Episode 30

Fencing in Russia, with Elena Muzurina

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Show Notes:

Elena Muzurina is a military sabre instructor, longsword tournament fencer, and owner of a HEMA equipment company. Elena is a champion – one of her proudest moments was winning at Swordfish – but HEMA is relatively new to Russia. In this episode we talk about what it is like learning Italian rapier and longsword in a country where there are very few sources translated into the language. We talk about the problems with fencing equipment, and what she would do with a million dollars to improve HEMA in Russia.

When listening to this episode you might not have caught some of the names Elena mentions, so here they are in case you are interested:

  • Andrey Muzurin – Elena’s longsword trainer and husband
  • Vadim Senichev – translator of Fiore into Russian
  • Kristine Konsmo and Carl Ryberg – HEMA in Sweden, fencers and Swordfish orgs
  • Leonid Křížek – Czech Republic HEMA, trainer at Ars Dimicatoria school, instructor and researcher of Barbasetti military sabre method, writer
  • Sergei Kultaev – Russian HEMA, longsword champion and trainer at FreiFechter Gilde, Saint Petersburg

Here is the Facebook page for Fox Tail Equipment: www.facebook.com/FoxTailEquipment And this is the online store: www.ft-fencing.com

You can find Elena on social media:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/elena.muzurina

Instagram: @silent_battle_song

YouTube: Silent Battle Song

Vkontate: vk.com/yelena_muzurina

GW: Hello sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I’m here today with Elena Muzurina, who is a military sabre instructor, longsword champion, and has been researching and recreating historical martial arts for a little while now. So without further ado, Elena, welcome to the show.

EM: Hello, nice to meet you all. Hello Guy.

GW: Now, what made you want to start in historical martial arts and how did that actually happen?

EM: It happened not so long ago, but I think that the ground was quite long ago because I used to be a sportive and energetic child. Every time I was connected with some kind of sports, for example, swimming, dancing, and then I did some Eastern martial arts. And that was the most interesting sport for me, not dancing. I don’t know why. Maybe because of my temper or something. So the transition from Eastern martial arts to Western martial arts happened within several years, from 13 to 22. The transition was not so straight as it was for some people who just start off with HEMA. It wasn’t like that for me, because first of all, I think I should make the point at the start – in Russia HEMA is not so old and we are just in the beginning of our way. HEMA started here less than 10 years ago.

GW: Really?

EM: Yes. For Russia, it is not mainstream now, it is not really systematic or structural. It is very progressive. But now a hobby. We haven’t got many professional teachers yet because it is quite a young discipline. So when I started HEMA it had just reached the Russian Federation, so I was maybe in the second or even first generation of people who decided to learn it. So it was quite complicated. But now I see the progress. I see that in Russia, HEMA is growing, growing very fast. So I started it after doing some LARPing stuff. So that was my first experience with swords. And I should say that I decided to go and do Eastern Martial Arts because I was sure that they would give me a sword. It didn’t happen after one year, two years or three years, so I decided that something was wrong! It was my dream, something that I was eager to do. And when I hadn’t got a katana or some sword, I decided to change my focus. And also I had other reasons to quit. So after quitting Eastern Martial Arts, I was doing some searching. I was seeking something that would give me the competitive aspect because I like sports, I like to compete. And it also should contain some sword stuff. Maybe it is some books or film influence, which is a long story.

GW: Sure. And now whereabouts exactly are you in Russia?

EM: I’m located in Saint Petersburg. It is quite near Finland. And it is, I think, the most HEMA city in our country because many things started here.

GW: Yeah. I remember like maybe fifteen years ago, a Russian historical martial arts instructor came to one of my seminars in Helsinki, and he came over several times. This is in like 2005, 2006. But, yeah, I know it’s been sort of slowly growing in St. Petersburg. So what is it like there now? I mean, how often do you train? What sort of clubs do you have? What’s it like?

EM: I don’t train now as regularly as I did before, because now I have a small child and also some work. I produce equipment for HEMA. I have my own company, Foxtail Equipment and we produce some here for HEMA or other types of fencing that are quite close to HEMA. So my trainings are now not so regular, for example, two times a week and before it was three times a week, even four, and for the last almost four and a half years, I have not had such a tough schedule, only twice.

GW: Yeah, well, I mean, for a parent of a young child to be able to train twice a week, that’s actually pretty good. Probably the most common reason why my more senior students would effectively quit fencing altogether is because the children came along and they just didn’t have the time or the energy. So if you can have a four year old child and still be training twice a week, I think that’s pretty impressive.

EM: I think it is a big deal of my husband because I’m lucky with him, he understands perfectly what I need because he is the same stuff. So we just agreed on the fact that I give him his spare time for training and he gives me mine. So we have an agreement.

GW: That’s an excellent arrangement.

EM: Yes. We are lucky.

GW: Well, OK, so tell me more about your equipment company. I wasn’t aware that you had an equipment company. What’s it called again?

EM: Foxtail Equipment.

GW: Foxtail Equipment. OK, yes. What do you make?

EM: We started several years ago. I like to joke that my company is like my child because we decided to do it seriously also the same moment that we had my child. So the same year. So I have two children! The main thing we have is plastic equipment, plastic limb protection. Also we have fencing gloves and some things like gorgets, for example, mask overlays. We dress HEMA practitioners almost from toe to head.

GW: Excellent. And that’s the sort of equipment that you use in tournaments?

EM: Yes. I try to do the stuff that I’m fond of, what I’m ready to use and what is reliable for me and my husband.

GW: Excellent. So am I right in thinking that your main research interests are sabre and longsword?

EM: Yes, my main research interest is primarily Italian sabre. I started from Radaelli and then switched to Barbasetti. I like it most. I don’t know why. Maybe it is a matter of aesthetics or maybe a tournament application because as you know I am a tournament fighter and I like finding things that first of all work, and second, it must be not just adaptation of small sword for sabre. I’m interested in finding the system that works, in a historical context. So since 2017, after visiting Prague, I focussed on the system of Luigi Barbasetti.

GW: OK, I’ve come across some Russian sabre manuals from the 19th century. Have you looked at those?

EM: Yes, I have some opinions.

GW: Well we love opinions on this show, so please do tell us all about your opinion of these Russian sources.

EM: Really, Russian sources, if we speak about late 19th century, are quite near to the Italian sabre. Earlier, it was closer to the French school, which is why I think that when we speak about the latest Russian systems, we also must have in our mind the influence of Italian schools. So I think it is maybe one of reasons I decided to do it. I don’t know why I’m not so interested in Russian schools, maybe it is the same thing, not all Italians like Italian longsword.

GW: That’s very true. Very true. You know, I do Italian fencing myself, mostly Fiore and Capo Ferro. So I’m completely with you on the superiority of Italian fencing over all other forms.

EM: I like it. And several words about Fiore, because before this year I wasn’t so interested in Fiore or in studying longsword. I was just training under my instructor and it was OK. But this year, I don’t know what happened. Maybe it is some evolution, but I decided to dig it. I decided to do some research into Fiore and try to apply what he says more than usual, maybe because I’m at that level where I can let myself do it because I know something about fencing now and it is not so interesting just to win. You know, when you seek something for yourself that will make you feel satisfied with your fencing. You’re looking for another form of progress, not just the medals, you need something else. So I’m on that way now.

GW: Excellent. Well, welcome to the historical past. That’s great news. Do you read Italian at all?

EM: It is my gap, I think, because I know only Russian and English, and I did German. But now we have very good things happen in Russia. For example, last month we got a Fiore manual translated and published by Vadim Senichev. So now we have the full translation in Russian. It is a big deal, I think. So now we have this book much closer to the public.

GW: That’s fantastic news. I didn’t know Fiore had been translated into Russian, and of course, if you’re if you’re researching Fiore and you come across stuff and you want to discuss it any point, just drop me an email and I’m always happy to talk Fiore.

EM: Oh, great. Thank you very much. I think I will have many questions in the future because I’m at the beginning of my way now.

GW: Now we all have things we know we ought to be training more or studying more. And it sounds like you’re moving a little bit more towards historical research and perhaps less of the tournament fencing. But what does your actual training look like? What do you normally practise?

EM: If we take our common training, it consists of warm up, then footwork, then parry exercises and if we have time and our programmes say so, we have free play. It is just a common thing. And also we have separate free play training once a week, so each class has its own schedule, for example, two or three times a week, and then common school fencing practise. Also, we have some online lessons, which we have to have more because I think that it was a very nice experience. So quarantine did us some good.

GW: Yeah, I have been thinking this a long time. Since this lockdown started, there have been many, many bad things, but there have also been some good things. And one of those good things is we’re figuring out how to teach and learn martial arts over the Internet.

EM: That’s a good thing. Much more time for studying theoretical things, much more time for research. And it we also found a new stage for our school because usually we haven’t got much time for studying the training. We used to think that it is the job of our instructor. We just use his thoughts, use his interpretation, so we are not used to doing it by ourselves. But lockdown makes things different. And we paid attention to online classes where we just discussed all the things that we had not enough time to study before. So thanks.

GW: You didn’t start training that long ago; once people have been training 20 years or whatever, they forget what it was like to start. And so it’s much better to get advice for beginners from people who started more recently. Do you have any suggestions or advice for people who are just starting to pick up swords?

EM: Oh, yes, I have some, because I do remember how it was for me. And I’ve told you in the beginning how it was it was not that easy because we haven’t many translated books in Russian. Also, we haven’t so many professional trainers and even now we have maybe 10 in Russia and even fewer people who do it professionally, for a living. So my biggest advice now, is just to try to find someone to learn from. A good instructor and good trainer who you can ask questions, that person who will guide you and give you the information that will save your time, because in the beginning, wasting time on some crazy stuff is a big problem. And then you have some bad habits and you are just ruined or spoilt, so it is best if you can do without it or just make it a smaller effect. Also, it is good to have a person that inspires you. I mean, the person who can motivate you. Just do not quit. Do not think that you are the cleverest here. I mean, the person who will motivate you is really, really important in the beginning.

GW: OK, so who motivates you?

EM: Who motivates me? It is an interesting question because in some periods of my career there were different people who influenced. For example, in the beginning when I was just getting familiar with HEMA, it was of course my trainer and then in 2014, when I first crossed the borders of Russia and travelled to Italy and saw how it happens there I was surprised, amazed, because I saw how it happens in Sala d’Arme Achille Marozzo. Then I also visited other countries. I visited Sweden in 2015 and saw how they do it. I got familiar with Kristine Konsmo and Carl Ryberg. It was a big inspiration. Also two years after I visited the Prague SabreSlash event where I met Leonid Křížek and he was a starting point for me because I decided to do Barbasetti sabre at that moment. And now I can see that I have people like you, because I have your books. And it is the thing that helped me with Fiore because you are writing in English and I understand it. So it is a big influence really because you made a big deal for Russian people, I don’t know, for Brazilians, for all the people that decided to study Fiore. For example, in Russia, I can say about Sergei Kultaev, who was the first person with a longsword I had seen. We hadn’t any experience before this. I mean, so he did much for HEMA in Russia. My trainer, Andrey Muzurin, also gave me so many things.

GW: OK, that’s a lot of people. That’s a really common thread with the people I interview is they tend to have travelled widely and trained with lots of different people and gotten inspiration from lots of different people. And I think that’s a really good way to go about it. I mean Fiore himself travelled and trained with both Italian and German instructors, so it’s a good pattern.

EM: Yes, I think we have to do it more often.

GW: Yeah, well, I’m very much looking forward to this coronavirus being over so I can get back on an aeroplane.

EM: Yes, this is my big wish too.

GW: As an equipment producer, I imagine you have some pretty strong opinions about what sort of equipment we can and should be developing. I was just going to ask, what do you think is the one area where there’s the most work to do?

EM: At the moment, I think that we should develop some more comfortable gauntlets for longsword because, for example, after doing longsword research, I see that there are some techniques that will not work in some SPES Lobsters, I adore SPES Lobsters because of their safety. But I see that on some level, it is not enough. They’re not comfortable.

GW: Yeah, yeah, I can’t stand them because I can’t hold a sword properly when I’m wearing them.

EM: Yes, and that is the problem. Also, just before starting to research, I was sure that we have some troubles with the military sabre gloves. But now I see that the problem with longsword gauntlets is even bigger. I also see the big problem that we haven’t got much equipment for clubs that have just started. Maybe discounts or some stuff that could be that could be purchased in a big amount at low prices and something that will help run your own club. Massive production, I mean.

GW: Yes, because at the moment, the companies that produce the equipment are set up to sell to individuals and their margins just don’t really allow them to say, yes, OK, if you order more than this many, you get 40 percent off, the sort of the sort of economies of scale that we see with most other sporting equipment.

EM: Yes. Because I’m not just from the manufacturer, I’m also a trainer and sportswoman and I see this problem. It is not only about money, it is also about developing HEMA. So we have many things to do in future.

GW: Yeah, I’m curious though, to my mind the hand protection for longsword problem was solved about 600 years ago with closely tailored steel gauntlets, which is what I’ve been using for 15 years with no problems at all. So is there a reason not to use steel gauntlets?

EM: I think the main reason, for example, in Russia, is that steel gauntlets are not allowed at tournaments and there are some reasons to do it. I think they cause some problems for judges and I’m really not sure that they are the safest thing. I never use them and maybe I just have to try them and I will change my opinion. Let’s see.

GW: Yeah, well, the thing about steel gauntlets, is if they fit properly, they’re beautiful. I mean, with mine, if I could play the piano at all, I could probably play the piano wearing those gauntlets. If I’m giving a fencing lesson, for example, and training my student to hit my hands, then they’re going to hit the hands over and over again. And I’ve never had a problem with the gauntlets wearing out or getting injured through them or anything like that. Of course I’ve been injured while wearing them when a random sword strike has happened to hit, say, a part of my hand which was not covered by the gauntlet. But from a safety perspective, as far as in my experience, they are much, much safer than the plastic ones because they’re tougher and because they give complete freedom of movement. You can have your hands in the right place on the sword so the hands are better protected already by the sword itself. But there’s a lot of variety of opinion on this.

EM: Yes, I’m sure. But I think the problem is that it is Russia. So people hit quite hard and I’m really not sure that these gauntlets will endure. I’m not sure because I’m not sure why it happens. But I have some stories about Russians. In a tournament there was a question, who is the hardest hitter, on a scale out of ten? So an Englishman is about four. Polish man is about eight. OK, Ukrainians, it is nine or 10 and Russian it is 12. And it is only an anecdote but maybe it has something in it.

GW: Yeah. Why do you think that is?

EM: I don’t know why it happens now. Maybe it was something like old traditions because our HEMA started not so long ago and we had other types of historical fencing before it. Also, we have we have a very strong discipline of historical, mediaeval battles.

GW: Battle of the Nations.

EM: Yes, yes. This is the thing. So we have influences from one side and input from the other side. And we’re somewhere in between. So we just take something and we are just in the process of forming HEMA now.

GW: You know, I used to live in Finland, and about seven years ago, I was doing demonstrations at a place called Hämeenlinna, which has a castle, and they have this event every year. And I would go and do demonstrations and whatever. And one year they brought this group of Russian reenactors over to do demonstration fights and what have you. And I think there were 12 of them in the group. And I do know that by the end of the weekend, only one of them had not gone to the hospital.

EM: Very enthusiastic! Maybe it was bad gear protection.

GW: I don’t think it was the gear because they were wearing armour. But the thing is, armour can only protect you from so much. It can’t protect you from someone who is just beating the shit out of you with a big heavy metal object over and over again.

EM: Yes, it is a thing for them to like it. There are many people in Russia like it and as many people who don’t like it. And for example, we, our club and other HEMA clubs, we find other things beautiful, other things worth practising, which is just a different approach.

GW: Yeah, so what things do you find most beautiful and worth practising?

EM: I find it beautiful when things are done properly. When you see how the mind works, you see the idea and how it was managed, how it was put in real life. I like to see that. I like to see when a person has perfect distance feeling and when a person feels the time. I like smart and beautiful fencing. For each person it is different things, but for me the main thing is just to see the work of mine.

GW: So the fencing as an expression of the personality behind it.

EM: Yes, well said. Well said.

GW: Well, I’m a writer. I’m supposed to be good at it.

EM: I like your books, they have very easy language.

GW: Thank you. I try really hard as I’m aware that for an awful lot of people who are reading my books, English is not their first language. So I try to keep it clear and straightforward. OK, so what has been, would you say, your proudest moment in your historical martial arts career so far?

EM: Being a sportswoman, you know, the proudest moment for me was of course winning big tournaments. The proudest moment for me is when I win them the way I wanted to, when I did the things right, when I am satisfied with my bouts. I’m also really satisfied with teaching students, it is also my proudest moment when I see when my students do things right, I feel so warm and satisfied.

GW: It’s like being a parent.

EM: I think it has much in common. If I’m being more detailed, I should admit that my Swordfish medals mean much to me because it is one of the greatest events in the competitive field. So winning it was a big experience for me. And also in Russia, we have now very tough tournaments because HEMA started to be more popular and more massive and the competition at this tournament is really high and really tough. So winning in Russia, sometimes it is worth more than winning some other competition because we have very motivated people who study and work hard. So you just go and see these ladies, you see these men and see how much they worked and that they have their will. And in Russia, it is really tough to win. So my big congratulations to those who do it and for the foreign practitioners who take the medals here. It’s just really tough.

GW: So how do you prepare for such a tough tournament?

EM: We have many things to do. I mean, we pay our attention to the physical condition, not only practising our fencing skills, techniques. In our school, we mean that to be successful in free play and also even learning techniques, you should be strong. You should be fast. So we pay attention to the exercises that improve your physical form of conditioning. Also, we do sparring with tasks, not in free play or with the aim of just hitting. We solve some tasks during it. For example, you should some situation using different techniques that makes your mind work or otherwise you should solve a different situation with one method, with one skill or technique, and vice versa.

GW: Yeah, I have a thing when I’m teaching my students this sort of thing. I have a card game called Audatia, which simulates a longsword fight. And so what I do is I take the action cards from that and the practitioners, the fencers, they draw a card and they show it to me and that is the only blow or technique they can use that will score a point. They don’t know what the other one’s card is and so then they have to construct the fight so that they can get to do maybe a pommel strike with an elbow push or maybe a rising blow to the hands or whatever. So they can’t just do the things they’re comfortable with. They have to learn how to push their opponent into a situation where they can do the thing they want to do. And having that randomiser I find really forces them out of their comfort zone.

EM: I think it is interesting to widen their arsenal, the sets of skills. It is important thing to have many skills. Not only striking hands, not only making passing steps, you know?

GW: Yes, exactly. Yeah, it’s no good being what we call a one trick pony. OK, so I have a couple of questions I usually finish up with in the first one is what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?

EM: I had many ideas during my career and many are dead. I mean, things changed and also my ideas changed, or someone decided to do it before me. And now I feel like we have to pay more attention to the methodology. I mean, to make it more systematic and structural, we have to train the trainers, firstly. Also, we should make some guides for judges because in Russia we haven’t got a unified system. We have different rules. And different rules are OK, I think. We have to have it, but we haven’t got a clear method of training judges. I also think we have to have more translations. It is a good idea, for example, to have Radaelli in Russian. We have Barbasetti translation, but there are there are many sources that need translation and they’re just waiting to be implemented. And I think this idea also to have some meetings, maybe yearly meetings for some fight and learn camps. It is not very common in Russia. They started to appear, for example, three years ago. It is also very young practise. We have to have more.

GW: That’s that leads me on to my last question, which is if somebody gives you a million dollars or some big chunk of money – and the money is imaginary, so you can make it bigger if you want to, it doesn’t cost any extra – to spend on improving historical martial arts generally, where do you think that money should go?

EM: I think this is the best question because it really motivated me to think about it very hard. I think we should just make opportunity for the people who already do it to do it better. I mean, to give them time. I’ve learnt several days ago about some Finnish experiment when the government gave some people money that helped them to cover their bills. So they just decided not to waste their time in different ways because their bills were covered and they had opportunities to think about other things that are not usually primary. So I would give this money to them who are interested in HEMA but do not have opportunity to study deeper because they haven’t got money for working resources. They can’t travel to other countries to study the sources. Also give people time to make some learning materials because it is also this time wasted on earning a living. So my opinion of this question is that we mustn’t do some giant tournament or do some even bigger workshop event. We must pay people for their study.

GW: You would create a universal basic income system for people so they could give up their day jobs and just do swords?

EM: Yes.

GW: Because that’s a brilliant idea. I am totally in favour of that. That’s pretty much what I did, but I got my students to give me a basic income so I could do swords all day.

EM: It is a really important thing because when you don’t have to think about your food, you think about bigger things, right?

GW: Exactly. Well, I think that’s a wonderful place to finish. Thank you very much for talking to me today. It’s been a delight.

EM: Thank you very much for inviting me, it was a very nice conversation. Thank you.