Boasting about future success — which is said to bring bad luck — keeps people humble. And if your right eye itches, don’t be too upset about the possibility of catching conjunctivitis — it might simply mean something will make you happy soon. Russians are so extremely superstitious. Nikolay Shevchenko gives details of Russian superstitions.
Never lick food off a knife; never shake hands across a doorstep, never let a woman carrying an empty trash can cross your way… otherwise, something terrible is bound to happen to you. The taboos dictated by superstitious beliefs seem to be countless in Russia.
Yet, however irrational those might appear at first sight, sometimes there is stern logic behind which might explain why various superstitions survive here are ever present.
Prone to believe
The last major survey conducted by independent pollster Levada Center (a non-profit organization that performs the functions of a foreign agent – ed.) measuring how superstitious Russians are was conducted in 2017. It showed that 55 percent of the population in the country believed in superstitions while 16 percent found it difficult to reply with certainty. This left only about 30 percent who doubted or renounced superstitions completely.
Given the statistics, there is nothing to be surprised about when a Russian starts urgently looking for wood to knock on or refuses to pass cash from hand to hand, laying it on a surface to be picked up instead. For many — even for self-proclaimed skeptics — observing various superstitious rituals have become an intrinsic routine that does not require rationalization.
“In general, I don’t believe in superstitions, but the funny thing is that when I saw a black cat cross the road in front of me, I noticed I subconsciously avoided going forward until somebody else did. Sometimes, I even stopped and waited for others to go first. I guess somebody had told me about it once and it just imprinted on my subconsciousness once and for all,” says Dmitri, 32, from Moscow.
Growing up in an environment where superstitions are continuously enforced might be one of the reasons younger generations of Russians are not immune to believing in the irrational.
“I know it’s irrational to believe in superstitions. Still, deep down inside I start worrying if, for example, I accidentally spill salt. A quarrel seems to be inevitable even though I do realize spilled salt can’t really cause it. But I’ve been repeatedly told so since childhood,” says Julia, 21, from Moscow.
Faith and religion
Some have noticed that the belief in superstitions among the Russians goes hand in hand with the spread of faith. The more religious a person is, the more they believe in superstitions, the theory goes.
Expat Walter Smith, who first came to Russia in the 1990s, said he was astonished at how susceptible to superstitions and irrational beliefs the Russian people appeared to be. “[I noticed] superstition, irrationality, gullibility, lack of logic, lack of reference to science, lack of reference to statistics and real-world evidence. For example, the frankly absurd belief that a religious icon in a car will protect you from accidents (despite having a far higher traffic accident and death rate than European countries that don’t have icons in cars),” said Smith.
The Levada poll says deep religiosity may be a cause of widespread acceptance of superstitions in Russia, as religious people are said to tend to take superstitions at face value.
“Orthodox respondents (34% of the poll) are more likely than other groups among the Orthodox faith to believe in all irrational phenomena. On the contrary, atheists tend not to believe in not only the existence of God, but also in eternal life, the Kingdom of Heaven, religious miracles, etc. They are less superstitious – among atheists, the proportion of those surveyed who believe in the ‘Evil Eye’ and spoiling is significantly lower than among those who hesitate, those who doubt and, especially, Russians who identify as Orthodox,” according to the Levada Center poll-based research.
The useful irrational
The most common superstitions prevalent in Russia may seem irrational at first sight, but adhering to some of them might provide a closer look at the heart of Russian culture. Also, knowing the most common superstitions might make life easier for a newcomer trying to assimilate into the country.
For example, the seemingly irrational belief that an even number of flowers is a bad omen is so prevalent in Russia that giving an even number to a person is guaranteed to raise eyebrows and spoil the impression. At the root of this superstition lies an ancient Slavic belief that even numbers represented the end of the life cycle. In modern Russia, an even number of flowers is indeed closely associated with funerals. Knowing and sticking to this rule will surely make anyone’s life in the country easier.
Another superstition that dictates all members of the group must sit down before embarking on a journey provides an excellent opportunity to calm down in a moment of rush and think about what one could have forgotten.
Accidentally smashing glass cups or plates translates to good luck according to Russian superstition, which, in turn, makes the loss more bearable for the owner of the gone tableware.
Boasting about future success — which is said to bring bad luck — keeps people humble. And if your right eye itches, don’t be too upset about the possibility of catching conjunctivitis — it might simply mean something will make you happy soon.
Ten common Russian superstitions
Give flowers only in odd numbers
If you are visiting someone or going on a date, make sure that your bouquet has an odd number of flowers. Otherwise, you will put the woman you are trying to cheer up or impress in a bad mood since Russians bring flowers in even numbers only to cemeteries.
Do not put on clothes inside out
According to superstition, if you put on an item of clothing inside out there is a high probability that you will be beaten. Nevertheless if this happens, you should immediately get dressed in the right way and ask someone to beat your back – this symbolic gesture should save you from a real thrashing.
Do not turn back if you are halfway there
Do not turn back if you realize that you have forgotten something at home or else something bad could happen to you. However, if you really must go back take a look in the mirror before you leave the house again.
Do not shake hands over a threshold
When you visit someone and they open the door, even if your emotions overtake you, you should enter first and only then offer your hand or embrace the host. You must not shake hands, hug or kiss them over a threshold – you may disturb a house spirit that lives over it, which could create problems for you afterwards.
Do not give a “sharp” gift
You should not give scissors or knives as a present to Russian friends, otherwise you will argue with them. If you still really want to give a knife, you should take a small fee for it such as a ruble. That will change its metaphysical status from a present to a purchase. A handkerchief would be a bad idea as well as it is believed to bring tears. If you decide to give a purse, place a coin inside, so that it will never be empty.
If you find yourself between two people with the same name – make a wish
After meeting all the guests at a party, try to sit down to the table between two people with the same name. It shouldn’t be too difficult in Russia since the most popular names are incredibly common. Take a seat between two Sashas, Lenas or Mashas and make a wish. However, do not tell your wish to anyone – otherwise it will not come true.
Be careful with salt
When passing the salt at the dinner table, try to not spill it, or else it could lead to an argument. In case this happens you should throw a pinch of the spilled salt over your left shoulder and do it with a laugh, then everything should turn out just fine. At the same time, if you find that the food is too salty, try not to be disappointed since it means that the mistress has fallen in love. Perhaps with you?
Do not eat food off of a knife
It is doubtful that you would do this at someone else’s house, but even at home you shouldn’t lick a knife. According to Russian lore this will make you evil. And besides you could cut yourself.
If someone wishes you luck, do not thank the person
In response to the traditional Russian wishing of “ni pukha ni pera!” (“Good luck!”), for example, before an exam, interview or important performance, never say, “thank you.” The only correct answer is “k chyortu!” (“To hell with it!”), otherwise you could experience a reversal of fortune.
Do not leave empty bottles on the table
A soon as all the liquid is poured out into shot and wine glasses, you should immediately remove the bottle from the table. It is said that this tradition comes from the time of the Napoleonic Wars. After the Battle of Paris in 1814, Russian Cossacks noticed that the number of drinks people were charged for were calculated by the number of bottles left on the table in local restaurants. Supposedly this is why Cossacks cleverly placed the bottles under the table. We cannot verify the truth of this legend but this tip will be useful anyway, since another Russian tradition states that all open bottles must be finished. So, good luck!
Please follow Blitz on Google News channel