The information below is compiled from various webs sites and is designed to give some brief background to spetsnaz.


Soviet special purpose forces are called by several names, including reydoviki, diversionary troops, and reconnaissance/sabotage troops, but they are most popularly known as SPETSNAZ, an acronym from the Russian spetsialnoe naznachenie, meaning special purpose. The majority of Spetsnaz are controlled by the Soviet General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU-Glavnoe Razvedyvatelnoe Upravlenie).

The mission of the spetsnaz is to conduct Special Reconnaissance (Spetsialnaya Razvedka). According to the Soviet Military Encyclopedia, Special Reconnaissance is defined as:

reconnaissance carried out to subvert the political, economic and military potential and morale of a probable or actual enemy. The primary missions of special reconnaissance are: acquiring intelligence on major economic and military installations and either destroying them or putting them out of action, organizing sabotage and acts of subversion; carrying out punitive operations against rebels; conducting propaganda; forming and training insurgent detachments, etc. Special reconnaissance is ... conducted by the forces of covert intelligence and special purpose troops.

The origins of spetsnaz can be traced back to the 1930's. On 2 August 1930 a small detachment of commando troops was dropped on man oeuvres in the region of Voronezh and was to carry out operations in the rear of the "enemy". Officially this is the date when Soviet airborne troops came into but it is also the date when spetsnaz was born. Airborne troops and spetsnaz troops subsequently went through a parallel development, until the control of spetsnaz was given over entirely to military intelligence. Of course, during World War Two the Russians made considerable use of behind enemy lines partisan groups, sabotage operations and the like, where the fledgling spetsnaz units saw action against both the Germans and the Japanese.

After the war these units virtually ceased to exist. It was not until the mid-1950's and the threat of nuclear weapons that a need was once more seen for a behind-the-lines reconnaissance force. So spetsnaz was established, with the brief of being able to operate up to 1000 kilometers behind enemy lines, with emphasis on enemy nuclear delivery means, either locating them for attack by other forces or, if necessary, attacking by themselves. Typical targets include mobile missiles, command and control facilities, air defenses, airfields, port facilities, and lines of communication. In addition, specially trained spets elements had the missions of assassinating or kidnapping enemy military and civilian leaders.

There are stringent standards required of all conscripts assigned to spetsnaz. Potential reydoviki must be secondary school graduates, intelligent, physically fit, and "politically reliable". Upon induction, a conscript will be asked to sign a loyalty oath in which he acknowledges death will be his punishment for divulging details about his service. After induction, some conscripts will be selected for an arduous, six-month-long NCO school. Conscripts not selected for NCO school receive training in their units. In addition to basic military training, they will be trained in the following specialized skills:

hand-to-hand combat, silent-killing techniques, knife-fighting,
sabotage using explosives, incendiaries, acids, and abrasives,
infiltration techniques, including defeat of locks and security systems,
foreign language and culture,
foreign weapons, tactics, and vehicles,
reconnaissance and map reading,

Training in foreign language, etc., is geared to the unit's wartime target area. The team leader is expected to be nearly fluent in one of the languages of a target country, while enlisted personnel are expected to know the alphabet and basic phrases. This specific training relating to a foreign country is intended not only to facilitate operations there but also to enable the teams to conduct missions while wearing enemy uniforms or civilian clothing.

Parachute training begins with static line jumps, but many soldiers will progress to high altitude low opening (HALO) jumps using steerable parachutes. Jumps are made day and night, in all kinds of terrain and weather.

The technical training schedule leaves time for rigorous physical training involving obstacle courses and forced marches, which are often conducted in gas masks. Some units also provide strenuous adventure training like mountain climbing and skiing. Up to half the year is spent training out of garrison. Once or twice a year, selected teams engage in extremely realistic exercises carried out under battle conditions. Teams are provided little in the way of rations and are forced to forage for food. Exercise objectives are often operational installations guarded by regular troops or soldiers of the Ministry of Interior.

Most spetsnaz missions have the primary objective of reconnaissance, so they will use camouflage to avoid contact with enemy patrols. They will attack if ordered to do so by the brigade or in the event a nuclear missile is ready for firing. In that case, the team will try to destroy the missile by fire and, if not successful, will mount an all-out attack. As a general rule, spetsnaz commanders operate independently. Once missions are given to the teams, army and front headquarters keep interference to a minimum, relying on the initiative and skill of the team leaders. Sufficient coordination is maintained to be able to order the teams out of the way of other Soviet attacks, particularly nuclear strikes.

Spetsnaz are not particularly well known within the Soviet military, and they tend not to publicize their existence and capabilities. Their uniforms are not distinctive, with ground forces spetsnaz usually wearing airborne or signal troops' uniforms and naval spetsnaz wearing naval infantry or submariners' uniforms. Their ethnic makeup is likewise not distinctive and to some degree reflects the ethnic characteristics of the intended target. For example, spetsnaz units in the Far East are alleged to have available North Koreans and Japanese from Manchuria and the Kuril Islands.

Of course it should always be borne in mind that despite their qualifications, tough training, and demonstrated value, the fact remains that the majority of spetsnaz troops are conscripts on two-year tours of duty. Consequently, there is limited opportunity for cross-training in specialties, and soldiers may lack the degree of motivation that characterizes Western unconventional warfare forces, such as the U.S. Army Rangers, Special Forces, and the British SAS. Despite that, during the Cold War spetsnaz posed a formidable threat to NATO's rear area.


During the 1970s and 1980s there were many new special operations groups set up, particularly within the Committee for State Security (KGB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). These special troops went under the generic title of Spetsgruppe and were paramilitary forces which received special training for a variety of missions. Many of these units served in a variety of roles in the war in Afghanistan but for most of them a defining moment seems to have been reached during the 1991 coup, when they were forced to take sides, or at least to refuse to take action. After the coup had been defeated President Yeltsin transferred most of them to his personal control but they have since been transferred yet again back to various ministries. Many of the groups have been involved in the recent conflicts in the Russian Federation, including Chech'nya.

Spetsgruppa "Al’fa" (special group A) was set up by the KGB's Seventh Directorate in 1974 as a counter-terrorist and hostage-rescue group. Also raised by the KGB was Spetsgruppa Vympel whose mission was to fulfil the KGB's wartime role of assassination and snatching. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it was transferred to the MVD but is now with the FSB with a primary responsibility for a hostage rescue. The MVD also has at least two groups of special troops known as the Omon (black berets), which were originally raised to provide additional security and hostage rescue at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Since then they have been used for counter-terrorist activities and defeating armed criminals, and are currently involved in campaigns against drug gangs.


For those with Internet access here is plenty of information available to facilitate research on Special Forces, be they Russian or any other nationality. As far as the study of Systema goes, the military background can give a context to some of the training and it certainly shows that the art has been extensively field tested in real situations. But we should also beware of glamourising what is a brutal and brutalising business. Given the background of Systema and that of its main teachers, it is not surprising that there is an interest in knowing more about spetsnaz and similar Russian units and organisations. However there are some important points to be made regarding the connections between Systema and Spetsnaz.

The first is that while we acknowledge that certain aspects of the art were utilised by a totalitarian regime, we have no political affiliations or agenda. The fact that the Soviet regime used Systema for its own purposes is something that lies beyond the powers of the founders of the art and would certainly be at odds with their outlook and philosophy. Indeed, many aspects of that philosophy, in particular the Orthodox church, were aggressively repressed by the Soviets. One of the most striking aspects of Systema is it's emphasis on free thinking and creativity, something hardly likely to be encouraged by governments in general, let alone such a repressive one.

However we can also acknowledge that the fact that Systema was taken up by and used in the way it was, may have contributed to its development for the modern era. Research into efficient training methods, diet, psychology, sports performance and the like was actively pursued under the Soviets and applied to everything from Olympic training for athletes to military training for special units. Having said that, there is no doubt that military training has one prime focus - to make a soldier, someone who will respond to orders without hesitation, will undertake those orders under the worst of conditions and do whatever is necessary to see the orders through. Training in any armed forces will involve a certain amount of "de-humanising" to get results, depending on the surrounding social environment. This type of de-humanising process is very much at odds with Systema philosophy.

Modern military hand to hand combat training (where it exists) is of the "short and sharp" variety and is often done mostly to develop "spirit", given the nature of the modern battlefield. In Russia, the vast majority of hand-to-hand training is in combat sambo or similar arts. The number of units learning Systema is relatively small. This makes perfect sense in the light of what troops are used for. Most modern battlefield troops will have little need for HTH skills. The brutal truth may also be that certain troops will have very short "life expectancy" in a conflict and to spend an inordinate amount of resources on HTH training is seen as wasteful or irrelevant.

Systema, then, is something taught to more specialised units - for example, currently to certain bodyguard units. Given the previous (and current) secrecy surrounding the Russian military, not to mention the fact that it may not be appropriate for current and previous operatives to disclose information, it can be difficult to get "hard facts" about the full nature of its use. Of course, those with direct access to Systema's main teachers, or those who have friends or family from a similar background, are able to speak to them directly about such matters. For the rest, information is largely a matter of personal research - typing spetsnaz into any internet search engine will bring plenty of places to get started, even more so if you speak or read Russian.