Saturday, July 7, 2007

Russian Superstitions (No, you are NOT taking my daughter to a witch doctor!)

Spending time in a village in Ukraine hightened our awareness of Russian/Eastern European superstitions (more about the witch doctor below). They seem to permeate the culture, shaping daily behavior and thought--so they're absolutely inescapable. The visitor who is unaware of such beliefs and customs is likely to be bewildered... We have found ourselves in situations informed by superstition since we first arrived; even the girls have sometimes reacted with confusion--and occasionally anger. (I now realize, though, that the girls have to have acquired some of these beliefs along with their Russian language... They truly believe that you have to wear tights with a skirt even in June.)

I went through Wikipedia and looked at their entry on Russian superstitions. It is long--and I was surprised to realize that I have encountered almost every belief listed. (In my list of supersitions below, all cited descriptions come from Wikipedia). I've found that superstition also blends with religious faith, particularly among those who haven't been extensively exposed to Western culture through friends or colleagues--people from provincial areas with limited education and financial means.
I was struck by the omnipresence of shrines and chapels throughout western Ukraine. Almost every cottage has some sort of decorative cross in front; if you don't have one, your home will be plagued by sorrow and bad luck. The richer the family, the more elaborate and expensive the shrine. Now, just for fun, here is my list of common Russian superstitions:


Never, ever sit on a cold surface.

"It is widely believed in Russia that sitting on cold surfaces, such as rocks or even the ground, is not simply taboo for a woman, but it is extremely hazardous to her health and inhibits her ability to bear children (by somehow exposing her ovaries to the cold). It is a practice that is rigorously upheld, especially in cold weather and with young children, who will often unknowingly sit on the ground, and who will frequently be lifted up by a supervising adult."

This has to be the number one superstition that I have faced again and again and again!!!! Russian grandmothers (babushki) feel impelled by God to tear into any mother who is so careless as to let her children face possible infertility... I just grin and bore it for the first year or so... and then it started to really get to me. One day the girls wouldn't listen me and come to the door to go inside. They were really carrying on and I ended up sitting on the steps until they tired of their tantrums. In the meantime, a babushka came up and started YELLING at me with derision and anger, "Are you an idiot? Get up or you won't be able to have any more children!" I raised my eyebrows, gestured to my shrieking childen, lay back against the step behind me, smiled, and said, "Great!". She was soooo stunned and walked away quicky.

A famous incident relating to this superstition also arose in 1985 as Ted Turner was preparing for the Moscow Goodwill Games. The stadium he constructed that was to host a majority of the events had concrete seats--and he was accused of secretly plotting to make Russian women infertile. I've heard this anecdote for years and just tried to substantiate it with sources--and I couldn't. Even this is just a Russian urban legend, it illustrates the superstition quite well! The people who have recounted this incident to me did so with such outrage as if they were sharing the details of an undercover plot involving mass poisoning.

Avoid chilling the body at all costs.

"Russians believe it is crucial to stay dry and warm at all times in order to protect one's health."

Given that five months of the year are filled with cold snow and slush, this is difficult. They also believe it is downright dangerous to drink chilled beverages--and God forbid you add ice! (But what, though, about Russians who go swimming for "polar bear swims"--when it's the middle of winter? Or what about dunking yourself in cold water after the sauna? I just don't get it!)

I have often been chided for how my kids are dressed and I've pretty much gotten used to it. I refuse to make my kids wear tights when it's over 65 degrees outside! Russian kids, however, will be seen wearing tights and hats when it's as warm as 80 degrees! (This seems to be particularly true when the seasons are changing).

When Talia was still a toddler, she often refused to wear a hat and boots. While in the stroller, she would throw off her hat and kick her boots as far as they would go (unbeknownst to me as I pushed along--and then I'd have to retrace my tracks to find the missing footwear). Given how expensive it is to replace boots here, I ended up just taking them off of her when she was defiant and I'd place them in the stroller's basket. This ENRAGED certain babushki. One was particularly shocked by my lack of parenting skills and berated me at length. Once she finished, I smiled and asked her if she would like to try putting the boot back on Natalia. She did, and Natalia then kicked it hard--right at her ear. The babushka got the point and muttered, "Wild American child..." as she scowled and walked away.

Every time I order my kids' beverages in a restaurant, the server has to ask at least twice if I truly wanted their beverages chilled. They insist, "Don't you really mean warm?" Warm juice? Warm Sprite? Warm water? Yuck!! I'm then sometimes warned how my children will become sick, just in case I hadn't understood. Katya occasionally chimes in, "Not just chilled... We want ICE!" That's my little American!

The whole "to go" concept in beverages isn't really catching on here; perhaps it's because of a fear that the drink would inadvertently get cold.

Tea will keep you healthy or cure illnesses.

The kids at nursery school all sit down for tea throughout the day. It's quite sweet--both the scene and the drink! My kids love tea with sugar or honey. People here drink tea all day long; tea is much more popular than coffee. When someone is sick, a remedy of tea with homemade raspberry jam in it is often offered. My host mother in 1991 always made sure to make enough jam during the summer to last the whole year--and you only got to taste it when sick. Given how Russians believe that drinking a cold beverage will lead to illness, it makes sense that they have an affinity for the warm beverage.

Antibiotics and Western medicine are suspicious; home remedies work just as well... or better.

Homeopathic medicine is quite common throughout Europe, so Russia isn't unique in this practice... But there seems to be a mistrust of anything else. I constantly got unsollicited advice about how to treat the girls when they used to get sick so often. I've even been told that instead of working with a child psychologist and speech therapist, all Natalia needs is a certain herb that will sharpen her mind and calm her down--by the director of her former school! Perhaps it could help a little? But I really do trust the care she's getting, and she's doing so much better...

In places such as remote villages, there's probably an element of self-preservation is putting so much trust in home remedies. Our friends in Ukraine don't have access to modern medical care, so it's good for their peace of mind to believe that the old woman in the neighboring town truly does have magical healing powers that far surpass the effectiveness of any American doctor or hospital. While we were there, Styopa actually drove us for two hours to the remote home of a shaman/mystical healer who would be able to stop Natalia from occasionally peeing at night. He didn't TELL me that's where we were going until we were almost there... Luckily, she wasn't home... Despite my curiosity, I wouldn't have let Natalia go in, anyway; I didn't want anything said that would make her self-conscious about something that's not even an issue.

Do not greet visitors over the threshold.

"Shaking hands and giving things across the threshold is taboo. Usually a guest will come inside before shaking a host's hand when arriving and shake it before leaving the threshold when leaving. Sometimes people will even avoid saying "hello" and "goodbye" across the threshold."

I had an "aha!" moment as I read the above superstition... Now I know why some of the people I tutor back away when I open the door for them and hold out my hand... Or why they don't say anything until inside. I had no idea I was committing a faux pas!

Never, ever give someone an even number of flowers.

"It is traditional in Russia for men to give flowers to women on nearly every occasion, but only an odd number can be given. Giving an even number of flowers is taboo, because even numbers are brought to funerals."

The type of flower you give also holds superstitious meaning--you can unintentionally send the wrong message. For example, if a man gives his secretary gardenias for her birthday, he could unwittingly be giving her a message of of his secret love!

Always bring a hostess gift.

"You should never go to someone else's house empty handed. Flowers, alcoholic beverages and/or dessert are common gifts to bring when invited to someone's home." If you don't bring a gift, you are bringing bad luck to both the host and your friendship.

Bringing a hostess gift is good manners in many cultures, but here it is exceptionally important. I have gotten so used to it that I never, ever show up empty-handed--even when visiting expat friends. This sometimes makes my expat friends uncomfortable, i.e. they had really insisted that I didn't need to bring anything...

Propose a toast when drinking and always accept what is offered to you.

"It is traditional to always propose some kind of toast when drinking. Refusing to drink vodka on certain occasions or to a certain toast (honor) may sometimes be considered rude. For instance refusing to drink vodka at a funeral banquet is considered unacceptable. However you never toast in honor of those who have died or on Easter (for the same reason). Your glass cannot touch the table from the time a toast is proposed to the time you drink. Your glass should remain on the table when it is being refilled. Many Russians consider it bad form not to finish a bottle of vodka once it has been opened, no matter how few people there are left to finish it. It is also considered bad form to drink alcohol -- even relatively mild beverages, such as beer -- without eating something between sips or shots. For this reason, Russian cuisine is particularly rich in appetizers and finger-foods (закуски), as they are used as chasers. When pouring wine, you should never pour back handed."

One could go on and on and on about drinking customs... They are so important that it really is hard for people who abstain from alcohol. Things have changed enough that when in business/social company here (i.e. Russians used to Westerners and exposed to Western culture), expats needn't worry about mortally offending colleagues and friends by not drinking. In other company, however, you really can end up commiting a serious faux pas. I've known friends to lie, claiming to have a rare life-threatening heart condition for which they're on medication--and that when mixed with alcohol, the medication could prove fatal--and the Russian hosts didn't even accept that as a reason to abstain!

Always wear and offer slippers to anyone who visits your home.

This is so true! EVERYONE wears tapochki (slippers) here, and most Russians have a basket of slippers ready to offer anyone who visits. I hope I haven't offended my friends by wearing my socks most of the time (or by not having enough slippers to offer them). Slippers take up space, though, and we have so little of that in our entryway! They're also harder to clean. I finally invested in fun chenille socks to offer my students when they come for lessons; afterwards I can just throw them in the wash.

Do not whistle indoors.

"Whistling indoors is taboo. Russians sometimes say superstitiously that you will "whistle away your money". The origins of this are in superstition, as it used to be considered a sin: it was believed that when you whistled you were entertaining the devil. In general it is considered rude."

Oh.... Now I get why I got so many odd looks when trying to teach the girls to whistle while we waited for the airplane the other day.... It was a big waiting area and we weren't near anyone to bother--but when people walked by, they seemed really surprised...

Do not point.

"It is impolite to point with your finger. But if you must point, it's better to use your entire hand instead of your finger."

It's impolite to point in many cultures, so this doesn't surprise me... But this could explain the shocked responses I got from all the students and observing administrators and teachers at the school I interviewed at this spring. I conducted the class using the Rassias method of language drills, which requires constant snapping and pointing around the room at the students as you keep them on their toes and elicit responses. Evidently they weren't too offended, though, since I got the job!

Observe a group moment of silence before leaving on a journey and don't go back if you forget something!


"Before leaving for a long journey the traveler(s), and all those who are seeing them off, must sit for a moment in silence before leaving the house. It is often conveniently written off as a time to sit and think of anything one may have forgotten..."


"Returning home for forgotten things is also a bad omen. It is believed that you are followed by a guardian angel when you leave your home. If you unexpectedly decide to return, the confused angel will be waiting alone on the side of the road and will be powerless to protect you. Consequently you will invite danger to your journey if you do go back home… unless of course you look in the mirror where the evil spirits lurk, or even stick out your tongue to scare them away before leaving the house again…"


Our friends in the Ukraine used to drive me crazy by insisting we sit down as we bustled to head to the airport; I thought they didn't "get" that we were in a rush! Instead, they were trying to wish us luck... Chris chimed in about the importance of never going back to get something you've forgotten; I guess even at work it's a big no-no (just think of how that can complicate a business transaction!). He also said that the group moment of silence before leaving on a trip is made even luckier if you observe it while sitting on your packed luggage.

Don't clean up after someone who is travelling until he/she returns.


"After someone has left the house on a long journey, their room and/or their things should not be cleaned up until they have arrived".


And to think of how we asked Liudmila and Styopa to clean every time we left and to have the house sparkling clean right before we'd return!

Knock on wood and spit three times over your left shoulder for good luck.


"Knocking on wood is practiced just as much, and in most cases much more, in Russia as it is everywhere else. However Russians tend to add a symbolic three spits over one's left shoulder (or simply with the head turned to the left), and Russians will often knock three times as well. Traditionally one was spitting on the devil (who is always on the left)."


EVERY Russian I know does the fake spit three times over the left shoulder! I remember how my favorite Russian professor in college did it, and how surprised I was to then see everyone else do it, too, once I got to Russia.

Don't look into a broken mirror.


"Breaking a mirror isn't considered bad luck in Russia, but looking at one's reflection in a broken mirror is. And the effect is more severe than 7 years of bad luck."

A babushka was once VERY upset that I let the kids look at a broken mirror when we walked by the garbage dumpsters. She yelled at me about it, but I thought she was just afraid I'd let them touch the jagged glass. Well, that was two years ago, so we only have five more to get through...

Never celebrate a birthday before the actual date.


"Birthday parties should be celebrated on or after one's birthday, not before. So when one's birthday falls during the week, it's best to celebrate the following weekend."

This past year, two other moms and I decided to hold a joint birthday party for our daughters. Their birthdays were all within three weeks of each other, and it was just so much easier... Natalia's birthday, however, hadn't yet passed... The Russian teachers were a little worried and bewildered by my carefree happiness about the early party... They were afraid I was bring her bad luck. (Only one of many times, I sure, when they secretly thought how odd foreigners can be!)

Don't buy anything for a baby until it has been born.

I knew that Jewish tradition prohibits early preparation for a baby's arrival, but I didn't know that this was true in Russia, as well. One of the girls' teachers is due to have a baby any day now, and I suggested to some of the other parents that we have a baby shower for her. They had no idea what a baby shower even was--and when I explained the custom, they all said, "No!" in unison. Instead I gave the teacher a small bag with a a cute onesie and a nursing bra when school ended. She was actually worried until I told her that I'd already had the onesie--and the bra--but had never used them (both items still had tags). I guess that passing along something we already had, as opposed to going out and specifically buying something for the baby, wasn't as much of a bad omen.

Don’t show your newborn baby to a stranger until it is 40 days old.

There are many nannies/grandmas/new moms pushing around carriages in our neighborhood. The girls love to try to peek at the babies as they go by, and we often get piercing looks as a result. I thought it was more a question of disliking nosiness, or of wanting to keep the baby completely away from any perceived breeze--but perhaps they think that our trying to see the baby could bring it bad luck... (That thought makes my neighbors not seem to unfriendly after all...)

Don't step over anyone.

"It is often considered taboo to step over people, or parts of their body, who are on the ground. It is often said that it will prevent the person from growing (if they are not fully grown already). It is better to politely ask the person to move or to find a way around them. If one accidentally steps over a person (or people), it is sometimes standard to step backwards over them."

I saw the girls' ballet teacher do the reverse backwards step over Katya last year! She had accidentally stepped over Katya while helping her with her split. I had thought her behavior was a little strange; now I know why!

Don't break bread with your hands.

"Bread should only be cut with a knife, not with your hands. Otherwise, it is said, that your life will be broken."

That explains why our dinner guests have avoided the baguette! I didn't know I should put out a board and bread knife...

A person coming towards you with empty buckets means bad luck; full buckets mean good luck.

Styopa was really upset whenever we drove by peasants with empty buckets; he would instantly cross himself a few times and say a prayer. Katya noticed this and thought it was quite odd; this is how our conversations about superstitions first started. On the other hand, he was very happy whenever we passed someone with buckets full of water, milk or produce!

A funeral procession brings good luck. But one should never cross its path or it is bad luck.

Before we got a car, I used to ride with other people. I thought it odd that they would smile at funeral processions! Now I guess they were simply glad at the good luck they had just received.

If it rains on someone's wedding, it means they'll be wealthy.

This is also true in Italy: "Sposa bagnata, sempre fortunata." We've attended two Russian weddings here; both times it rained and the families were actually happy about it!

If one or more birds defecate on you, it's good luck.

Katya came home from school this spring with bird poop on her; it had happened as they were getting in the van to drive home and she didn't have time to get washed up. She was so angry that her teachers had congratulated her on her good fortune! She certainly didn't feel lucky!

3 comments:

kate said...

You can imagine the scolding I get when on l-o-n-g field trips to, say, Peter and Paul Fortress or St. Isaac's with our long-winded guides (gotta cram in those facts) I've had my class sit down on the ground/floor. I just tell them it's okay--I'm American. Oh, the tongue lashings I get!

What about if someone steps on your foot, you must then step on theirs? This is a very important one in the elementary school. ;> I don't know why...

And medicine--forget about it. My friends routinely have their sinuses...suctioned during the winter when they have sinus infections. Antibiotics--no way. If suctioning doesn't work you have a hole drilled in your face so the sinuses can drain!

Marinka said...

I love these and recognized every single one. My parents are both doctors and they indoctrinated me with the "don't sit on a rock" which I of course disregarded and was pretty much convinced that I'd become sterile.

The tapochki thing is insane.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

If a person calls you pretty it's also considered bad luck in a Russian transition . You splash your face three times with water . And say some kind of a prayer