Every culture has its own quirky superstitions and beliefs, and Russia is no exception. Some things like avoiding a black cat crossing your path are the same in Russia and in the West, but I have encountered my fair share of “what on earth are you doing?!” reactions to some of my own Russian superstitious rituals. Here is a cheat sheet for you so you can be prepared for what you may see your Russian friends & hosts doing and saying:
Sitting Down Before Going on a Long Trip
Russian people sometimes sit down somewhere near the door inside their home before going away. Even if just one person is traveling from a family or couple, the whole group will sit down – just for a short while, 30 seconds to a minute. This is supposed to ensure a successful trip (or rather, prevent a disastrous trip).
Knock on Wood
Just like in the West, when someone in Russia says something they hope will remain that way (e.g. "I’m quite healthy") they will knock on wood. However, they don’t actually say “knock on wood”. They perform the knocking action and then spit three times over their left shoulder (usually not literally spitting – just making the motion and sound). This is supposed to symbolize spitting on the Devil. Even if they don’t do the spitting part, Russians will still tend to literally knock on something – and in the absence of wood, usually their own heads.
Stepping on Someone’s Foot
If a person accidentally steps on someone’s foot in Russia, it’s quite common for the person stepped on to lightly step onto the other’s foot. This is because an unreturned step means that the two will have a fight in the future; returning the offense prevents the fight.
Don’t Step Over People
If someone is on the ground (e.g. sitting or lying down in the park or on the floor), you are not supposed to step over them or any part of their body. This is because stepping over someone means that they will stop growing. Sometimes if you’ve accidentally stepped over someone, you can step backward over them to ‘lift the curse’.
Walking on Different Sides of a Pole
Couples and friends should not walk on different sides of a pole or a tree. This indicates that the relationship will end – some people take this very seriously!
No Fur, No Feathers
When someone has an exam, an interview, an audition, or some other event for which it’s customary to wish good luck, you are not supposed to say “good luck”. Instead, you are to say “ни пуха, ни пера” which directly translated means “no fur, no feathers” and is the rough equivalent of “break a leg”. In response, the person must say “к чёрту!” which literally means “to the devil!”.
If you have the hiccups, Russians say it means that somebody is thinking about you. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get rid of them!)
Western Superstitions Not Upheld in Russia
There are some things considered unlucky in the West which don’t translate into Russian culture:
- Throwing salt over your shoulder. Spilt salt is considered unlucky, but it’s not customary to throw it over one’s shoulder.
- 13. The number thirteen is not considered particularly unlucky in Russia – and Russians think it’s hilarious when they hear that a lot of Western buildings skip the 13th floor when numbering the levels.
- Umbrellas. It’s very normal for Russians to open umbrellas indoors to let them dry. It’s not considered unlucky to open an umbrella inside.
- Ladders. Likewise, it’s not considered unlucky to walk under a ladder in Russia.