Russian traditions and superstitions

Russian traditions, superstitions and beliefs include superstitions and customs of Russians. Many of them are now inseparable parts of everyday life, or simply common social etiquette, though they often have their origins in superstition. The awareness of them, and their perceived importance, depends on various factors including region and age. Some are extremely common and practiced by the vast majority of the population, while some are extremely obscure.

Customs that are more often regarded as superstition

Traditions for the use of alcohol in Russia

"Cause and effect" Russian superstitions

Russia lacks some of the superstitions Westerners find commonplace. Most Russians are not particularly concerned with the number 13, opening umbrellas indoors or walking under ladders.

Communion or hold conversations with demons. Sorcerers primarily use black magic to summon devils. The goals of summoning devils include attaining wealth, fame, approval of superiors, sex, or harming another person. Those that rejected Christianity and sought the Devil felt that the Devil was as strong as God and impious spells were more powerful than prayer.[9]

Love Magic

Romance was connected with magic and sorcery even until the 18th century when it became a prevalent literary theme. Neighbors suspected magic to be the cause of people so passionate they lost their senses. Christianity supported marriage and child-bearing, but it did not support the pursuit of pleasures of the flesh. This ban did not stop people from employing the Devil to get their share of pleasure. For men the usual aim was sex, but for women it could have been to get married, exact revenge, or regain a husband’s affection.[9]


There are many interpretations of death in Russian folk tradition. It can be reversible, and it sometimes resides outside of the body. It is also closely related to sleep. It is believed that when one sleeps one can traverse the “other world” and come back alive. There are two kinds of deaths. A person who dies in his or her old age surrounded by family died a “good” death, a death that was “their own.” They depart when God says they should. A person who dies a “bad” death, or a death “not their own,” died too soon before the time God assigned them. These persons might have been murdered, committed suicide, died of illness, or in war. Because of the nature of these deaths the earth cannot accept them until their time comes which means they do not receive a proper burial and are sometimes not buried at all but covered with rocks or sticks. Russians associate “good” deaths with bringing good harvests while attributing storms, droughts and other forms of destruction to “bad” deaths. [10]

Funeral Rites

Several steps must be taken once a person has died so their body can be buried and their soul can travel to the “other world.” The first step is washing the body. In a Dual-Faith setting (in which Orthodoxy and folk tradition are combined) this ritual prepares the deceased’s for his or her meeting with God. They then dress the body in all-white, handmade clothing left slightly unfinished because it belongs not in this world but the “other world.” In Christianity, the white clothing worn by the corpse represents the pure life the deceased promised to live when he or she was baptized.[11]

The body must wear a belt during its burial because the deceased will need it when he or she is resurrected during the Last Judgment. Belts are significant in both Christian and folk rituals. Christians value them babies receive them, along with a cross, at their christening. Thus, it symbolizes a person’s commitment to Christianity. In folk tradition, belts mark out an individual’s private space and prove that he or she is a member of society and protect the wearer from dark forces.[11]

After washing and dressing the body, the body is laid out in the house for three days before it is put it in the coffin. Orthodox households and Old Belief (pre-1650 Orthodoxy) households perform this ritual slightly differently. Orthodox families lay their dead loved one so his or her head points towards the icon corner. In the houses of Old Believers the feet are placed closer to the icon corner so the deceased faces the corner and can pray if he or she desires.[11] Old Believers believe that the dead can still feel for a time after their death. For fear of waking the newly dead, mourning does not begin during the washing or dressing. Inappropriate funeral etiquette can also wake the dead.[12]

The coffin, sometimes referred to as the “new living room,” is very comfortable, made like a bed with a pillow stuffed with birch bark or wood shavings. Mourners place objects in the coffin that the body might need after death such as money, food, favorite belongings, and reflections of status or occupation. Traditionally, men carry the coffin on their backs to the cemetery where the funeral will take place.[11]

At the funeral, a priest performs the “seeing off” ceremony, praying over the body and allowing mourners to throw dirt on the grave, symbolically incorporating the corpse into the earth. The priest then places a paper crown on the head of the deceased and the mourners throw soil and coins into the grave (the coins are either to pay for transit to the “other world” or for the space in the cemetery). After the funeral, mourners sing laments depicting the deceased leaving his or her family and the soul departing from the body.[11]

Also it is important to throw away any handkerchiefs used to wipe away tears at the funeral. You should under no circumstances bring it home at it is believed that if you do this you are bringing tears into the house.

The Soul

Russian folk culture depicts the soul either as small and childlike, or having wings and flying. For forty days after a funeral, the soul of the deceased visits places it liked or places where it sinned to ask for forgiveness. After forty days the deceased’s family sets a place for their loved one at dinner, inviting him or her join them for his or her own commemoration. When the family sees that the skin goes untouched they know their loved one has gone.[11]

Archaic Superstitions

The Unclean Force

The phrase Unclean force (Нечистая сила) refers to both the Devil[13] and all demons and potentially harmful [13][14] in the Russian pantheon. Although the beings of the unclean force resided primarily in the spirit realm (тот свет) they were able to manifest themselves in this world in many forms, the most well known included the domovoi, the leshy, the kikimora, the vodianoi and the rusalka.[15] Also counted among the unclean force are sorcerers, witches, the undead, and the "unclean dead", including suicides, those who died of drunkenness, victims of accidents and violent deaths, unbaptized infants, and vampires. Likewise, strangers and people of other religions were viewed as possessing the unclean force.[16]

Among these spirits, the domovoi was considered the least dangerous.[15] If angered, the domovoi would act as a poltergeist.[13] Other spirits, like the rusalka, were more malevolent. She was said to lure men to their watery deaths.[17] Among the places where the unclean force was strongest against the Russian peasant were the crossroads, the threshold and the bathhouse.


Related to the unclean force was the superstitious belief in "spoiling" (порча).[18] One aligned with the unclean force could spoil another through the use of the evil eye or by means of a magical ritual. The spoiled person would be inflicted with such maladies and misfortunes as sickness, mental illness, deformity, loss of livelihood, and death.[19] One type of spoiling was a form of hysteria called klikushestvo (кликушество). It caused the bewitched person to shriek, curse, and fall to the floor when in the presence of religious objects or displays.[13]

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Russian traditions.


  1. Donaldson, Lloyd. (1996) Russian Etiquette & Ethics in Business. NTC Business Books. p. 74
  2. King, Anna. (2010) Russia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture. Kuperard. ISBN 1-857-33352-7
  3. Richmond, Simon. (2010) Russia. Lonely Planet. p. 109 ISBN 9781742203737
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
  6. 1 2 3 4 5
  7. 1 2
  9. 1 2 Elena B. Smilianksaia, "Witches, Blasphemers, and Heretics," Russian Studies in History 45. 4 (2001).
  10. Elizabeth A. Warner. Russian Myths. (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002.)
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Elizabeth A. Warner, “Russian Peasant Beliefs and Practices Concerning Death and the Supernatural Collected in Novosokol'niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia, 1995. Part II: Death in Natural Circumstances," Folklore 111. 2 (2000): 255-281.
  12. Elizabeth A. Warner. Russian Myths. (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002).
  13. 1 2 3 4 Ivanits, Linda J. (1989) Russian Folk Belief. Routledge. pp. 38-39, 51, 104 ISBN 0-873-32889-2
  14. Davidson, Pamela. (2010) Russian Literature and Its Demons. Berghahn. p. 5 ISBN 1-845-45757-9
  15. 1 2 Cornwell, Neil. (2002) The Routledge Companion to Russian Literature. Routledge. p. 45
  16. Morrissey, Susan K. (2012) Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia. Cambridge University. p. 232 ISBN 0-521-34958-3
  17. Andrews, Tamra. (2000) Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea, and Sky. Oxford University. p. 165
  18. Brockhaus and Efron. (1890–1907). Порча // Энциклопедический словарь Брокгауза и Ефрона: In 86 Volumes (82 т. и 4 доп.) [Encyclopedic Dictionary of Brockhaus and Efron: In 86 Volumes.]. Saint Petersburg.
  19. Bezrukova, V. S. (2000) Порча // Основы духовной культуры (энциклопедический словарь педагога) [Fundamentals of Spiritual Culture (Pedagogical Encyclopedic Dictionary)].

External links

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