Russian test cutting practices

One of the great things about online HEMA research is that you often end up finding interesting material that you weren't really looking for. I was recently doing research on test-cutting practices in British-ruled India, and by happen-stance came across a fair amount of material from Russia. Apparently Russian cavalrymen, especially the Cossacks, had a long tradition of cutting mannekins made of clay and straw. They also engaged in other cutting practices as well: Potatoes, bundles of sticks soaked in water, cones of clay, live animals, and even streams of running water all featured in Russian cutting practice.

These cutting practices centered around the use of the cavalry sabre. Although a variety of sabres were used by Russian cavalry, the traditional weapon of the Caucasus, the shaska, appears to have been the weapon of choice.

This tradition was apparently well in place by the 1700s, when the famous General Suvarov is said to have used these methods to train his troops with the sabre, his preferred weapon: “Figures of straw and clay were put up in every quarter, and Suwarow's smile rewarded him whose sabre cut the deepest." Source: P. 16 of A Sketch of Suwarow, and His Last Campaign, by Edward Nevil Macready (London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1851)

These traditions appear to have been most practiced among the Cossacks.  The Zaporozhye Cossacks are mentioned as having been especially skilled in cutting practice. Their sword arts were still practiced during World War II, when Soviet Cossack units incorporated them into their battlefield training.

A Zaporozhye Cossack, from around 1720

The following passage, from a Soviet wartime journal dated 1943, describes a training course on swordsmanship held by a Cossack unit shortly after the battle of Stalingrad:

 “I was their guest for a few days. They were holding a sort of training course in saber fighting. Nikifor Natluck, a Cossack from the stanitsa (village) of Labinskoy, a patriarchal old man, whose sons are prominent Cossack Red Army commanders, proposed that young Cossacks should be taught the immortal saber blow of the Zaporozhye Cossacks.

“The German must be slashed from the shoulder to the groin,” he said. “Anyone can cut off a head or slice off an arm, but a Cossack must wield his saber as his great-grandfathers did.”

Another one of the instructors was Trofim Njegoduyko, whose forefathers came with the first settlers from the mouth of the Dnieper in the time of Empress Catherine II. [...] Now, at 54 years of age, he is a senior sergeant, a volunteer in the Red Army. He fought near Moscow...and later back home in the Kuban.

“I’ve known 16 generals in my time,” he told me, “and honestly they all treated me like a brother.”

“Why was that?”

He smoothed the flowing gray-black beard which spreads over his Circassian coat, and kept silent for some time, loving to keep our curiosity suspended in mid-air. Finally he said, “I do a Cossack’s job well. What do they want from a Cossack? Fierceness. They expect him to deal heavy strokes. Well, I deal such strokes. A good stroke, boys, is never forgotten. It lives forever.” [...]

In 1914, near Gumbinen, Trofim’s father cut a German in six parts with two blows of his sword. It was the famous “criss-cross” blow, and the fame of it drew young officers to study with Alexander Njegoduyko. He showed them how to cut a calf in two, or a piece of cloth thrown up into the air.

Trofim Alexandrovich has upheld the honors of his family. [...] The silver hilt [of his sword] is ... covered with 131 copper dots like freckles. That is Trofim’s score of killed Germans. Trofim Alexandrovich says that eight dots are missing; they dropped off by accident. Not all the 139 Germans were cut up: many of them tasted lead bullets, others were destroyed with the rifle butt or crushed under Trofim’s horse. With his sword he killed 43 Germans. [...]

With one blow he cut a German officer near Rostov in three parts: head and shoulders, half the body and an arm, and the rest of the body.

Now he has been invited to show young Cossacks the art of sword play. Upright on his horse, he gallops spiritedly up to the clay figure of a German with out-spread arms. The young folks have been hacking away unsuccessfully at this “German” since the early morning. But their swords have got stuck in the moist clay at the level of the heart, or they have struck off only the head, which of course cannot be consdered a decent stroke. Even a child can strike off a head.

So 54-year-old Trofim Njegoduyko, with set teeth, dashes up on his russet horse. The sword glitters brightly in his hand. He rises in his stirrups, raises the blade, and the clay German falls in two pieces.

The young folk shout “Hurrah!” Trofim, reining in his horse, explains: “The hardest thing, my lads, is to cut clay. I can feel no hatred for a clay figure, and therefore there is no heat in doing it. Why do I cut it? Only for the sake of your education.”

“But my heart’s not in it. I feel no anger. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that it is easier to strike at a German. In the first place, he usually turns tail. So if you stick a sword into him he’ll run up it himself. He’ll cut himself up. In the second place, you’ve got to apply pressure along the length of the blade, not downwards. It’s not the same as chopping wood.”

“Use your imagination. Pretend that the German is very broad and you’re cutting him open like a cake. Don’t hurry. Take it easy, and everything will turn out well.”

“Of course, psychology plays a part too,” adds Trofim mockingly. “but it’s none of our business if a German yells. If the Germans don’t like it they should have stayed at home in Germany. But once they’ve come on to our territory, friend, crying won’t help. Run, damn you, run up the blade!

Source: Pyotr Pavlenko, “Cossacks of the Kuban”, in Soviet War News Weekly (September 23, 1943); cited on P. 487-88 of The Story of World War II, by Donald Miller and Henry Commager (2002)

Cossacks from the Kuban region of Russia, whose practices were described in the passage above

This martial tradition is also evident in various works of fiction from Russia, where the practice of cutting clay and other objects is often described in great technical detail. The following passage, written in 1916, tells of a man from the Caucasus who instructs his comrades in the use of the shaska, or sabre:

"Biek-Agamalov smiled in approbation, and with more than his usual generosity showed his whole row of gleaming white teeth. "Hark you, Viatkin, you ought really to take some interest in this sabre-cutting. With us at our home in the Caucasus we practise it from childhood — on bundles of wattles, on water-spouts, the bodies of sheep."

“And on men’s bodies,” remarked Lbov. “And on men’s bodies,” repeated Agamalov with unruffled calm. “And such strokes, too! In a twinkling they cleave a fellow from his shoulder to the hip.”

“Biek, can you perform a test of strength like that?”

Biek-Agamalov sighed regretfully.

“No, alas. A sheep, or a calf, I can say I could cleave to the neck by a single stroke, but to cut a full-grown man down to the waist is beyond my power. To my father it would be a trifle.”

“Come, gentlemen, and let us try our strength and sabres on that scarecrow,” said Lbov, in a determined tone and with flashing eyes. "Biek, my dear boy, come with us."

The officers went up to the clay figure that had been erected a little way off. Viatkin was the first to attack it. After endeavouring to impart to his innocent, prosaic face an expression of wild-beast ferocity, he struck the clay man with all his might and with an unnecessarily big flourish of his sabre. At the same time he uttered the characteristic sound "Khryass!" which a butcher makes when he is cutting up beef. The weapon entered about a quarter of an inch into the clay, and Viatkin had some trouble to extricate his brave sabre.

"Wretchedly done," exclaimed Agamalov, shaking his head. "Now, Romashov, it's your turn."

Romashov drew his sabre from its sheath, and adjusted his eyeglass with a hesitating movement. He was of medium height, lean, and fairly strong in proportion to his build, but through constitutional timidity and lack of interest not much accustomed to handling the weapon. Even as a pupil at the Military Academy he was a bad swordsman, and after a year and a half's service in the regiment he had almost completely forgotten the art.

He raised his sabre high above his head, but stretched out, simultaneously and instinctively, his left arm and hand. "Mind your hand!" shouted Agamalov. But it was too late then. The point of the sabre only made a slight scratch on the clay, and Romashov, to his astonishment, who had mis-reckoned on a strong resistance to the steel entering the clay, lost his balance and stumbled forward, whereupon the blade of the sabre caught his out-stretched hand and tore off a portion of skin at the lower part of his little finger, so that the blood oozed.

"There! See what you've done! " cried Biek angrily as he dismounted from his charger. "How can anyone handle a sabre so badly? You very nearly cut off your hand, you know. Well, that wound is a mere trifle, but you'd better bind it up with your handkerchief. Ensign, hold my horse.

And now, gentlemen, bear this in mind. The force or effect of a stroke is not generated either in the shoulder or the elbow, but here, in the wrist."

He made, as quick as lightning, a few rotary movements of his right hand, whereupon the point of his sabre described a scintillating circle above his head. "Now look, I put my left hand behind my back. When the stroke itself is to be delivered it must not be done by a violent and clumsily directed blow, but by a vigorous cut, in which the arm and sabre are jerked slightly backwards. Do you understand? Moreover, it is absolutely necessary that the plane of the sabre exactly coincides with the direction of the stroke. Look, here goes!"

Biek took two steps backwards from the manikin, to which he seemed, as it were, to fasten himself tightly by a sharp, penetrating glance. Suddenly the sabre flashed in the air, and a fearful stroke, delivered with a rapidity that the eye could not follow, struck like lightning the clay figure, the upper part of which rolled, softly but heavily, down to the ground. The cut made by the sabre was as smooth and even as if it had been polished.

"The deuce, that was something like a cut!" cried the enthusiastic Lbov in wild delight. "Biek, my dear fellow, of your charity do that over again." "Yes, do, Biek," chimed in Viatkin.

But Agamalov, who was evidently afraid of destroying the effect he had produced, smiled as he replaced the sabre in its scabbard. He breathed heavily, and at that moment, by his bloodthirsty, wildly staring eyes, his hawk's nose, and set mouth, he put one in mind of a proud, cruel, malignant bird of prey.

"That was really nothing remarkable," he exclaimed in a tone of assumed contempt." At home in the Caucasus my old father, although he is over sixty-six, could cut off a horse's head in a trice. You see, my children, everything can be acquired by practice and perseverance. At my home we practise on bundles of faggots tightly twisted together, or we try to cut through a water-spout without the least splash being noticeable."

Source: Pp. 15-18 of The Duel, Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin (Macmillan, New York, 1916)

Cossacks with traditional garb and weaponry

Another work describes the training of recruits at the Elizavetgrad Cavalry School in the early 1900s. The “second-rate animals” referred to below are the trainees:

Cavalry training took place in the school’s riding-ring. The ‘second-rate animals’ began by mounting without spurs or stirrups. When, after heaping his whole repertoire of abuse upon them, the instructor reckoned they could keep more or less in the saddle, spurs and stirrups were given them as a reward. Then they learned to sabre cones of clay raised on wooden frames. The supreme art consisted in cleaving the obstacles with the point of the blade in such a way that the cut part remained in its place despite the speed of the horse. Often the clay cones were alternated with faggots, in which even the cadets asked the assistant instructors to soak the branches beforehand in salt water so that, dried and hardened, they might be easier to slice.

Source: P. 109 of Daily Life in Russia under the Last Tsar, Henri Troyat (New York, Allen & Unwin, 1961); translated from La Vie Quotidienne en Russie au Temps du Dernier Tsar (Paris, Hachette, 1959)

The next passage describes training in a regiment of cavalry in the Russian Imperial Guard in 1911-12. The author died in 1937.

During rotation riding we spent a lot of time learning to hack with our sabers. The regiment was famed in competition for its dashing swordsmen. Many young officers were keen on this activity and elevated it to a sport. One must say that they taught the soldiers to hack with great virtuosity. At a full gallop they could cut with their sabers a little potato hanging by a thread, plunge the saber through a narrow ring, dashingly cut off clay heads at full career; they could cut through thick straw plaits and vines while jumping over obstacles. They hacked beautifully, with style.

Source: P. 166 of A Russian Prince in the Soviet State, Vladimmir Sergeevich Trubetskoi, translation by Susanne Fusso, (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 2006)

A cavalryman of the Russian Imperial Guard

A final passage describes a Russian aristocrat who practiced with the sabre each day, cutting at a mannekin made of clay:

"Prince Michael remained in Russia until he was twenty-three. [...] He wielded the sabre with a skill that his Cossack ancestor and General Saldana would have admired. Every morning in the courtyard of his Petersburg palace he found awaiting him a life-sized dummy made of the firm sticky clay used by sculptors. He would stay for half an hour in front of it, going through his exercises. It was not enough to be able to strike one's enemy. The important thing was to strike well, with the greatest possible depth and force. And the head and limbs of the dummy went flying, severed by the steel blade."

Source: P. 54 of The Enemies of Women, Vicente Blasco Ibanex (New York, Dutton, 1920)

In closing, it appears that Russia, and in particular the Cossacks, possessed a tradition of swordsmanship that placed great emphasis on cutting practice. Clearly, more research in this area is required. Hopefully, this short collection of source material will serve as the inspiration for future researchers to delve more deeply into this fascinating topic.

Matt Galas / Mons, Belgium

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