill level, people often come to this conclusion after visiting them face-to-face, it is very tempting, but not useful. The truth is, the more we create legends out of Vlad and Mikhail, the harder it becomes to understand Systema. If we continue down that path, within a few generations we will be right where Aikido is today, left with a lot of fancy rehtoric and some good moves to show off…If you’ve been wondering how that happens to arts, this is how it happens. Vlad and Mikhail should teach us something about human potential, and “Strikes” does that without diminishing the awe and respect they deserve.
The book ends with a common question, “can it be taught?” Yes, I think it is hopeful even for us average citizens without peculiar qualities or experience.
For more information or to purchase “Stikes: Soul Meets Body” visit Russian Martial Art