Japanese Martial Arts in Russia, The creation of Sambo and Sino-Russian Cooperation at Whampoa

When Japan was forced to open its borders to foreigners beginning the Meiji Restoration, it also helped spread Japanese culture overseas. The interest for Japanese objects or Japonism (from the French Japonisme) first appeared in 1872. This movement influenced European arts and culture, even though some Japanese elements had already entered the west through the Dutch trade missions during the Tokugawa period (1609 to 1868). The open doors era also translated in appearance of martial arts books as oppose to secret scrolls only available to a selected few. The earliest Jiu Jitsu book we located was published in Japan for the general public titled “Secrets of Japanese Jiu Jitsu, Sword, Staff and Rope Restrain” in 1877. Several other books followed which help in the propagation of such skills outside dojos. The influx of foreigners to Japan gave them the opportunity to access this material, but also to meet and learn these skills directly from the source.

Russians got their first taste of what Japanese martial arts were all about in 1895 through a St. Petersburg newspaper article titled “Essays of unknown Japan”. In it the author introduced its readers to the virtues of the “Japanese struggle – Jiu Jitsu” (Дзю-дзюцу/ Жиу-житсу). The period from 1905 to 1909 saw the creation of various sports associations, usually on a voluntary basis to teach Jiu Jitsu; pre-revolutionary Russia began his relationship with the Japanese art from publications of the time. This is due to the fact that during this period there was a lack of competent local Jiu Jitsu teachers. These people were for the most part “self-taught” by books that had been translated from other languages. As an example of English language Jiu Jitsu books are those by Irving Hancock published as early as 1903, those authored by Frenchman Emile Andre and others were also translated to the Russian language.

The first Russian Jiu Jitsu book was published in 1905 titled “Japanese Physical Education” by Ivan Dmitriyevich Sytinym followed by Andrey Anokhin’s “Psycho physiological Gymnastics” in 1907. The latter included a section on Japanese Jiu Jitsu exercises translated from German sources. Similar books would be published in the following years, some of which were used for police training. As Jiu Jitsu acceptance grew, government institutions also published how to manuals; the Ministry of the Interior issued “33 Attacks, Defences and Disarms from the Japanese System of Jiu Jitsu” edited by Captain Dèmerta. By the year 1910 a new athletic arena open its doors to teach Jiu Jitsu in Moscow by a teacher of the local police. Other authors continued publishing articles and books to encourage training in the art by men and women alike, stating the health benefits of such practices (Russian Jiu Jitsu, 2017).

I.V. Lebedev Self-defence and Arrest 1915

Lebedev’s “Self Defense and Arrest”, 1915

The implementation of Japanese martial arts by security services continued and by 1915 I.V. Lebedev published “Self-defence and Arrest “in Petrograd. This book became a official police manual, by orders of Petrograd’s Mayor Maj.-Gen Prince Sergei Alexandrovich Obolensky. The fast development of Jiu Jitsu came to a halt when the 1917 October revolution that toppled Czarist Russia happened. Prior to the revolution other combat sports were also practiced e.g. English boxing, wrestling, fencing and French boxing. One of those coaches that travel to Russia and left a deep mark in the development of Russian sports community was French born Ernesto Loustalot (1859 – 1931) who was invited to teach sports at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg in 1897. Loustalot was one the first athletes who introduced both French and English boxing as well as initiator of the first public boxing match in 1898. Loustalot was also the boxing and fencing coach for the Nabokov, an aristocratic family whose son Vladimir Nabokov became a renown writer. After the Revolution, “he refused to leave Russia and from 1919 on worked as a teacher of physical training and sports in the Higher School for Naval Officers in the famous Admiralty building”. (Sklepikov, 2017)


The Russian Empire was made out of different ethnic groups with their own wrestling styles that would later be incorporated into a new combat sport, fencing was also a common practice for European armies. The Russians had published manuals depicting armed skills such “Rules for Training Infantry Bayonet Fighting’ published in Saint Petersburg in 1838 which seems to depict skills from the French army and “Drill for Cossack Service” published in 1899. However, the Russian defeat in the Russo Japanese war (1904 – 1905) caused an evaluation of their approach to military training.

At some of the forts men fought at close quarters, bayonet to bayonet, and it was once again shown that, though the Russians have the advantage of size and weight, they are no match for the quicker and more skilful Japanese” (Cowen, 1904)

Drill for Cossack Service 1899

Drill for Cossack Service, 1899

After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution the development of Jiu Jitsu continued through many individuals who already had received some training in it, by 1920 Viktor Spiridonov had started to teach it to the Moscow’s police school cadets. The Presidium of the Supreme Council on physical culture developed a physical training programme for the Red Army. It sought to train the soldiers in elements of Jiu Jitsu, boxing and wrestling and by 1924 a nine part guide was published titled “Physical Training for the Workers and Peasants of the Red Army”. In 1925 an addendum to the original document was titled “How to defend and attack without weapons – French wrestling, boxing and Jiu Jitsu”. Training material published a year later included films on different aspect of physical culture e.g. boxing and Jiu Jitsu.

The Dynamo Sports Society created in 1923 together with Armed Forces Sports Societies and Voluntary Sports Societies, made up the universal system of physical education and sports of the USSR. In 1927 Viktor Spiridonov would published the book “Guide to self-protection without weapons system of Jiu Jitsu” which was approved for physical training of the Red Army and the Central Board of the Proletarian Dynamo sports societies. An interesting note about Spiridonov book is that the book’s cover was copied from a two volume German book published in 1924 by Hans Reuter. The Soviet police was under the tutelage of Dynamo, which continued evolving the practice of the art including open competitions. Other authors published similar books among them Afanasy Ivanovich Butsenko who defended the right to differentiate the Russian-Ukrainian borderland on linguistic and ethnic principles. Butsenko published “Self-defense without Weapons (Jiu-Jitsu) and its Application for Operating-Peasant Militia of the USSR” in 1928. The author of the book was a veteran of World War I and later became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. Russian sources point out Butsenko’s book was a copy of a 1926 German book by Erich Rhan.

Russian German Jiu Jitsu Manuals W. Acevedo

(left) Spiridonov’s Jiu Jitsu in 1927, (right)  Erich Rhan’s book, 1926

Another important figure is Neil Oznobishin Nikolaevich who was born from a noble family, but became a circus performer. With the circus, he traveled to different countries, this gave him the opportunity to learn many languages and sports like boxing. In 1915 he took part in the first boxing championship in Moscow and between 1918-1926 Neil trained soldiers of the Red Army. In 1930, the publishing house of the NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) published Oznobishin’s book “The Art of Unarmed Combat”. As a result of false accusations in 1941, he was arrested and exiled for 5 years in Kazakhstan. His fate after that is unknown. In his book Neil Oznobishin criticizes what he calls “degeneration” of arts meant for combat into mere sport, a familiar argument that still finds echo today.


“…The result of all this was that in Europe the art of self-defense, for practical purposes (i.e. the preparations for serious combat), degenerated into gymnastics of self-defence and sport and as such, continues to be taught to the masses. Look at French boxing, from serious practice it already has deteriorated into a gymnastic exercise. English boxing has evolved into a means of physical development, and the sole purpose of most modern boxers is competition. Jiu Jitsu, thanks to those who are barely acquainted with it, it is presented to us by ignorant teachers as a partner acrobatic show. Finally, knife fighting, the most common kind of melee combat of the Middle Ages, in modern times is studied only by hooligans” (Oznobishin, 1930)

Moscow first indoor Jiu Jitsu Championship 1929

Moscow’s First Jiu Jitsu Championship, 1929

While all of the previous work had been focus on Jiu Jitsu, however there is one pioneer who contributed with his knowledge of Judo to the development of what would later be known as Sambo. Vasiliy Sergeyevich Oshchepkov was born in Sakhalin from a peasant widow and became orphan when he was 11 years old. After Sakhalin became Japanese territory the archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Christian Church was able to open some seminars in Tokyo, it’s here where Oschepkpov would find a home thanks to an unknown sponsor. Shortly after he would be admitted to Jigoro Kano’s Kodokan in 1911, received his first dan in 1913 and his second dan in 1917. Upon returning to Russia in 1914 Oschepkpov started to promote Judo and by 1930 onwards published training books for the Red Army, developed training methodologies until 1934 when his activities were stopped at V. Spiridonov’s request who felt Oschepkov was doing things contrary to his own (Vasili Oshchepkov, 2017). One of Oschepkov’ students was A.A. Kharlampiev who would continue the development of a Soviet combat system and by 1938 the official order № 633 “On the development of a free style combat system” was issued by the All-Union Committee for Physical Education and Sport. Kharlampiev will published a manual in 1949 titled “Fighting Sambo” and several other in the following years; this manual depicts skills for sport competition. Manuals prepared for the army on the other hand included elements of gymnastics, empty hand, bayonet and trenching tool fighting; one of such manuals was published in 1934 titled “Physical Training for the Air Force of the Red Army”.


A.A.  Kharlampiev’s 1949 “Fighting Sambo” manual

Additional sources used by the Soviets in their pursue to develop an all encompassing hand to hand combat system came from the USA; in  1927 G. Kalachev published a Russian translation of a US Army bayonet manual published earlier, the original was republished in 1940 as the “FM 23-25 Basic Field Manual Bayonet, M1905”. At this point in our discussion it is clear that Japanese martial arts and western systems had played a very important role in the development of Russian combat arts, how much of this material was if any transmitted to the Chinese when the Whampoa Military Academy opened its doors in 1924 is the subject of the following section.

“Hitler robbers want to take our land, our bread and our oil. They want to restore our country to the power of the king and landlords, Germanized free peoples of the Soviet Union and turn them and slaves of German princes and barons. This will not happen ever! Death to the fascist vermin! The enemy can not stand the Red Army bayonet attacks. Bay fascist bastards bullet, grenade, bayonet!

SOLDIER! Deadly and insidious enemy of your country – German fascism – armed to the teeth with firepower and the machinery of war. However fascist hordes avoid meeting with us in the melee, for our fighters showed that it was not and they have no equal in courage and dexterity melee. But with the technique and tactics of the enemy we should seriously be considered. It is necessary to master the art of the approach of the enemy, the arts closer to him on the battlefield. Must be able to move in the battle so that the enemy’s fire, which would force it was, could not hold our maneuver, and our offensive attack. So fierce battles with our enemy: – to move faster and covertly – throw a grenade far and accurately, – beat with a bayonet and butt tight!” (Tarasov & Karpa, 2012, 1941)

The Whampoa Military Academy Curriculum

After the Russian Revolution, attention was turned towards countries who could also continue the struggle against capitalism and its agents. Sun Yat Sen, father of the Chinese Republic found support for his cause in the Soviets who were more than willing to provide financial and material aid to create a nationalist army to unify the country, once Sun was able to return to China after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Hundreds of Russian men and women took upon themselves to continue the spread of the revolution in a foreign land and volunteered to form the contingent of advisors that travel to China. One of such men was Alexander Cherepanov who took part in the storming of the Winter Palace. In 1918 participated in the Civil War on the Western Front, became the regiment commander, chief of staff and then a commander of brigade. In 1923 he graduated from the Military Academy of the Red Army and by 1924 became the chief military adviser to the Whampoa Military Academy. In his memoir Cherepanov wrote:

“At a meeting with Sun Yat-sen it was decided that the main profile of the school will be for the infantry with a training period of six months. In addition, there were special classes: Artillery (60 cadets training period 9-12 months), an engineering (130 students, 9 months), communication (30 students, 9 months), supplies (60 cadets, 6 months). Machine Gun class of 120 people was composed of infantry cadets and was designed to be only a 20-hour course…

Later, training political workers was organized in the school, after which she became officially known as the Central Military and Political School…

The school has also established Russian language classes (25 people), fencing and gymnastics…

The teaching staff was recruited from officers with sufficient general culture, but with a very different military training: some finished military schools abroad, mainly in Japan, the others – the old Chinese military school in Baoding or provincial military school at the private army of a warlord…” (Cherepanov, 1964)

Chinese sources list in general terms what cadets were taught such as: Tactics and strategy, intelligence, geography, war history, troop mobilization, weaponry, fortifications, political thought, Sun Yat Sen’s Three principles of the people, foreign languages e.g. Japanese, English, French, Russian and German. On April 6, 1927, Chinese authorities conducted a raid on part of the Soviet Embassy compound in Peking, where several documents were seized dealing with Soviet activities and intelligence gathering on Chinese soil. The documents point out at the use of outdated doctrines as:

Chinese Translation of a Jukendo Manual 1928

Chinese Translation of a Jukenjitsu Manual by the Whoampoa Military Academy, 1928. Author’s personal collection

The reason for it is the absence of proper instruction, the inertness of the old officer-personnel, and especially the ignorance and inexperience of the junior officers, who are graduates of the schools of the National Revolutionary Army. Besides, the drill regulations and the [2] textbooks on tactics which the army uses are extracts compiled from the German and Japanese regulations which were used in those armies in the beginning of this century and which do not agree with the methods of modern warfare.” (Willbur & How, 1989)

Physical training was also questioned in the following terms:

“Athletics. Athletics are completely neglected in the Chinese army, although they are very clumsy (e.g., they do not know at all how to jump). Time allotted to athletics is seldom to be found in the training schedules and there is only one instructor to a company. It is therefore natural that the movements are made drowsily and incorrectly, and as they are never corrected, they do not develop the muscles and the energy but rather weaken the latter. There is no athletic equipment and no facilities for field sports. It is necessary to have the athletics before lunch and to divide them into calisthenics, gymnastics on apparatus, and field sports. The simplest equipment ought to be procured and facilities for field sports arranged for this purpose.”

Chinese Translation of a Jiu Jitsu Manual 1920s

Chinese translation of a Jiu Jitsu manual 1920s. Author’s personal collection

Given that the Russians considered their hand to hand combat research secret and the above evidence from Russian and Chinese sources in which no mention of such classes were ever part of the curriculum for Chinese cadets, we can refute the assertion of Sambo practice in the Military Academy. Moreover, even Chiang Kai Shek who visited the Soviet Union in 1924, was not impressed with what he saw at the time. The Chinese were very familiar with Japanese martial arts through those students who graduated from Japanese schools and the fact that the Chinese had translated Japanese Jiu Jitsu, Judo and Sword-Bayonet manuals and the Central National Arts Academy research trip to observe martial arts training methodologies during the 9th Far East Games in Tokyo in May 1930 (Gewu, 1995) demonstrate the Chinese interest to “know your enemies and know yourself”.

As the Sino-Japanese war raged on, the Nationalist and Communist forces fighting the Japanese made use of native skills in battle. When the Japanese launched their anti guerrilla campaigns in Manchuria against the Communist Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army starting in 1931, it drove the communist into Russia to escape annihilation in late 1942. It is after 1942 when Chinese communist forces received for the first time training from the Russian Field Manual of the Red Army published in 1941 and reprinted with modifications thereafter. An important detail about the Russian manual is that it included a small number of armed and unarmed combat skills none of which resemble sport Sambo for obvious reasons. The Red Army’s material was also used as template for the 1942 “The partisan’s Companion, The Guerrilla Fighter’s Handbook”. The Nationalist troops stationed in Burma in 1942 on the other hand received training that included hand to hand combat from the US army’s FM 23-25 Basic Field Manual.

Guide for the preparation in hand-to-hand combat of the Red Army 1941 Kalachev G.A.

Combat skills from the Red Army’s Field Manual, 1941


The development of Russian martial arts owns a great deal to Japanese and western systems. The need to create a versatile combat program lead to the study of different sources at a time of war in armies worldwide. Russian and western influence in Chinese hand to hand combat training took place as the Sino-Japanese war was reaching its climax and not as early as some have suggested. The study and comparison between Chinese and Japanese systems was a necessity in order to understand the capabilities of the enemy and how to improve upon to beat them.


Cherepanov, A. (1964). Notes from a Military Advisor in China: From the history of the First Revolutionary Civil War (1924 – 1927).

Cowen, T. (1904). The Russo Japanese War. Londonc: Edward Arnold.

Gewu, K. (1995). The Spring and Autum of Chinese Martial Arts. Plum Publishing.

Oznobishin, N. N. (1930). The Art of Armed Combat. NVKD.

Russian Jiu Jitsu, Federation (2017, March 23). History of Jiu Jitsu in Pre and Post Revolutionary Period.

Sklepikov, A. (2017, March 22). Loustalot: The Nabokov Family Trainer. Retrieved from https://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/lousta.htm

Tarasov, A. A., & Karpa, B. (2012, 1941). Destroy the enemies in Hand-To-Hand Combat.

Vasili Oshchepkov. (2017, March 22). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Oshchepkov

Willbur, C. M., & How, J. L.-y. (1989). Missionaries of Revolution Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China 1920-1927. Studies of the East Asian Institute Columbia University.



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