Not all Russians are superstition fanatics, yet many follow traditional beliefs in their daily routines (sometimes even unintentionally). Passed down for many generations, there are some beliefs in the mindset of a Russian that may seem odd, to say the least, to a foreigner. Surprisingly, many superstitions have made it to our days, and here are some superstitions, odd traditions and strange customs you should know about before going on a tour to Russia.
Don’t hand anything over a threshold
If you try to give a Russian something over a threshold, you’ll most likely encounter hesitation of some sort followed by a step over the threshold to your side. Only then a Russian will take what you’re giving. Strange, eh? The thing is that the historical background of a threshold is closely linked to ancestry. In ancient times the ashes of predecessors were placed under the threshold, thus to pass something over it would mean to disturb ancestors. Not many locals know the roots of this superstition, but still follow it just in case.
Knock on wood to prevent a jinx
Yes, it’s the 21st century and yes, Russians, like many others, believe in the evil eye, more commonly understandable to foreigners as a jinx. Basically, if Russians are afraid of jinxing something or want to protect themselves from someone putting the evil eye on them, after saying that thing out loud, they knock three times on wood and spit three times over their left shoulder. The digit 3 has always been thought of by the Russians as holy and wood considered as a source of nature’s power. Yet if there’s nothing wooden to knock on at reach, Russians knock on their head! That’s some unexpected behavior, you might think, but by doing this they forewarn and block the negative effect.
Sit down before you go on a trip
Any true Russian will take a minute or two to traditionally sit down in their home before leaving on a trip. The origin of this unusual habit is also ancient. It is based on the belief in spirits who live in each home and that they aren’t happy when a person leaves the house. The story runs that if you sit down before you leave, you’ll fool the spirits and they won’t cling on to you and bother you during your journey.
One of the most widespread misconceptions of a foreigner coming to a Russian home is the tapochki situation. When entering the home it is a custom to take off your shoes, and here’s the big surprise for foreigners: the host will give you a specially prepared pair of house slippers to wear.
Foreign guests usually think it’s bizarre to put on someone else’s house shoes and are appalled, but trust us, this is solely a kind gesture, the host doesn’t want your feet to get cold. And just so you know, it’s perfectly fine to say “no” if you’re not comfortable with putting on tapochki.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall
This object’s mystical fame is widespread around the globe, so it’s no surprise that Russians have many popular beliefs about them. For one thing, if a mirror is broken or even cracked - expect nothing good, it is considered a very bad sign in Russia and may even foretell the soon-to-be death of a loved one. But what really might seem curious is that if a Russian forgets something and returns home to get it, he/she will surely look in the mirror to prevent forgetting anything else, including good luck!
The banya & the birch tree besom
Continuing the strange behavior of Russians marathon, if you want a cultural experience to remember when traveling to Russia - go to a public banya. The hot sauna has dry air and is heated to about 194°F, the locals put on towels or sheets, some wear special banya hats and enjoy the steam bath. The thing that shocks first timers most is that after some time spent in the steam room, Russians flap each other with birch tree besoms. “What in the world is going on?”, might be your first thought, but this strange procedure removes toxins from a person’s body and is a century-old tradition. At the end, when leaving a banya, you may hear people saying “S legkeem parom”, a phrase said to congratulate others with a good steam experience.
A watch or a clock is no good for a gift
Russians believe that giving somebody a watch or a clock is not preferable, as this action will not only abridge their friendship but also reduce the days of living on Earth of the person who received the present. Nevertheless, in the case when a clock or watch is presented in Russia, it is customary to "trade" the clock for a minor amount of money to make it a bargain formally. Then the superstition won't work.
Same goes with any pointy, piercing or incisive objects which also aren’t the best choices for gifts as they are thought to cause fights with the recipient of the present.
Don’t celebrate your 40th birthday
Shocking as it may seem but people tend not to celebrate their 40th birthdays in Russia, especially men. The underlying reason for that is the superstitious status of the digit 40 and its religious association with the commemorative forty-day ritual of those who passed away. Therefore, Russians still believe that those who hold celebrations of their 40th jubilee automatically bring misery, bad luck and illnesses upon themselves.
Money, money, money
Last but not least, the important position of money in Russian superstitions should not be missed. Among the top ones worthy of notice are that if your left palm itches, good news for you, cash is on its way! Also, one mustn't give somebody an empty wallet as a gift, at least a coin should be put inside so that the person wouldn't have trouble with money. And of course, never whistle in a house as by doing this you blow all the money away.
When you travel Russia keep in mind the Russian superstitions, of course, there's no need to follow them strictly, but we hope we've helped you be prepared for any surprises!