One thing a foreigner should learn in Russia is Russian superstitions. Important note – things that most of foreigners regard as superstitions are regarded by Russians as traditions or customs. For example, if a black cat crosses you pass it brings bad luck. Russians believe that this is a superstition although most of us would try to find another pass so as not cross the road “marked” by a black cat. Once I saw a driver who stopped his car when a black cat run across it until another car passed. You see, bad luck awaits only one person – the one who crosses the “marked” road first.
On the other hand, giving an even number of flowers to a woman is simply rude. For Russians it’s not really a superstition but a tradition (also in Romania, Slovakia, Hungary). If you give flowers to someone the number should always be odd (one, three, five, etc.). If you bring flowers to a funeral the number should always be even (two, four, six, etc.). Anyway in Moscow when a foreigner buys flowers and asks for four roses, the seller will almost always asks, “Are they for a funeral?” One of my American friends was indignant at the flower seller’s impudence – she refused to sell him a dozen roses he wanted to bring to a birthday party. She wasn’t really impudent – she saved his reputation before he made a very rude faux pas and upset the hostess.
Here’s a list of superstitions that Russians regard as traditions. If you don’t want to look rude, don’t violate them in Russia:
It’s probably impossible to know all Russian superstitions. Some are very common but some are taken seriously only by a limited number of older people. Among not usual superstitions one can often comes across in Russia although they are not ‘universal’.
- Whistling indoors is taboo. On one hand it means that you loose all your money soon. On the other – it’s simply very rude.
- Shaking hands across the threshold is taboo. Also giving anything across the threshold. Just make a step and shake hands when you both are in the same room.
- Birthday party before the birthday is taboo. If your birthday is on a working day and you want to party on a weekend, make sure this weekend is after your birthday and not before.
- Before leaving a house for a long (even for a couple of days) journey, you and everyone in the house should sit for a minute in silence.
- Don’t give as a gift any sharp object, like knives or scissors. This custom is not taboo and is often “violated”. My sister-in-law is a hair stylist and when we gave her as a birthday gift professional scissors she was happy.
- If someone gives you an animal as a gift (a kitten, a canary or a puppy, for example), you should give them a symbolic sum of money. One ruble will do.
- Refusing to drink vodka at a funeral banquet is absolutely unacceptable. It’s not just rude. It’s an outrage. If you are a total abstainer simply avoid any Russian commemoration.
- Shaking hands while wearing gloves is simply impossible. You should always, even when it’s very cold, remove your glove from the right hand before a handshake. Actually in Russia no one will shake your hand if you didn’t remove a glove. The only exception – if you’re an extraordinary powerful person and you want to deeply humiliate someone who is totally dependent on you. In this case you extend your hand in a glove, meaning, “Shake it, you, insignificant insect”. As far as I know, this custom is common in all Eastern European countries.
- Cut bread only with a knife. Don’t break it with you hands. Otherwise your life will be broken.
- If you’re not married don’t sit at the corner of the table. Otherwise you won’t marry in the next seven years. If you are 15 you can easily violate this rule.
- If you leave your house and then suddenly discover that you left something at home, think twice – coming back home for forgotten things is a bad omen. But it’s not that hopeless. When you return, look in the mirror and the evil spell will disappear.
- Stranger should not look at a new born baby before it is two months old (or six months or one year, it all depends). Anyway, if you look at a baby, don’t compliment it – compliments can put evil eye on the baby. Say something like, “Oh, what an ugly child!” instead. A word of warning – this superstition is not common and many young Russian families are unaware of it.
- Don’t start anything serious on Mondays.
- Don’t boast about your future success. It may bring bad luck. You see if people you’re talking about might envy you and put you evil eye on you. It’s safer to sound pessimistic even when you’re sure of success. If you cannot help yourself, after saying, “Next month I get a promotion”, spit three times over your left shoulder. Don’t do it literally – three symbolic spits will do. You can also knock on wood.
- If you see a woman with empty water buckets coming up to you, run away!
- If you see a funeral procession stay aside and wait until it passes. It brings good luck.
- Never buy or accept as gifts baby clothes, shoes, toys, furniture, etc. before the baby is born. In Russia when you see in a store an excited man who is buying in a rush and in wholesale quantities baby clothes, don’t be surprised. Most probably, he became a father today. This is an interesting superstition that was “regenerated” in the 90’s. In the Soviet Union we didn’t even know about it. In times of total deficit, when store shelves were always empty, it was simply impossible to buy all necessary things for a baby in one or two days. Actually we had to stock things months ahead. I remember it took me two months to buy a good (albeit second-hand) baby carriage for my daughter. My wife was six months pregnant when a friend of my friend finally found a family who were so kind as to sell me the carriage they no longer needed.
- When someone sneezes, don’t forget to say, “Bud’ zdorov” (Be healthy) or “Na zdorovie” (For your health). Otherwise the sneezing person will get sick. I think 99% of Russians think this “na zdorovie” thing is just a tradition. But actually it’s a superstition which meaning was forgotten long ago.