Black cat brings bad luck

Do Russians Believe in Superstitions?

It is quite funny that people of the country, which sent the first man in space, are quite superstitious. Some superstitions are the same worldwide, some are unique to Russians.

As in all other countries, we believe in superstitions and signs that bring bad or good luck. To say more – Russians firmly believe that their destiny is only partially under their control, but there are other external factors which they cannot control and which make a big impact on their wellbeing.

Signs of Bad Luck

The most famous bad luck sign is when a black cat crosses the way. 100% of Russians will either change directions or wait until somebody else first crosses the cat’s path. Cats are mystical animals in general and black cats are associated with dark magic. When people move to a new home, it is very likely that they will let the cat in first. Cat will take the spell on her.

Fortune telling using a mirror

Fortune telling using a mirror (Svetlana, by K. Bryullov)

Mirrors are thought to have magical power, no wonder they are often used in fortune-telling. Mirrors also play part in the everyday life – when you forget something at home and return to collect it, you will look in the mirror on the way out to make sure you have not attracted bad luck. But most importantly – nothing can upset a Russian more than breaking a mirror – it is believed to be a prediction of death in the family. Same is believed, when a bird accidentally flies inside the house. Birds are believed to be quite mystical – for example if Russian hears cuckoo in a forest, he will ask – “Cuckoo, Cuckoo, how many years will I live?” And then he will count how many times the bird cuckoo. Most people will also never kill a spider in the house since that may bring bad luck.

Spilled salt

Spilling salt is a sign of bad luck (superstitions)

Spilling salt on a dinner table is not good. People believe that it leads to a quarrel in a family and to cancel the hex you have to throw a pinch of salt above your left shoulder. Not many people know the origins of that superstition – many years ago salt was extremely valuable, so spilling such a precious product could have easily lead to a quarrel among relatives.

Another dinner table superstition is to immediately take away empty bottles from the table. Even now most people do that. The origin of this tradition is in heavy drinking that was taking place in Russia, which often lead to quarrels and violent fights. Having empty bottles on the tables was dangerous, in a fight they could become deadly weapons.

Finally – most girls would avoid sitting at the corner of the table. It is believed that it brings bad luck in personal life – girl will not get married for 7 years. I do not have a good explanation for the origin of that superstition.

Signs of Good Luck

Lilac flower with 5 petals (superstitions)

Finding lilac flower with 5 petals brings good luck

There are also plenty of superstitions referring to good luck. Finding a lilac flower with 5 petals is one of the most popular. In former times, when horses were the main means of transportation, finding a horseshoe was believed to lead to good luck.

A very funny superstition of Soviet times was to get a “lucky” bus ticket. At that time people paid for a bus ride after boarding the bus and got a bus ticket which had unique 6 digits number. If the sum of first 3 numbers equaled the sum of last 3 numbers – such ticket was considered lucky. And…you had to eat it! Preferably after you get off the bus, otherwise you could get fined if faced with a ticket controller.

If we return to the dinner table superstitions – when something breaks (glasses in particular) – any Russian will immediately say – «it’s for good luck”. My assumption is that this superstition originated as a way of coping with the loss of glass – it is much nicer to let it slide than to quarrel about broken glass. But maybe there is a much deeper explanation since deliberately breaking glass is at weddings is a tradition in many religions.

Some superstitions and signs are more difficult to explain. If you accidentally drop a fork or knife – it means that a man will unexpectedly visit your house, if it is a spoon – wait for a female visitor. You cannot however deliberately force more visitors by dropping objects. Or – the other superstition –if you have accidentally wore an item of clothes inside out – you have to change as fast as you can, otherwise somebody will beat you.

Attracting Good Luck

Even though Russians think that luck is beyond their will – we have kept some of the ancient pagan traditions and think that we can attract good luck or forecast who will have luck this year by performing certain rituals.

Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette

To forecast – we do what many other nations do – put a coin or a button inside a pie or inside one of the dumplings (pel’meni) and person who gets this dumpling with coin inside is bound to be lucky. The more violent version of that game is a famous Russian roulette, when just one bullet was put in the gun. Needless to say – it works the other way – person who got it was in a really bad luck that day.

In general – Russians love to play with fortune and love fortune-telling. There are myriads of fortune-telling practices and rituals. Some deal with actively attracting good luck. Students have a lucky coin in their shoe when passing exams. Students also “call luck” the night before the exam. When you are tired from studying, you open the window and put your report card outside and shout three times –” Luck, come here”. Then you close the report card (it is a small book) tightly and put it underneath the leg of your bed. You have caught the luck and it should help you tomorrow.

New Year superstitions

Making a wish on the New Year’s Eve always involves champagne

Another example is the New Year’s Eve rituals. You have to make a wish when raising a glass of champagne when kuranty (main Red Square clock) ring 12 times and your wish will come true in the next year (if you do not share what you wished with anybody!). Some people even write down their wish, burn the paper and drink a glass of champagne with ashes and if you managed to do all that while kuranty ring – your wish will come true. There are many other New Year superstitions – some are actually very reasonable – if you have a debt, you must pay it back before the New Year’s Eve, otherwise you will be in debt the entire year. That makes total sense, New Year is a chance to live a better life, to change, to better yourself and your fortune.

Returning to making a wish – if you are standing between two people with same names – you can make a wish and it will come true. If you see an eye lash on your cheek – you take it and put it on the back of your hand, make a wish and blow. If the eye lash disappears – your wish will come true.

There are some things that you are not supposed to do – like whistle in the house. If you do that – you will whistle all the money away!

Fortune Telling/Horoscopes

Fortune telling rituals/superstitions

Fortune telling rituals

Many people in Russia love fortune-telling and horoscopes. If you sleep at the new place and you are a girl, you say “sleeping in a new place, may I see my groom in dreams tonight”. Also, we believe that dreams from Thursday to Friday night are forecasting future.

In Russian literature one can find lots of references to fortune-telling. In Eugene Onegin girls were throwing shoes outside the house on a particular religious winter holiday and asking the guy, who had found the shoe first, his name. That name is going to be a name of your future spouse, so you better be attentive to that when you deal with your admirers.

It is interesting that modern Russians have developed new rituals and ways to attract good luck. Once I was taking a cab ride and when the cab was going under the bridge and a train was going above the bridge, cab driver started to fidget and finally found a coin and put it on the top of his head. I was stunned with that performance and asked for details. He said – that’s the way to attract money. And that is not the funniest part of this story. From that day I do the same in such situations and all of my friends, whom I told this story also do that. You never know, if it helps, why not skip the chance.

It is also quite popular to create your own secret signs and rituals. For example, I have a “lucky 2-digit number” and when I am driving, I pay attention to car license plates. If I see that particular number – it is going to be a good day.

But maybe even all these odd superstitions and signs have explanations if proper research is done. Examples above are very random, the biggest number of signs in Russia have always been the ones, related to weather and agriculture (such as – if the weather is such and such on the particular day – it means cold or warm season ahead etc). In these cases, superstitions were just the first scientific observations. And sometimes even signs that relate to birds could be explained with science. For example – when swallows fly low – that predicts rain. No magic in that – pure science. Prior to rain, atmospheric pressure is getting lower and flies fly low, so birds also fly low to catch them.

Now is a good week to think about signs and superstitions. The only Friday the 13th of 2014 is the upcoming Friday. But you know what? Friday the 13th was actually never among traditional Russian superstitions and the number 13 is not considered unlucky (unlike in the States, where most buildings even do not have the 13th floor). So, let’s ditch the superstitions and have a great weekend despite the seemingly unlucky numbers!

Please share with me and my readers the superstitions your country believes in!!!


Leave a Reply

  • Ambrose - 8 years ago

    Hello Tanya

    Thank you for your very interesting information about superstitions. For me, personally I do not have any superstitions as I do believe any of them. However, I understand that some other British people do have a list of superstitions which include at least the following:

    1. If you walk under a ladder you will have bad luck

    2. To break a mirror will bring seven years bad luck

    3. To open an umbrella in the house will bring bad luck

    4. Putting new shoes on the table brings bad luck

    5. Friday the thirteenth is an unlucky day

    6. If a black cat crosses your path you will have bad luck

    7. If you blow out all the candles on your birthday cake in one go you will get whatever you wish for

    8. Walking over three drains brings bad luck

    9. A lock from a baby’s first haircut should be kept for good luck

    10. A rabbit’s foot brings good luck

    11. Avoid stepping of cracks to avoid bad luck

    12. Washing a car will bring rain

    13. Wearing a certain pair of pants will bring good luck

    Kindness and best wishes to you Tanya, and all.

  • ak - 7 years ago

    Don’t forget the habits of knocking on wood or ritual spitting three times over the left shoulder (to not spoil when something positive was said); for example, if you tell a friend, “My baby sleeps very well,” you should knock on wood immediately, or she will start to wake up often. There also lots of superstitions regarding pregnancy and delivery: a pregnant woman should never raise her hands above her head (or the cord will tangle), step over a rope, etc. During the delivery, all knots should be untied (hair loose, belt undone).

    A small remark: “fork” is female in Russian, so dropping a fork is for a female visitor as well. Only a knife is for a male one.

    Another sign of coming visitors is seeing a self-grooming cat (“a cat grooms visitors in”, “кошка гостей намывает”). Quite silly as every cat does it many times a day :)

  • Anonymous - 6 years ago

    I lived in Russia 8 years in the 90’s, I was 20 years old and got so assimilated that I adopted many superstitions since then. I can’t say anything about something located in the future without knocking my forehead and spitting 3 times above my left shoulder! I must look weird here, in France! I can’t congratulate someone’s birthday in advance and sometimes it is perceived as rude, careless, I have to explain. The worst is when accidentally I step on someone’s foot, and I desperately ask the person to do the same on my foot! I used to dance Tango, and it happens. When the boy would step, I managed to step on him very discreetly.

    • Tanya Golubeva - 6 years ago

      What a wonderful comment! Thank you so much for sharing! These are indeed the main superstitions and we always do that! let me know if you will visit Russia, would be great to meet for coffee! You will be surprised how much changes are here (not sure if you lived in Moscow or somewhere else, but Moscow did change a lot and changes are very positive!) I think that you would love to visit again!

  • Anonymous - 1 year ago

    Very interesting article! In Kazakhstan, where I live now, I noticed that there is a superstition about empty bottles, too. It is slightly different from the one you described. In Kazakhstan, once a bottle is emptied, a superstitious person will lay the bottle on its side. Some of my expat friends thought that it was to ward off poverty, as the emptiness of the bottle could attract scarcity or lacking. Funny how these things work!