Why are Russians so EXTREMELY superstitious?

Kira Lisitskaya (Photo: Legion Media)
It might strike you as odd that you are expected to return the favor if somebody accidentally stepped on your foot, but knowing the countless superstitions and adhering to them is guaranteed to make your life in Russia easier.

Never lick food off a knife; never shake hands across a doorstep, never let a woman carrying an empty trash can cross your way… otherwise, something terrible is bound to happen to you. The taboos dictated by superstitious beliefs seem to be countless in Russia.

Yet, however irrational those might appear at first sight, sometimes there is stern logic behind which might explain why various superstitions survive here are ever present.

Prone to believe

The last major survey conducted by independent pollster Levada Center (a non-profit organization that performs the functions of a foreign agent - ed.) measuring how superstitious Russians are was conducted in 2017. It showed that 55 percent of the population in the country believed in superstitions while 16 percent found it difficult to reply with certainty. This left only about 30 percent who doubted or renounced superstitions completely.

Given the statistics, there is nothing to be surprised about when a Russian starts urgently looking for wood to knock on or refuses to pass cash from hand to hand, laying it on a surface to be picked up instead. For many — even for self-proclaimed skeptics — observing various superstitious rituals have become an intrinsic routine that does not require rationalization.

“In general, I don’t believe in superstitions, but the funny thing is that when I saw a black cat cross the road in front of me, I noticed I subconsciously avoided going forward until somebody else did. Sometimes, I even stopped and waited for others to go first. I guess somebody had told me about it once and it just imprinted on my subconsciousness once and for all,” says Dmitri, 32, from Moscow.

Growing up in an environment where superstitions are continuously enforced might be one of the reasons younger generations of Russians are not immune to believing in the irrational.

“I know it’s irrational to believe in superstitions. Still, deep down inside I start worrying if, for example, I accidentally spill salt. A quarrel seems to be inevitable even though I do realize spilled salt can’t really cause it. But I’ve been repeatedly told so since childhood,” says Julia, 21, from Moscow.

Faith and religion

Some have noticed that the belief in superstitions among the Russians goes hand in hand with the spread of faith. The more religious a person is, the more they believe in superstitions, the theory goes.

Expat Walter Smith, who first came to Russia in the 1990s, said he was astonished at how susceptible to superstitions and irrational beliefs the Russian people appeared to be. “[I noticed] superstition, irrationality, gullibility, lack of logic, lack of reference to science, lack of reference to statistics and real-world evidence. For example, the frankly absurd belief that a religious icon in a car will protect you from accidents (despite having a far higher traffic accident and death rate than European countries that don’t have icons in cars),” said Smith.

The Levada poll says deep religiosity may be a cause of widespread acceptance of superstitions in Russia, as religious people are said to tend to take superstitions at face value.

“Orthodox respondents (34% of the poll) are more likely than other groups among the Orthodox faith to believe in all irrational phenomena. On the contrary, atheists tend not to believe in not only the existence of God, but also in eternal life, the Kingdom of Heaven, religious miracles, etc. They are less superstitious – among atheists, the proportion of those surveyed who believe in the ‘Evil Eye’ and spoiling is significantly lower than among those who hesitate, those who doubt and, especially, Russians who identify as Orthodox,” according to the Levada Center poll-based research.

The useful irrational

The most common superstitions prevalent in Russia may seem irrational at first sight, but adhering to some of them might provide a closer look at the heart of Russian culture. Also, knowing the most common superstitions might make life easier for a newcomer trying to assimilate into the country.

For example, the seemingly irrational belief that an even number of flowers is a bad omen is so prevalent in Russia that giving an even number to a person is guaranteed to raise eyebrows and spoil the impression. At the root of this superstition lies an ancient Slavic belief that even numbers represented the end of the life cycle. In modern Russia, an even number of flowers is indeed closely associated with funerals. Knowing and sticking to this rule will surely make anyone’s life in the country easier.

Another superstition that dictates all members of the group must sit down before embarking on a journey provides an excellent opportunity to calm down in a moment of rush and think about what one could have forgotten.

Accidentally smashing glass cups or plates translates to good luck according to Russian superstition, which, in turn, makes the loss more bearable for the owner of the gone tableware.

Boasting about future success — which is said to bring bad luck — keeps people humble. And if your right eye itches, don’t be too upset about the possibility of catching conjunctivitis — it might simply mean something will make you happy soon.

Click here for the 10 most common Russian superstitions.

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