On Russian superstitions: A personal essay

Illustration of girl looking at cracked mirror
Sarah Pi/Staff

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It’s Thursday evening.

My mother and I are preparing dinner together in the dimly lit kitchen. Elbow to elbow, she expertly rolls balls of dough into flat discs, passing them to me to scoop cabbage filling into. The aroma of tender pirogi, steamed beetroot and tradition floats up into the air, thickly permeating through our home. My mother has finished rolling the pirogi dough and prepares to mince crimini mushrooms.

nozh dash? (Pass the knife?)

As I reached to hand her the knife, we somehow missed each other, and the blade plummets, slapping the ground with a clatter. We lock eyes Mother looking at me, expectant. I wasted no time, quickly stooping down to the ground, knocking on the wooden floor three times and uttering the incantation.

nam nikto ne nuzhen! (We need no one!)

You know, because if I didn’t do that, an unknown male visitor would surely appear at our door in the near future.

Now, before you write me off as insane, I admit, this is weird. It doesn’t make any sense that dropping a knife would be correlated with some cosmic forces that would send a male stranger to our doorstep. The chances of anything remotely corollary were far from likely. But superstition defies logic. And that’s what this was: a superstitious practice.

I’d always find myself making fun of my mother’s little soviet superstitions; even as a young child, I was a cold, cynical skeptic. Of course these things weren’t true! How could they be? But I also thought of our rituals as a game, something just for me and my mom. If any of us were to ever break these special rules, the excitement to undo the bad luck and restore the good fortune was electric. We’d be quick to knock on wood, hurriedly glance in a mirror or utter whatever would keep the misfortune at bay.

Admittedly, as I later found out, some of these superstitions were not necessarily unique to Russia, and that several other cultures, including some American folk cultures, acknowledged these same superstitions. But what was the purpose of it all if not just a silly game? I mean, why hold on to something that’s ridiculous and excessive?

If you run back inside your home to retrieve something you forgot, it’s a bad omen, so don’t forget to look in the mirror on your way out.

Never hug across a doorway, or have conversations over the threshold of a house. You might never see that person ever again.

My mother is Russian. Well, from the USSR, a place that doesn’t exist anymore. I remember a decade ago she went back for the first time in 20 years, and came back disillusioned. “It’s all different now,” she lamented over a cup of steaming hawthorn juice that she’d smuggled back in her suitcase. “My home has disappeared somewhere.” Buildings had changed. Forests had been paved over. But it was more than that. It was the people, the presence of America that had leaked into the haven that was supposed to be sheltered from anything American. The shopping malls and fast food joints made her uneasy; when she was growing up, the only way to buy clothing that was now so abundant was to stand in long lines for several hours. Superstitions are her way of keeping the ghost of a country alive. Of keeping a fading history in her pocket.

Don’t leave a book open when you’re done with your studies, or all your knowledge will fly out of your head while you sleep.

A girl’s most prized possession, aside from her mind and her heart, is not her curves, but her teeth. 

Sometimes my mother just told me to do certain things. And I complied, never really questioning her. Keeping the myths alive with her was enough. I didn’t need to know why something was it seemed like an unspoken agreement between the two of us. Once we saw a black cat run across our path, and she made us wait for 10 minutes until someone else crossed it first. Yes, at times it seemed excessive.

Lucky in cards, unlucky in love. And vice versa.

Some things are irreversible. Like spilling table salt. Or breaking a mirror.

The superstitions had a way of turning mistakes and frustrations into something less terrible, more hopeful. But it also cushioned the hard facts of life with a playful air of mystery. Once, I accidentally fumbled with and dropped a plate, which I soon found out was considered a good omen. Our backyard is a graveyard of shattered china that clumsily slipped from someone’s hand at some point in time.

Walking with friends on the street, you should not allow people or objects to pass between you, otherwise you must say hello to each other three times to maintain a good friendship.

If someone whistles inside a house, they will “whistle all their money away.”

Today, several cities away from my mother, I find myself instinctually enacting our rituals. I think holding on to them is what keeps me connected to half of my culture, to her. I am afraid of forgetting; through my mother, I’ve vicariously adopted an anxiety about the change that is imminent, and so I hold on. I cling to the fabric of space-time that came before. History, family, it’s a chain-link of holding on to one another, of believing in what came before you and giving it life through reenactment.

Never sleep during sunset; it’s a holy time of day. You should always send off the day, for each day is sacred.

My mother is not a religious woman. But this is something for her to believe in. And now, it’s something carried through me. We all find something to hold on to, to believe in and to hand over. Superstitions are our beliefs. But for others, it may be different. Whether they are inside jokes passed across a dinner table, holidays, books or anything that can be made your own. These rituals, more than anything else, are the intergenerational ties that tether us to family.

Contact Alexandra (Sasha) Shahinfar at [email protected].