From Russia With Blood, Beauty, and Beasts

The Russian Way of Fighting
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 26 2009 6:47 AM

From Russia With Blood, Beauty, and Beasts

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"St. Petersburg is the most intentional city in the world."—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There is a Petersburger joke that requires a setup to explain. 1) The Romanov family ruled Russia before the Bolsheviks assassinated them in 1917 and moved the capital back to Moscow; 2) Grigory Romanov (no relation) was St. Petersburg's party boss in the 1980s.

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So, a worker goes into a store, only to find the shelves empty. Consumed with rage, he starts cursing, "Romanov!" A police officer arrests him and asks why he's insulting Comrade Romanov. "Because," the worker answers, "the Romanovs were in charge of Russia for 300 years, and they couldn't store up enough food to last for even 70."

I had a great deal of time to contemplate this joke as I waited for a press pass in the World Sambo Championship's media room. It consisted of four apparatchiks pretending to be working—a Soviet specialty that has apparently lived on. When I explained what I needed, I was waved away. "Sit over there." So … I sat alone for two hours until I couldn't take it anymore. A heated debate followed about my name not being on the official list—"Why the fuck else do you think I'd be in this city in the winter?"—until finally the officials relented and penciled my name onto a blank sheet of paper.

If my morning was difficult, Team USA's was worse.

"How's it going?" I asked Reilly Bodycomb, a hipster Manhattanite member of the team, complete with the bed-head hairstyle that Ryan Seacrest took national.

"It's a bad day for the U.S. of A," he said, pointing to the arena floor. A teammate was being demolished, 12-0, by an Irish guy.

(In one of those weird quirks of international sports, the Irish men were surprisingly strong, as were the Venezuelan women, who several times managed to achieve what everyone else had come to St. Petersburg to do: beat the Russians at their own game. "A Miracle in Icy Weather.")

"Did you fight already?"

"Yeah," he replied, obviously depressed. "I was up first."

"Sorry, I was stuck trying to get a press pass. How did you do?"

"12-0."

"Oh, sorry."

He had been competing in Sport Sambo, which differs from Combat Sambo (in which Fedor had competed) in that it doesn't allow striking. Points are awarded in an arcane system I never quite figured out, based on the difficulty of various throws and pins. The ways to lose, in descending order of humiliation, are 1) having fewer points when the 10-minute time clock runs out; 2) having your opponent rack up 12 points to zero ("skunked," as we called it in high school) before time runs out; or 3) voluntarily submitting because your opponent is applying significant pressure to one of your limbs and the choices are giving up ("tapping out") or having ligaments torn.

"At least he didn't tap you out."

This didn't seem to cheer Bodycomb up. Neither did the best efforts of his coach, Stephen Koepfer, who heads the American Sambo Association, runs Manhattan's only Sambo club, and has an almost infinite supply of patience. I know, because to help me research this article, he graciously taught me several private lessons to provide me with the basics of the sport, and he never flinched when I proved to be an absolute klutz at it.

When I asked Koepfer about his protégé's unusual reaction (fighters are socialized to fake bravado after a loss), he replied, "I think of Reilly as my emo Sambo student."

"Sure, of course," I lied, having no idea what he meant, because thankfully I'm sufficiently old and Kansan enough to have barely understood punk, let alone its descendants Goth and emo.

The upside of the day was that it was something of a family reunion. It was the first time Stephen had seen his Russian coach Alex Barakov since the latter had to leave America five years ago. "The INS kept losing my paperwork," Alex told me three times with great regret in his voice. "I finally became tired of fighting the system."

(As an aside, the United States' visa process is certainly the most obnoxious in the world. We should be falling over ourselves to keep talented immigrants like Alex in our country instead of treating them like stray dogs.)

After four days of Petersburgers' taciturn, stone-faced stoicism, sprightly 68-year-old Alex was a welcome relief from the low-level depression of this Prozac nation. It was three days into my trip before I finally saw a Petersburger smile in public (two teens teasing each other on a subway platform). In contrast, Alex was so overjoyed at seeing Koepfer again that he was a riot of laughter, jokes, and playful jostling, which in his case often involved chokeholds and hip throws. He was so gracious a host, never allowing me to pay for a thing, that it was borderline embarrassing. "Americans were very generous to me when I arrived in your country with nothing," he'd say when I protested. "It's the least I can do."

Alex reminded me of something one of Team USA's émigré coaches told me. "Look, I'm half-Georgian and half-Russian, so I can say this, here's the difference between the two people: If you were stuck on the side of the road, a Georgian would stop, bring you back to his house, and feed you. But if you said one thing wrong to him, he'd cut you. A Russian would drive right past you, but if you somehow got him to stop, and gained his trust, he would be loyal for life, no matter what."

Alex is the first martial-arts instructor I've ever met who spends his time strumming a guitar and singing with his students in the school's kitchen before class. It gave his club a summer camp feel. He had arranged a special class for me and had invited one of his students, Gleb, a nuclear fusion scientist with—fortunately for me—a gentle soul.

We went through the basic throws, pins, and defenses against unarmed and armed attacks. But what I remember most is something I'd never encountered before. "You don't have to hit an opponent to defeat him," Alex said. "You can fake it and get him to do what you want. You must remember that the attack must be constant. Motion is life; stillness is death."

He pulled Gleb aside to demonstrate. Alex faked a punch to Gleb's stomach, stopping just inches from impact, causing Gleb to pull back, then Alex faked a punch to Gleb's head, causing him to tip backward. Then he gently twisted Gleb's neck, causing him to fall to the ground.

I've learned to be suspicious of these master-disciple performances. The student has been conditioned to allow his teacher to look good, especially when an outsider is watching. So when Alex offered to demonstrate on me, I steeled myself.

He faked a punch to my groin. I doubled over and raised my left knee to block. He immediately reached down and pinched my inner thigh hard enough that I twirled in a circle and extended my left arm. Switching attacks, he pressed his right hand under my left elbow to straighten, raise, and extend it, while at the same time grabbing two of my fingers with his left and bending them back to the point of breaking. Then he walked me, on my tippy-toes, toward the door, saying in a mock official voice to the class, "Step aside, step aside, this man has had too much to drink."

I am half Alex's age and almost twice his size, and he got me to the door like he was teaching a toddler to walk.

"This," Alex whispered to me, "is how the Soviet police used to arrest political suspects."