Russia and its fabulous sense of superstition
21 August, 2018
Russians are a superstitious bunch: 53% of the Russian population believe strongly in superstitions (according to the Levada Centre, 2013)! However, many foreigners have never even heard of a lot of Russian superstitions. During my time in Russia I have noticed several peculiar customs that have turned out to be connected to Russian superstitions, so here’s a list of the most important ones to be aware of!
Leaving the house
In Russia, many superstitions are connected with leaving the house. One very important example is sitting down for a moment before setting off on a trip. It is very normal in Russia to sit in the hallway for up to a minute, with all of your luggage, to ensure a successful trip (or rather to avoid a disastrous one!). Even if only one person is leaving, the whole family or group will usually sit with them for a moment before they leave.
It is also common practice to avoid going back into the house once you have left, even if you’ve forgotten something. It supposedly brings bad luck and something unpleasant might happen. If you must go back in, you can look in a mirror before you leave the house for the second time, and this will dispel any bad luck hanging around. This is why you will often see a mirror hanging next to the door in Russian households.
A lot of the most important Russian superstitions that I have come across in real-life centre themselves around money – winning it, losing it, giving it… the list goes on! According to Russian beliefs, there are many ways to “lose” money – whistling inside for example. Russians believe that whistling inside will whistle away your money, as it was originally a way to communicate with ‘evil spirits’ – watch out for this one especially if you’re living in a homestay… I’ve received many a stern talking-to from my бабушка (granny/host) on the subject!
Another money-related superstition is that you’ll lose your money if you put your bag on the floor. You will occasionally even be given a special chair for your bag in a restaurant to avoid this, and someone may move your bag for you if they see it on the floor! When I first arrived in Russia, I assumed that avoiding placing a bag on the floor was to avoid dirtying the bag – it was mid-winter and every time someone would enter a cafe, they would bring in snow and mud from the street with them. But as it turns out, it’s all based on superstition!
Russians also believe that money can transfer energy from person to person. If you enter any shop or cafe, you’ll usually see a small tray at the till: this is where you should place the money. If the person giving the money has a negative energy, it is Russian belief that this bad energy will be transferred to the other person when the money is placed in their hand! If you try to place money in someone’s hand, they will usually notion to the tray and avoid taking your money personally.
There is also a world of superstitions around giving gifts in Russia, something to be very careful about! Russian women love flowers, but if giving a woman flowers, keep in mind that you should only buy an odd number of flowers! Even numbers of flowers are only used at funerals. If you want to learn more about Russia’s flower culture, click here to read an article by our intern Leah on the subject!
You are not supposed to give sharp objects as gifts, either. If you give a knife or scissors to a friend, it means you will argue. If you are really determined to give a friend something sharp as a gift, the receiver will often give a small sum (e.g. 1 Rouble) back to you, which symbolically means that it is a “purchase” instead, avoiding the bad luck. Giving a handkerchief as a gift is also considered inappropriate, as they are supposed to bring tears. Superstitions concerning gifts are important to watch out for – if you don’t obey the superstitious rules, you could get a frown rather than a smile in return from the receiver!
Суеверия (superstitions) still play an important role in the everyday lives of Russian people, and years of adhering to superstitious rules mean that superstitions have formed some of the important foundations of Russian culture as a whole.