Twelve Russian superstitions
Spit on or touch wood
Like many other peoples, Russians believe in the evil eye—an evil look that brings bad luck or trouble—and fear it. You will often see that after someone has said something complimentary about someone else’s child, the child’s parents will appear to spit three times over their left shoulder and touch a wooden surface three times. This will also happen if, for example, someone is telling you about some potentially imminent success, or that, for example, they’re about to go on vacation. Russians are afraid of putting the evil eye on any good event or any compliment, and will touch wood so as not to suffer misfortune. Incidentally, if there is no wood handy, most Russians will tap their own head, saying with a smile that it has the same effect.
Do not carry an empty bucket
If you see someone with any empty container—bucket or a cart—it is considered a bad omen. Russians believe that if you meet a woman carrying an empty bucket, for example, in the countryside, or a street cleaner with an empty cart in the town, you won’t have a good day. That’s why street cleaners try to put any piece of equipment—brooms, rakes or something similar—in their empty carts.
Don’t put money into someone’s hands
Russians have a lot of “money” omens. For example, a taxi driver or shop assistant might decline when you try to hand them your money, and ask you to put it on the vehicle’s dashboard or in a special tray next to the till. This does not mean at all that they cannot stomach touching your hands. It is believed that the money can transmit energy from its owner, including negative energy. Once the passenger has left the vehicle and the customer moves away from the till, the link with their energy is broken and someone else can pick up the money without fear.
Don’t take anything out of the house at night
If you live under the same roof as Russians, you would be advised not to try to take out the trash at night. It is believed that this can bring ruin on the house. To avoid having an unpleasant smell spreading through the house, put the rubbish into a more substantial bag and tie it, so that it is more or less sealed.
Don’t put empty bottles, keys or change on the table
Russians believe that you must not put empty bottles, keys or change on the table. These are all bad omens of financial loss and tears. Also, this omen works not only in the kitchen at home, but also in public places. If one of the guests at a dinner party in a restaurant grabs a bottle that has just been emptied and puts it under the table or starts looking around for a waiter, it in deference to this omen.
Never give knives, clocks or scarves as a present
These things are not considered the best present for a Russian. Scarves, for example, are an omen of tears, knives an omen of enemies, and clocks an omen of parting. Even if you are prepared to give a Russian girl a luxurious Hermès scarf as a present, she would prefer to buy it herself, if only to save herself the tears. If you do nevertheless give somebody one of these things, do not be surprised if they give you a small coin in return. This is to create the illusion of buying the item. You must definitely take this coin, even if it surprises you that they are trying to pay you for an expensive gift with small change.
The threshold of a house is a place of evil
You must not stand on the threshold of a house or apartment, and you must not talk across it or hand anything across it. The ancient Slavs believed the threshold was a place where demons dwelled. If, say, you have to sign for a package with a courier, you must either cross the threshold of the house or at least put one foot across it.
Look at yourself in a mirror if you have had to go back
For Russians, going back to the house is a bad omen, a portent of bad luck. So if a Russian discovers after leaving the house that he has forgotten something, he will first decide whether it is something he really needs, and if it is, he will go back, but will make a point of looking himself in the eye in a mirror. This is another trick of the trade to deceive an evil omen.
Don’t sit on a table
Many Russians are disturbed when they see scenes in American films where the hero sits on a table or puts his feet on a table. And it is not just because it is unhygienic—sitting on a table is variously seen as an omen of death or poverty.
Never give unmarried girls a corner seat
In ancient Rus, it was usually the old maids, poor relatives and dependants who took the humblest places at the table—the corner seats. From this developed the idea that if a girl sits at the corner of the table she will not marry for seven years. It is true that if modern girls nevertheless like a corner seat and someone mentions this omen, they will cleverly reply, “My husband will have a corner,” in other words, they will have a home, but regardless, most Russians try not to put girls in corner seats and avoid them themselves.
Sit before a journey
When a guest in someone’s home or a member of the family is getting ready for a long journey, everyone in the house has to sit down before they set off. This scene recalls the children’s game “musical chairs.” There is usually nowhere to sit in the hall, especially with all the luggage, but unlike the game, everyone has to sit down, and quickly, as soon as someone says, “Let’s take a seat before the journey.” This is a Russian omen for a safe journey. Everyone in the house has to sit somewhere for a minute. This omen, incidentally, is very useful, because it helps people to calm down after the chaos and remember whether they have forgotten to pack anything.
Mind you, not all Russian omens are precursors of misfortune. There are also lots of good omens. For example, if a spider or a “message from a pigeon” appears on your clothes, or if, for example, you accidentally step in some dog dirt, don’t be in a rush to curse your fate. These are omens of great financial success.
Another amusing omen of wealth comes not from ancient times, but from just a couple of centuries ago. If you find yourself in a car with Russians one day and you’re going to drive under a bridge that a freight train is crossing, don’t be surprised when your companions start to shake out their purses and put money and credit cards on their heads with cries of, “Freight train, give us money, give us money!” According to Russians who believe in omens, this “spell” often works, bringing unexpected profit to those who believe in it.
There are many more Russian omens and superstitions. If it seems to you that they cause a lot of everyday inconvenience and it’s difficult to remember them all, we can assure you that Russians actually think the same! They too find all these frightening old wives’ tales a torment. But the power of superstitions is that they are passed on from generation to generation. Moreover, often just the realization that they have broken some commandment can change a person’s mood, and their inspiration and success may forsake them for a while.