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Russian superstitions are a minefield for the unsuspecting visitor to St. Petersburg. Touch wood, this should give you a few tips...
The Luck of the Russians
from Pulse newspaper www.pulse.ru
One might assume that in the land of Mendelev and Pavlov, superstitions have long since been exiled to the land of our grandfathers and grandmothers, if not further. But in Russia, anything is possible.
No one knows for sure where and when superstitions first appeared. Most Russians only remember inheriting their habits from pioneer camp and their grandparents, and then preserving them, just in case. The Russian Orthodox Church is frequently held responsible, but Russia's pre-Christian polytheistic religion also probably played its part. Annoyingly, there is one superstition - and one that foreigners especially should pay heed to - that maintains that you shouldn't ask questions about superstitions.
Love Without a Jinx
Probably the most important field in which to cover one's tracks is in that of love, or at least one's friendships. Thus, superstitions are as much a token of social refinement as a method to ward off evil spirits.
Never shake hands or kiss in a doorway, otherwise the two of you will surely fight. Of course, should you be with a particularly superstitious Russian - the superstition can be self-fulfilling if you fight over this nonobservance, so be extra careful.
As things get more advanced in the relationship, and you find yourself strolling around Nevsky hand-in-hand, don't let go if something threatens to pass between you. The proper thing is to hold tightly and step aside- even if your girlfriend or boyfriend stumbles, they will be grateful. And if you step on their foot after they stumble, they should step on yours in return to avoid a fight.
If you stumble on your left foot, and your birthday falls on an odd day, it will bring you good luck. If you stumble on your right foot, and your birthday falls on an even day, it will bring you good luck. If your birthday doesn't match up with the foot, don't worry. You can always pass the luck off to someone who has the right birthday by touching them. Strange that tap dancing has not caught on in Russia, despite its high potential for good luck.
If you decide to go on a trip, everyone in your household needs to sit still for a minute before you leave. Anyone who has noticed chronic lateness among Russians now knows at least one potential explanation.
If your friend is about to take an exam, criticize him and think of every bad name you can call him. But don't use the word for fool (durak). That will make him fail and will force him to spend his days drinking brake fluid while hanging out at the less prestigious kiosks.
You and your significant other should not look in the mirror together, and some claim that you shouldn't be photographed without anything else in the picture. Don't look in a cracked mirror - the consequences will be dire, and you probably won't get that much of a view.
As every foreigner quickly learns, giving flowers in even amounts is a no-no - except if they're being given at a funeral. Many colors of the flowers have specific meanings: white-friendship, yellow-last meeting, and so on. This tradition is so widespread, however, that it is no longer even thought of as a 'superstition' in the strict sense - it's just the done thing. Other gifts are also off the gift lists.: handkerchiefs or sharp objects like knives can disappoint for more than one reason. Not to worry, the receiver of the gift can pay a few kopecks to the giver to dupe the fates into seeing the transaction as a business deal, rather than gift-giving.
You've been together a while, what about getting married? If you've sat at the corner of a table recently, best not to get overexcited. You're going to have to wait another seven hours. But if you're worried about other men stealing your bride while you wait, then slap her on the butt. This will magically make other men no longer attracted to her.
Marriage itself should just about put you in the clear. Just don't let another person try on your ring. For added luck, when you buy an apartment, let a cat enter it first. But not a black one. And should you decide to have children, don't buy anything for them before they're born.
With a demographic crisis in Russia coming in the near future, the manufacture of round tables, glue-on rings, and permits to buy toys may be something for the government to consider.
Peter the Great is best remembered for building St. Petersburg and rescuing Russia from its backwardness, the definition of 'backwardness' largely dependant on whoever happens to be pontificating on the subject at the time. After returning from his European trip in 1697, he used the occasion of a state reception to shave the beards of the boyars (the Russian nobles) with his own hands. The boyars superstitiously believed beards made one closer to God, and the Orthodox Church condemned beard shaving.
"If you miss your beard, have it buried with you in your grave. It will attach itself again in the next world," shouted Peter the Great to the boyars, in a fictional story about the event by Alexei Tolstoy. A beard tax on everyone except the peasants and clergy soon followed.
Despite Peter's efforts, many Russians still believe it is bad to shave when a relative or friend is seriously ill. Athletes in Russia also superstitiously let their facial hair grow before a match. The Russian tax police, thankfully, have yet to see an opportunity.
Curses in the Kitchen
No area of the house is more firmly in the realm of superstitious babushki - Russian grandmothers - than the kitchen. Hence, guests are expected to at least give a smile and understanding nod, if not a few words in agreement, to whatever hair-brained ideas flutter in all directions across the kitchen table.
Before the meal begins (or ends, depending on your manners), never share a towel while washing your hands. Make sure to eat every piece of bread to the finish, or you may not make it to desert. For this reason Russians often cut their bread into small pieces, or eat sukhariki, black-bread croutons, just to be safe.
Never leave empty bottles on the table. Several Russian historians, their books sold more often in the metros than in Dom Knigi, have observed a correlation between the length of a czar's reigns, and the speed with which servants took the empty bottles off his table.
Never put an unfinished vodka bottle back on the shelf either - you'll have to decide whether that's a superstition or just a straight preference.
Do not eat off your knife or you'll become evil and/or you'll cut your tongue, which may make you say evil words. If you drop the knife, a woman will soon come. If a spoon drops, a man is on his way. Unwanted guests can be avoided, however, by tapping the end of the utensil three times on the table. Despite repeated experiments, at the time of going to press we haven't managed to determine who will arrive if you drop a fork.
If a piece of china chips, throw it away because it will ruin the household. As in the West, spilled salt is bad news, though few Westerners are familiar with the Russian know-how for removing this ill omen - simply spit over your shoulder three times.
If you tear your shirt reaching for the salt, don't sew the shirt while wearing in order to keep drinking at the table. But if you must stay, however, and want to sew your shirt while wearing it, put something in your mouth. This superstition may initially have been developed in order to silence clumsy idiots.
If you finish your soup and you happen to find a bay leaf at the bottom of your bowl, expect a letter shortly. The same goes if a bird taps on your window. These days, with fewer letters coming through the regular mail, yet plenty of bay leaves and confused pigeons to go around, you should expect an email.
Don't put your hat, money, and especially your keys on the kitchen table. While you're at it, remember not to put your elbows there either. Superstition or not, it's always good to have manners.
Don't pour wine back-handed and don't light your cigarette from a candle (the Polish believe that this causes a sailor's death). Every time there is a collective silence at a dinner party, Russians say with equal dread and amusement, a policeman has just been born.
Your Health is Holy
Whatever you do, don't sit on cold stones because you won't have children, especially if you're a girl. Quite frankly, this one should be followed just to avoid a long and heated argument with a Russian.
If you step over a child, they won't grow. Burn your hand? Pour vodka or urine over it, take your pick. And if someone has an illness, don't show another person by making motions with your hands and pointing to your body.
If someone is sick and has to be removed on a stretcher, they should go head first. If their dead, they should go feet first. With clumsy paramedic, a sick person dropped head first down the stairway may have to be brought back up and taken through the door the other way.
The list of babushka cures is endless, and also prone to different schools of thought that you'll get from everyone, from the women selling you toothpaste at the chemist's to the trolley bus conductor who sees you wearing a hat in June.
Keeping the Kapusta
The Chelsea Football Club and Faberge eggs aside, there are many Russians who have not struck it rich, and for the time being are happy enough to hold on to what they have gotten. Therefore, regular Russians protect their money with superstitions, while the rich give it up as if they had an equally strong superstition against hanging on to it.
If you find money, except if it's a small amounts, many Russians believe you'll have bad luck. If you meet someone with an empty bucket on the street, you will lose your money or won't earn any. If the bucket is full, however, you can safely sit at home, skip work, and expect the money to flow in. But you yourself should not throw out the trash when it's dark outside.
If your hand itches, it means you will get money. If your ear itches, it means someone is talking about you. And if your back itches, well, it means you should take a shower. The biggest and most dangerous of all money superstitions is to whistle indoors. You, the people you live with, even the neighbors can lose all their money. Many extra-careful Russians avoid whistling altogether.
One year ago, I whistled the theme from Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' in a Russian class, unleashing a flood of warnings about whistling away my money. Undeterred, I whistled to Nevsky Prospect and got on the number five trolley bus. Cleverly holding a jacket over his arms, a pickpocket put his hands into mine. I noticed and quickly closed my jacket, feeing happy to have cheated fate when the pickpocket got off at the next stop. That very same night, however, I was robbed coming home on Kirochnaya Ulitsa by a man pretending to be a lost Japanese tourist. Since then, I haven't whistled in or even near a building.
Thankfully, many Russians believe that a person who doesn't know the superstition is free from it. That doesn't mean they won't tell you, however, to stop doing something. So cross your fingers and do what they say.
Gregory Efimovich Rasputin (1869-1916) represented Russian superstition at its peak with his beliefs and alleged curing powers. When the communists raised Rasputin house in 1977, they found boxes in his garden filled with hair, supposedly because he cut the locks of virgin's hair and buried them there.
Rasputin magically brought Anya Vyrubova - friend to the Tsarina - back from a coma after she her body had been crushed in a horrific train derailment. She reported his abilities to Tsarina Alexandra who had a hemophiliac son Alexei, heir to the throne. Rasputin was successful in treating the boy, but hated by the public for his political influence and shaming of the Tsar's reputation. The Romanov dynasty ended less than a year after Rasputin's death.
As everyone knows, Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union during its collapse, has a famous birthmark on his head. Many Russians believe that a visible birthmark is a bad sign, Gorbachev being no exception. Hence, superstition won an easy victory when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Things lately have been quiet politically in Russia in recent times. The cross on Smolny Cathedral fell in July of 2001 during a hurricane-strength gale. Many Russians took this as an omen. You have been warned.
Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia's most famous poet, is no less a victim of superstition than the average Ivan. Pushkin's beautiful wife had a lot of admirers in St. Petersburg (including the Tsar), and he was appointed a Kammerjunker, an intermediate court position, so his wife could attend state balls.
One of her wife's admirers, an exiled French nobleman named d'Anthes, tried to start an affair. Pushkin received a copy of a certificate nominating him as "Coadjutor of the International Order of Cuckolds" being circulated by d'Anthes. After a long series of letters, arrangements, and postponements, Pushkin and d'Anthes met with pistols in hand to duel. On the way Pushkin forgot his coat, went back to pick it up, but didn't look in the mirror - this guy was seriously asking for trouble, breaking an old Russian superstition. D'Anthes fired the first shot, and Pushkin was mortally wounded, dying two days later.
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