SUPERSTITIONS, WITCHES AND BELIEFS IN THE SUPERNATURAL IN RUSSIA

SUPERSTITIONS IN RUSSIA

Russians are considered very superstitious. Their lives are filled with superstition which most non-Russian are unfamiliar with. Soothsaying on New Years’s has traditionally been important. Most Russians claim they are not superstitious; they are only recognizing superstition as a way of hedging their bets by not tempting fate. [Source: Carol Williams, Los Angeles Times, Yelena Minnok Encyclopedia of Superstitions in Russia]

There has traditionally been a strong interest in parapsychology, some of which is regarded as “scientific,” in Russia. There are numerous folk stories involving vampires and witches. In 2001, Putin signed a bill outlawing “electromagnetic, infrasound...radiators” and others weapons of “psychotronic influence.”

Superstition experienced a rebirth after the collapse of Communism. Olga Miserva, a parapsychologist at Moscow's Open Spiritual Center, told the Los Angeles Times. "Reliance on superstition shows up the inadequacy of our internal knowledge and self-confidence problems that have been intensified by the insecurity inflicted on people by the complete change of the world hey know...There are a lot of problems and a lot of reason for people to be fearful. People want to fill these voids with a little something they can believe in. They look to the stars for guidance and put their faith in these old superstitions to feel they have control over the future."

Common Russian Superstitions

The Russian equivalent of knocking on wood is spitting over one's shoulder three times after making a careless remark about possible danger or presumed good. The superstition is based on the belief that the devil lives on one's left shoulder and an angel loves on the right shoulder, and spitting on the devil is a way of preventing him from causing mischief. Pretending to spit three times over one’s shoulder and then knocking on wood is a superstition for good health.

Many Russian superstitions trace their origins back to pre-Orthodox pagan times. To ward off evil spirits one must touch the floor with the right foot first after waking up in the morning. If a person accidently puts on their shirt inside out he or she must place it on the floor and step on it before putting it on the correct way.

Other common Russian superstitions: 1) A dropped butter knife means that a member of the opposite sex will visit. 2) If you want to have a son wear a hat during the moment of conception. 3) If you have a bad dream and you don't want it come true you must retell the dream in the morning while running water from a faucet so the dream goes down the drain. 4) Before embarking on a journey, one must "sit for the road," or sit silent on one's luggage or bed before leaving.

Domovoi and Shaking Hands at Thresholds

A common Russian superstition is that one must never shake hands, kiss, sleep or sit near a threshold such as a door. Thresholds are where brownie-like creatures known as domovoi dwell and kissing or shaking hands is regarded as an offensive invasion of their space.

Non-Russians visiting the home of Russian friends often violate this superstition by greeting their hosts with handshakes or embrace at the doorway. Some Russian believe that the misfortunes on the MIR space station began after arriving American astronauts shook hands with Russian cosmonauts when they entered the station.

Domovoi are believed to follow the head of the household when a family moves. There are elaborate rituals to attract domovoi when a new household is established after marriage. A newlywed groom, for example, does not carry his bride over the threshold, but rather lets loose a cat call which is supposed to summon a domovoi. Cats are the only creatures that can communicate with domovoi.

Mirror Superstitions in Russia

In order not to obstruct the journey of departed spirits to the afterlife, Russians believe, one must not obstruct the view of a mirror. Broken mirrors are considered an omen of misfortune for a friend and looking at your own reflection in a broken mirrors is regarded as very dangerous.

People are not supposed to eat in front of mirrors or look at an image of a candle reflected in a mirror. Many superstitions involve mirrors because they are regarded as the threshold between the world we know and the world of spirits.

One of Russia's most widely held superstitions is when someone returns home to pick up something left behind he or she must look in a mirror before leaving again. Some people say that you have to stick out your tongue or make an ugly face when looking in the mirror. The idea behind this belief is that when a person leaves the house the first they accompanied by a guardian angel. If they return from outside the guardian angel is left behind and is recalled with a look in the mirror.

Bad Luck and the Evil Eye in Russia

Whistling indoors, yellow flowers, red hair are all considered bad luck. If you whistle indoors, all your money will fly out the window. Yellow is associated with sadness. Redheads are regarded with suspicion because there are so few of them.

Returning a borrowed item after sunset or mending a hem or button while wearing a damaged garment, spilling salt on a table are also considered bad luck. If you spill salt you must throw it over your left shoulder.

One should never celebrate a holiday, birthday, anniversary or other happy event in advance. Don't look at a baby if you have black eyes. Don't light a cigarette from a candle. The number 13 it is not an unlucky number in Russia. An even number of roses or any other flower is considered appropriate only at a funeral.

Evil eye superstitions are very much alive in Russia. The Cossacks have traditionally worn black fur hats with a red and black "god's eye" to ward off bullets. Many Russians believe that that some people have the power to cast the "evil eye". A babka, an old woman faith healer, told the New York Times, she can recognize the "evil eye" but she never uses it. "I cast only good spells," she said. "I never use the evil eye." To "disinfect" oneself from a curse cast by the evil eye pass a candle three times in front of an icon.

Supernatural Beliefs in Russia

The collapse of Communism brought about a resurgence in astrology, ESP and fortunetelling. Respected newspapers contain advertisements offering the services of witches, warlocks and clairvoyants. Doctors regularly advise their patients to see faith healers. Lilia Voroneheza, a popular psychic and faith healer, told the Los Angeles Times in the 1990s she was so busy she had to turn away customers. Another psychic, Anatoly Kashpirovsky, was elected to Parliament in 1993.

The Third Eye, a television show about the supernatural, was one of the most popular shows in Russia. A government report issued in 2001 said that Russian scientists were trying to create “effective methods to influence of humans at a distance.” The KGB investigated paranormal occurrences.

A Russian woman named Rosa Kulehova demonstrated her ability of eyeless sight at the Moscow Academy of Science. After being blindfolded she read material placed in front of her using the third and forth finger on her right hand.

Astrology in Russia

Astrology has became quite popular in Russia since the fall of Communism. Astrology columns are a fixture in almost every magazine and newspaper. Callers can receive personalized astrology accounts using their phones. The Kremlin used to have a staff of astrologers, whose job was to advise the late Present Boris Yeltsin.

Russian horoscopes tend to be gloomier than their American counterparts. Negative days usually outnumber "fortunate" days by a two to one margin (the ratio is reversed in most American horoscopes). The alignments of planets are viewed as inauspicious days in which it better to stay home and not make decisions. In the U.S. these days are viewed as obstacles that can be overcome.

By Western standards, Russian astrology reports are very blunt. One report in the Kommersant newspaper read: "Today is a largely dangerous day. You may end up broke...This day is entirely unsuitable for an undertaking of any sort...The risks of accidents is high. You shouldn't expect anything good from your family life today...It's better not to gamble on a day like this, whole fortunes are lost." The following day the paper reported: "Fraud, cheating and crooked deals are only a small fraction of the troubles that threaten to disrupt all your plans today." [Source: Washington Post]

Typical Russian horoscope entries read, "don't get frantic when you find all your life savings are gone," "your deliveries will not arrive on time, or will never arrive," foreigners will cause you a lot of trouble today," "on Tuesday the shady deals that you made earlier become known to the broad public," and "You should intensify the guard on your apartment; representatives of criminal structures are not dozing." [Ibid]

Russian Fortunetellers and Mystics

Russia has a long history with mystics and fortunetellers. Brezhnev consulted a Bulgarian clairvoyant. Yeltsin hired a special consultant to protect him from “external pyschophysical influence.” See Rasputin Under History.

By one estimate there are over 100,000 fee-charging mystics in Russia and the services they offer is a multi-million -dollar business. They advertise on television and in newspapers. Many fortunetellers in Russian are Abkhazians from the Caucasus and Roma (Gypsies). Abkhazian women read coffee grounds; Roma often use cards. On Roma fortune teller told the Washington Post,"All sorts come here for advise—doctors, procurators, Mafia—it's a good business."

The chess player Garry Kasparov credited the Azerbaijani psychic Tofik Dadashev with helping him won his first world championship in 1985 against Anatoly Karpov, who employed a psychologist trained in hypnotism. Dadashev told the Los Angeles Times, “What I was doing there was not hypnosis in the scientific sense of the word.” He said he “created the positive energetic background which would make it easier for him and more difficult for opponent to play.”

The use of mystics and fortunetellers soared after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian sociologists said that among the reasons for this were tough economic times and pent up interest in the supernatural after years of Soviet rule. “Many people now live on the verge of despair, given their economic situation, which humiliates and destroy their families,” one Russian sociologist told the Los Angeles Times. “They are attracted to psychics, to magicians to witches...out of fragility and desperation.”

Russian Wise Women and Witches

Faith healing, paganism and witchcraft were not stamped by the Communists. Since the break up of the Soviet Union they have experienced a rebirth. One Belarusian anthropologist told Newsweek, "The Communists were strongly atheistic, but they could not destroy people's belief in miracles.”

Almost every village has some kind of witch or warlock. Many people, when given the choice, say they would rather go to a faith healer than a doctor. Cures for cancer offered by witch doctors include drinking kerosene, spitting at the moon and peeing through a wedding ring into a saucepans.

Vedma ("wise women")—usually matronly babushkas in their 60s—in small villages in Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine treat childhood diseases by writing magic words on water and attempt to cure cows by whispering secret spells in the wind. For payment they accept chicken, eggs and homemade vodka.

"Ivan Kupla" is a pagan festival tolerated by the Orthodox Church in which revelers celebrate the beginning of spring by bathing naked together in running water and jumping over greenwood fires with crowns of birch twigs. Some parish priests keep busy doing exorcisms on people reportedly victimized by witchcraft. These exorcisms often feature a lot of moaning, screaming and shuddering from crucifixes.

Urban Witches

The belief in witchcraft in Russia is said to be stronger in the cites than in rural areas because, one Orthodox priest told the New York Times, "in villages the old attitudes toward the church are still alive and the immunity against evil is better preserved.”

In the cities witches work as fortunetellers. Most of their business comes from women who have bad luck and want to have a curse removed and men who want to seduce women. One customer who sought a witch in Moscow told the Time of London her boyfriend had left her because a neighbor ha d sprinkled pine needles across the threshold of her family house when her mother was pregnant. “We told the witch about it and she lifted the curse,” the woman explained.

In the early 2000s, Larisa Teterina operated the upscale “External Help Center.” She typically treated six patients a day in an office filled with candles, crystals, and fertility symbols. She charges about $25 for an initial consultation and prices varied depending on the ritual, spell or curse that was sought. A charm that mended a broken marriage cost $300. A spell to make a man more sexy cost $150. Teterina told the Times of London: “Magic can’t be cheap because you’d argue with your spouse all the time and then go to witch to get it fixed.

Teterina said she learned her craft from her grandmother and has a 85 percent success rate. She attributed her high success rate as much to commons sense advice as magic. Still there are those who consider Teterina and others like her to be swindlers and charlatans. Witches have become so common that the Moscow city council proposed legislation to ban “occult services.”

Russian Witches Beaten to Death

There were six reported cases of witch burning and witch beating in Siberia and northern Russian between 1993 and 1997. Probably more took place. In March, 1997, a woman was beaten to death in a village near the city of Voronezh for reportedly casting a spell that caused the death of some livestock. In November 1996, a businessman in Minsk, Belarus told police a $2,000 occult contract had been taken out on his life. He said his assassin planned to do him in by casting spells and torturing a voodoo-style clay figure.

A woman from the small village of Terekhovo almost died after being beaten by a man she was dating and his uncle for causing both men to have terrible visions. They believed she was a witch because she had a lazy eye (viewed as a sign of the devil) and she took long solitary walks in the forest. The mother of man who started having horrible visions after dating the woman told the New York Times, "he would wake up in the night screaming and afraid. Everyday it would get worse. He said he saw her face on the head of a beast with enormous horns. He would sweat and scream and beg me to look at the beast. Of course I never saw it."

When the man's uncle also reportedly came under her spell, the two men sought the help of healer who said the man having the visions had the evil eye on him and the beast prevented him from going near the girl. After the meeting the two attacked the young woman and nearly killed her. From her hospital bed the woman told the New York Times she was not a witch and she couldn't understand why someone she liked would try to kill her. She said after she recovered she was never going to return to her village again.

Hypnotism Crimes in Russia

A number of Russians have said they have been victims of “Gypsy hypnosis”—crimes, usually thefts, in which the victims claim they were hypnotized by the perpetrators of the crime and coaxed into doing something they wouldn’t normally do such as hand over a lot of money. Some think the perpetrators use nuero-linguistic techniques in which patterns of speech are altered in such a way that they hypnotize victims. [Source: Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times, February 2005]

Some experts say the Gypsy hypnosis label is made up to hid the embarrassment of being duped, Other say there is something to it. One expert told the Los Angeles Times, that perpetrators of such crimes “are people who have honed their skills to perfection: they have been pulling these kinds of confidence tricks on people for generations...They are able to turn off their [victim’s] inhibitory mechanisms and ram through their psychological defenses.” Some law enforcement officers believe the victims are not hypnotized but rather tricked using sophisticated psychological techniques.

Some victims have turned over all the money they had. It s not usual for thieves to get away with several thousand dollars. One victim lost $300,000. A detective who has handled hundreds of “gypsy hypnosis” cases told the Los Angeles Times, “Could a person operating with all his faculties agree with a plan under which all of the money he saves in his entire life should be given to these people on the streets.”

Victims of Hypnotism Crimes

A victim of a hypnosis crime told the Los Angeles Times a man came up to her on the streets and repeatedly waved a ring in front of her and “was talking gibberish”. He said something about how he left his wallet in a taxi and had to meet someone at the airport. She then said she offered him $250 in rubles. He said that was not enough and asked her to go to her apartment. Inside she said she opened a safe and gave him $500 in rubles plus the rubles she had in her wallet. As she took the elevator down to the lobby she knew she had been robbed but she said she could not do anything about it. [Source: Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times, February 2005]

Another victim, an economist and tax inspector, told the Los Angeles Times she was walking with her baby when a well dressed woman wearing a gold chain asked her for directions to a local clinic. “I explained to her, and I was about to leave,” she said. “But at that moment, she caught my eye with her eye. Our eyes met. She said, ‘I’m looking at you, and you’re a nice girl and all, but there’s a death coming to your family.’ My father was very ill at the time....She said ‘Your husband, was married before?’ I said no, but he had a girlfriend. She said, ‘It’s her handiwork. She did it. She moved the dirt, and it has also fallen on your child.”

The woman told her that the spell would cause her baby to drown in a bathtub. “She said, ‘You will have go home. And if you have any yellow metal at home, you will collect it, you will tie it into a kerchief and you will tie in three knots.’ She said, ‘If you have any money at all, you count it and take it.’...I went home. I felt panicky. I did everything in five minutes: I collected all the money, I collected all the gold—I had rings, earrings, bracelets, seven or eight items altogether...We had a lot of money, because we had just sold our garage, and we were getting ready to buy a car.” In all she haded over $6,000 in rubles and jewelry. “I knew this was wrong. But I felt as if I was programed to do it...I was under a spell.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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