Recently I mentioned judo having an impact and influence around the world, so much so, even the Russians were impacted! In September of 1907, a young man by the name of Vasili Oshchepkov went to Tokyo to study theology. While in the seminary ,he studied judo and became the best judoka in the program. On the recommendation of his coach, he was admitted to the Kodokan to train judo under it’s founder Jigoro Kano (see October’s newsletter if you can’t keep up!) Ultimately, he became the first Russian and the third European to get a nidan in judo (2nd degree black belt.)
Vasili returned to Russia where he founded the nation’s first judo school. He continued to train in judo and taught many Red Army officers and troops while he simultaneously worked in counterintelligence. In 1929, he became a teacher at the Institute of Physical Education and began to analyze various martial arts and sought to better apply them to the struggle and peoples of the USSR.
Although there is not a tremendous amount of information about their relationship, Vasili Oshchepkov worked with Viktor Spiridonov and together they sought the create the best martial art for the people of the Soviet Union. The result was a blended martial art they called SAMBO (and acronym which translates to “self-defense without weapons.”) Although it was heavily grappling based, it also had striking elements. It was Russia’s first “mixed martial art!” It is interesting to note that while Vasili was predominantly a judoka, Viktor was heavily into freestyle wrestling. The elements of those two systems can be seen not just in their curriculum, but in their uniform. Their training uniform has the Gi top of a judoka, and the compression shorts of a wrestler.
Soviet times were hard on both judo and Oshchepkov. During the years of Stalinist repression, he was arrested as a Japanese spy and officially “died of a heart attack” ten days later (unofficially he was shot in the head.) Judo was proclaimed “an activity alien to the Soviet people” and banned. Judo students were pushed into sambo and such was the state of things for decades. In 1957, Vasili Oshchepkova was posthumously pardoned and found innocent of any wrongdoing and in 1962, Judo became an Olympic sport. Suddenly, the Soviet leaders were keen to earn more gold medals, the ban was lifted, and followers of sambo were pushed back into the newly liberated martial art.
Today, Vasilia Oshchepkov is celebrated for his part in bringing/spreading judo throughout Russia as well as his contribution to Sambo.