Superstitions are an interesting subject material, but most articles that address them devolve simply in lists of dos and don’ts – or “else”. I’ve got a bad feeling (superstitiously speaking) that this form is bound to encroach here, but I’ll try to add something more.
The first thing to note about Russian superstitions is that there are a lot of them. A quick search online can easily unearth more than 60 of these ancient rules that are to be obeyed, seemingly “just because”. I’m much more interested in the origins or at least the internal logic of these diktats; the “why?”, so let’s explore.
One of the most important factors seems to be the late arrival of Christianity into Russia. Europe under Rome had known this growing ‘new religion’ for almost 900 years before Kievan Rus became officially Christian in 988 AD (this date is disputed). “Russia” didn’t exist until approximately 1240, after the Mongol invasion was complete, incidentally.
The unifying force of Vladimir the Great embraced Christian Orthodoxy over Slavic Paganism. That’s the euphemistic version of events at least. Although Vladimir abandoned his idols, temples, wives, and mistresses for the Christian model of life; converting a Pagan nation by imposition of will was another matter.
Conquest and demise
As with many historical conversions; force was a readily utilised asset in the process, with his approach to the baptism of his subjects typifying the human interpretation of a Divine ideal. His subjects were given the choice of emerging baptised from the Dneiper river or alternatively drowning in it.
After championing his new Christian Russia, Vladimir’s campaign of conversion ultimately lead to his demise. Following disquiet and uprising against his new order, he finally met his death in battle against a Pagan army raised by his disenfranchised ex-wives and sons at Berestovo in 1015 AD, 27 years (approx) after the inception of a Christian Kievan Rus.
Old habits and new crimes
The encroaching Christianity displaced Paganism, increasingly relegated to “superstition”, where once it was reality. Russia is considerably closer, chronologically speaking to it’s Pagan past however, than we are to ours. This plays a part, surely, in why such beliefs are more of a factor in Russian lives today. A Russian friend balks at the idea of my wearing of a vintage coat, for instance: “the coat of a dead man”. Another recoils, when I wish him (as a joke) a “happy medieval burial” (you had to be there).
A list of superstitious beliefs reads like a tablet of Pagan commandments, each with their own form of punishment (from infertility to just: “bad luck”), should a particular rule be broken, and perhaps that’s no coincidence.
There’s a fascinating modern encounter with Slavic superstition on the American girls in Moscow site, with reference to the “infertility” issue:
“Never, ever sit on a cold surface… Russian grandmothers (babushki) feel impelled by God to tear into any mother who is so careless as to let her children face possible infertility… I just grin and bore it for the first year or so… and then it started to really get to me.”
Superstition and Pagan belief go hand in hand, as does magical thinking. Christianity seeks to erase all of the above in favour of one set of rules issued by the Creator. Humanity then seeks to murder itself over subjective interpretations of these rules, of course – but that’s another tale. Looking at Russian superstition in this light, is revealing.
In or Out
Thresholds, for instance have a great significance in Russian superstition – we should not shake hands over them, nor pass or gifts across, talk over nor stand on them. Why? Because the ancient Slavs would deposit the ashes of the deceased under them, it was their final resting place. Any of the above activities would therefore disturb and anger the dead. Not a good result, by any reckoning. The angry dead became “bad spirits” or “bad luck” over time, the avoidance of threshold activity became second nature and the ritual survived long after those angry spirits were forgotten.
Now things start to makes sense.
More examination next time.