Superstitions Are Sneaky

1999 > Russia

Never set and empty bottle on the table!

yikes!One rainy morning, I walked into the office and was shocked
to see a secretary opening her umbrella inside. I am not that superstitious
of a man, but I do not open an umbrella inside, walk under a ladder, or forget
to knock on wood as a matter of habit. Seeing the secretary casually open
the umbrella made me open my eyes and look around for other odd

Egad! Three umbrellas open inside!

So far, I’ve found that Friday the 13th is just another day in Russia, devoid
of all the bad omens we harbor (Maybe they didn’t see the movie), and I have
yet to see someone throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder, or avoid stepping
on a crack to save their mother’s back.

Now that is not to say Russian aren’t superstitious. Empty bottles are swept
from the table, lest it brings only empty bottles in the future. You never
shake over a threshold, and always say hi again if someone or something passes
between you and your partner. Women never sit at the corner of a table and
men always shake hello and goodbye.

25 January 1999, Johnson’s Russia List


By Irina Glushchenko

MOSCOW – Suddenly, the Russian capital has been overrun by rabbits. You can
find them in the markets, on the news-stands, and in the toyshops. The reason,
as readers may have guessed, is that in Chinese astrology 1999 is the year
of the rabbit.

Twenty years ago in Russia, such information was almost a secret. When I
was at school, someone once gave me a few type-written sheets with the signs
of the zodiac and the characteristics of the people born under them. I was
staggered – everything was so unfamiliar, so unlike anything I had ever read!
With its typos and spelling errors, the fuzzy letters showing that it was
a third carbon copy, the text was like samizdat….

Those times are long past. The signs of the zodiac gradually crept into Soviet
newspapers. I even managed to buy a set of postcards with drawings of the
star-signs, and the corresponding dates. This was a real find. From then
on, my friends and I would know which sign we had been born under. Then I
started meeting people who asked insistently, ‘What are you? A Libra?’,
and who, once in command of this information, proceeded to map out my character
in close detail.

Things were harder with the eastern calendar. There was no systematic
information. Usually in late December, the popular television program
International Panorama reported briefly: ‘The Chinese consider the coming
year to be the year of (the monkey)’… and added a few words about how
one was supposed to mark such a year. Rumours grew. ‘Have you heard? This
is the year of the monkey!’ Later, we also discovered that the monkeys and
other animals were of various colours – blue, green, red and so on. That
meant they had to be greeted in red (blue, green). We also learned what you
had to do when celebrating the New Year. Sometimes you were required to crawl
under the table. Or to moo, or to crow, depending on the animal whose year
you were seeing in. Perfectly educated people carried out all these demands

Meanwhile, the veil of secrecy was lifting. Slender booklets were appearing,
containing horoscopes, the signs of the zodiac, and the Chinese calendar.
Now anyone could find out which year followed which, and what this meant.
Toys and figurines symbolising the year went on sale as well. If the coming
year was the year of the pig, souvenir pigs appeared everywhere. To buy such
a pig became a matter of honour.

With the dawn of liberal reform, astrology went onto a mass- production basis.
From being amusing pseudo-information, the occult sciences joined the category
of serious, indispensable knowledge. Television appearances by astrologists
took up even more time than the speechifying of politicians. We were regaled
with such information as: ‘In the late twenty-first century social cataclysms
will occur in Britain, and as a result the British Isles themselves may sink.’
Television news programs ended with an astrological forecast for the following
day or week. Every self-respecting newspaper acquired a staff astrologer,
the thrust of whose predictions depended on the newspaper’s profile. Business
astrology, political astrology, erotic astrology and so forth all made their
appearance. State figures consulted with specialists in the fields that
particularly concerned them.

Where, in the former USSR, did all these experts on heavenly influences suddenly
spring from? The astrologers, like the other sorcerers on our television
screens, maintained that their knowledge or gift had been inherited from
the past. Decades of repression by the Soviet authorities, they declared,
had not managed to destroy it. Meanwhile, learned academies were being
established in which one could attend lectures on magic, love-potions, flying
saucers, and so forth. Publications went on sale describing ‘barabashka’,
a mysterious being said to have invaded a women’s hostel, and to manifest
its presence through strange nocturnal knockings. The fascination with the
occult gripped people of the most diverse views. For example, I came across
a book on the prophesies of Nostradamus by an author who did not hide his
communist convictions….

All this was understandable in a society that had abruptly lost its confidence
in the future. People who had earlier believed explanations presented to
them as ‘the only true science’ found themselves handed over to the whims
of fate. In the space of a few months, all their conceptual landmarks were
obliterated. Soviet Marxism had taught them that science was good, and
superstition bad. Then the propaganda began arguing that Marxism was absolutely
incorrect, and that everything it taught was a lie. It was easy enough to
conclude that superstition was better than science.

The ideological vacuum that followed the downfall of ‘Soviet communism’
was not filled by convincing new ideas. The obvious degradation of rational
knowledge, the decay of education and the general confusion encouraged people
to turn to the wisdom of the middle ages.

The people who were now believing absurdities also had the excuse that in
terms of their earlier experience, the events occurring around them were
no less improbable than the sorcerers’ fairy-tales. Matthias Rust’s plane,
landing on Red Square in broad daylight, was just as fantastic as a witch
flying in on a broomstick. If we were supposed to believe that the recipes
of the International Monetary Fund would save us by transforming the economy
from the ‘very bad’ planned model to the ‘very good’ market one, why
not believe in wizards and witches too?

The most widespread development in the field of the supernatural was the
mass appearance of ‘extrasenses’. We were told that our society contained
people gifted with the power to heal sickness without medicines or surgery.
These people saw a person’s ‘aura’, and through some mysterious intuition,
also recognised internal illnesses. The healing occurred when the extrasense,
who was charged with the necessary energy, made a series of complicated hand
movements above the patient. The extrasense flushed out kidneys, cleaned
blood vessels, and sucked out tumours.

I once encountered an extrasense myself. He was a handsome engineer with
kindly eyes, who lived in a little two-roomed flat that was always full of
people. I went there with a woman friend who suffered from back pain. The
extrasense spent a long time passing his hands over her, to no obvious effect.
Then he took off his jacket and began massaging her back, just as an ordinary
masseur would. The pain became less. I think we were lucky – he was not a
greedy man, and believed sincerely in his powers.

The Russian police as well have begun resorting to the help of extrasenses,
who have been asked to assist in the search for criminals and for people
and objects that have vanished without trace. Rumours circulate of a top-secret
security force unit staffed entirely with psychics and practitioners of black

Meanwhile, there is no need for your firm to go bankrupt because it has been
hexed by a competitor; an advertisement offers to ‘protect your business
from the evil eye’. Various other magical services, from the healing of
impotence to the ‘correction of karma’, enjoy great popularity. Attempts
are also made to cure alcoholics through exorcism. The success rate here,
though, is said to be unimpressive.

At a certain point, Russia witnessed a rash of mass cures. Some of the best-known
extrasenses filled halls with people, worked them up to near-hysteria, and
finally had them fall into a trance. Next to appear was television hypnosis.
Perfectly well-educated people came to believe that if they put water in
a glass in front of their television sets, an extrasense could ‘charge’
it for them via the screen. If this water were then sprinkled on flowers,
the story went, the flowers would grow better.

Here in Russia, we have grown used to being surrounded by witch- doctors,
soothsayers, and astrological symbols. To a disturbing degree, we have become
a society trying to give reality the slip. The charts on the economic pages
point to destitution and national break- up; give us a star-chart instead.

So far, the most effective antidote has been cynicism. The more clear-headed
Russians can no longer be convinced that anything very good is going to happen
to them. As a result, they joke about astrology just as they joke about
ideologies, the economy, and the country’s leaders. In the year of the bull,
cartoons appeared depicting the bull in the guise of a ‘new Russian’ playing
the stock market. When the year of the pig was followed by the year of the
rat, throughout Moscow you could buy wall calendars depicting a fat rat in
a dressing-gown, smashing open a piggy-bank beneath a New Year’s fir-tree.

Meanwhile, as I have been writing this article, I have just learned that
the coming year is not the year of the rabbit at all, but the year of the
cat, and that it is yellow. However, I have been told, in Chinese astrology
the rabbit and the cat are one and the same.

Baltimore Sun 29 January 1999

Moscow’s flu war means breathtaking measures. There’s no holding back
garlic, onions, dirty socks, cognac

By Kathy Lally Sun Foreign Staff

MOSCOW — Nearly every day, another grim dispatch arrives from the front.
The news tells ominously of one surrender after another, from the volcano-strewn
landscape of Kamchatka near the Pacific Ocean to the belching smokestacks
of the Ural Mountains, 3,000 miles to the west. The flu is marching across
Russia, and newspaper readers are following its path nervously. Here in the
capital, a thousand miles west of the Urals, the assault is expected sometime
in the next week or so, and Muscovites are throwing up the barricades,
desperately trying to protect themselves. Everyone has a personal battle

“I know that if I don’t want to catch the flu, I should be eating garlic
every night,” Marina Dobkina, a high school principal, says regretfully.
“But I can’t do that with my job.” Unable to risk heavy-duty bad breath,
she’s doing what she can, drinking lots of tea with honey and dried raspberry
and drinking cranberry juice. Dobkina lives in an ordinary five-story apartment
building, Moscow in microcosm. Knock on her neighbors’ doors and nearly everyone
will offer his own protection.

Sasha Fominikh, a driver at a Moscow factory, read a newspaper article the
other day that suggested hanging a pair of dirty socks around the neck. He
decided against that, but when he felt a cold coming on, he tried out a second
method — rubbing the soles of the feet with the juice of a raw onion every
night before going to bed. “It makes the feet sweat a lot,” Fominikh says,
“which helps get rid of the fever.” He also drinks a little cognac and some
tea with jam to prevent a cold from developing into something worse.

At the first sign of a sore throat, housewife Lena Slivkina starts to rinse
her throat with cognac at least three times a day. “I don’t swallow it, by
the way” she says. “If I have a bad cough, I boil oats in milk for two hours
and then drink it three times a day. Three days and no cough.”

Zina Basova, a street sweeper, eats garlic all year round. “If I still get
the flu,” she says, “I use a lot of honey with tea.”

A flu shot here costs $8 to $20 — prices far too expensive for most people.
Instead, they take an over-the-counter medicine called dibasol, which they
say not only builds up immunity but lowers the blood pressure, improves the
spinal cord and cures ulcers as it courses through the body. Many schools
gave the tablets to children in the fall, hoping to fight off the flu.

The newspaper Segodnya lamented the other day that the pills were only a
primitive measure and that once again the authorities were leaving the Russian
people unprotected in the face of danger. “The sanitary authorities hope
that most of the sick people will never visit a doctor and thus won’t be
registered, so officially the number of the sick will not be so large, and
consequently there will be no reason to announce there is an epidemic,” the
paper wrote.

The flu could well affect 3 out of every 10 people, the paper said, but no
one will ever know for sure. “The population of Moscow, neglected by public
health authorities, have learned how to cure themselves without doctors.”

The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda devoted a recent consumer column to cures:
“If you have a runny nose, the method is easy but cruel: You take a piece
of garlic, cut it in two and put the two pieces inside your nose for 15 or
20 minutes three times a day. “If you are running a temperature: Put 50 grams
of onion through a meat-grinder, along with one tablespoon of vinegar and
60 grams of honey. Mix it well. Take one teaspoon of the mixture every 30
minutes until you start to feel better.”

The paper’s advice for a cough? Cut 20 small onions and a head of garlic
into small pieces and boil in milk until the garlic and onion become soft.
Strain it and add 2 tablespoons of honey to the liquid. Take one tablespoon
every hour. Sick family members should be confined to one room, while the
healthy ones should stay in a room with the window open so fresh air can
sweep the germs away.

Cold can work wonders, but everyone here knows it has its dangers, too. Few
Russians risk consuming a drink with ice — that’s a sure-fire way to a severe
sore throat. (Somehow, ice cream doesn’t have the same effect. People eat
it on the street, all winter long.)

Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who fought in the Revolution and defeated the Germans
at Stalingrad in World War II, chased off the flu by jumping on horseback
and galloping for miles, wearing his felt cloak. Since few Muscovites have
horses, Komsomolskaya Pravda told its readers about an Asian philosopher
who cured the flu by taking 120 steps through a running stream with a rocky

Most streams are frozen at this time of year, but the ever-resourceful consumer
reporter offered an alternative: Put a bristly massage carpet into your bathtub.
Let cold water run over it. Start walking.

01 February 1999 Johnson’s Russia List

Kathy Lally, Moscow’s flu war means breathtaking measures

By: Mark Ames

If I didn’t live here in Moscow, I’d come away from Kathy Lally’s article
“Moscow’s Flu War Means Breathtaking Measures” believing that all Russians
avoid the kinds of medicines and remedies we white folk might use, and instead
revert to medieval, savage, voodoo-like remedies like smearing onions on
your feet or snorting dirty socks. You almost wonder, after reading Lally’s
article, whether Russians have yet developed a complex set of language skills
or the ability to create fire. I for one decided to check.

So I went down to the closest Apteka, or pharmacy, on my street corner. I
asked one of the pharmacists there, Lyubov Luskutova, if drinking cognac
or smelling old socks or rubbing onions on your feet is the best way to overcome
the flu epidemic that threatens all of us here. Surprisingly, the native
spoke in an intelligible language, expressing a dazzling variety of
emotions–such as bewilderment and confused laughter. She said she’d never
in her life heard of rubbing onions on feet or snorting dirty socks in order
to ward off the flu. She works in a pharmacy–yes, that’s right, Russians
actually have pharmacies. And at pharmacies, they sell medicines.

So just to set Lally’s Baltimore-area readers straight, I’d like to note
that the most common medicines to fight flus and colds sold here at my local
apteka (and at the zillions of apteky in Moscow, including in nearly every
metro station and every street block) are Tylenol flu medicine, Coldrex,
Coldrex Nite, TheraFlu Tylenol for kids, and Lorane. For sore throats, most
buy either Strepsils or Hall’s mints. The prices are high in ruble terms–Lorane
costs 74 rubles a bottle, or about 3 dollars. But Luskutova assured me that
sales aren’t noticeably down from last year’s flu season period. “People
have to live,” she said just this morning. I’d personally doubt that sales
are as stable as she thinks, but I will definitely take her word over Lally’s.

Other popular remedies for the flu are staying home from work and sleeping,
drinking tea with honey, and drinking juice. Maybe these things weren’t wacky
enough to fit into Lally’s “see how savage the Russians are” piece. Imagine
the honest lead: “Russians are preparing for the onslaught of flu by buying
Tylenol and Theraflu medicines from their local pharmacies.” Naw, it wouldn’t
sell, as they say in Hollywood. Doesn’t make them seem savage enough.

Russians thankfully don’t stoop to mocking stories about how we Americans
drop billions a year on totally useless vitamin supplements just because
some quack named Linus Pauling told us to do so, and won a big ol’ award
for it. Which gets to the point: THERE IS NO CURE FOR THE FLU! Duh!

I wrote this response because it seems that the old colonialist attitude
is seeping back into the Western journalist narrative as never before. Up
to August 17th, at least you had two narratives: good reformers versus savage
old commies; or, see how much better we are than the Russians. Now journalists
have done the Vichy/resistance flip-flop and have become harsh critics of
the government here, leaving readers back home with only one narrative to
wash their brains with: how many ways can you paint a Russian as a savage.

You could say that Galina Starovoitova was the last “good guy” pushed on
the home readers, even though she was an irrelevant has-been whose death
had almost no influence on local elections. No matter–she counted to
progressive-minded journalists, who saw in her one of their own. Now, with
Starovoitova gone, Russia’s image better watch out. As Jean MacKenzie wrote
in a November 24th, 1998 installment of her Moscow Times column, “Confessions
of a Russophile,” “the last vestiges of the light that [Starovoitova] was
instrumental in bringing to this dark, savage country are slowly dying out.”

That’s right: even Moscow’s self-proclaimed Russophile openly refers to Russia
as “this dark, savage country.”

Un-Ga-Wa! Bu-ba-goo-wa!

Like Ann Blundy’s recent piece in the Times about how all Russian women are
doomed to a life of prostitution or arm decoration-ness merely because they
aren’t physically bland (as we presume the highly-evolved Blundy is), the
going theme for ’99 seems to be to dig up as many ways as possible to prove
that Russia is an African backwater whose only hope–albeit a futile hope–is
to remake itself into a Western nation.

Which is where the eXile comes in. We’ve decided to up the ante a little
on this whole Russia-bashing thing to offer you, at no extra shame, your
very own ugly colonialist article that will hopefully put this whole matter
to rest. It can be accessed at:

Enjoy. And make sure you eat plenty of hot chicken soup!

05 February 1999, Johnson’s Russia List

Lally/Ames: Russian folk remedies

By Claire Hunt

Voodoo is more widespread than most Americans think, but it’s safe to assume
the Caribbean practice hasn’t reached as far as Moscow. Most Russians don’t
have chicken claw fetishes or routinely stick pins in cottonwool effigies
of their enemies. But, like most Easterners, they are privy to a rich lore
of natural remedies for any number of common ailments, much like the ones
outlined in Kathy Lally’s “Moscow’s Flu War Means Breath-taking Measures.”

Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time in a Russian household, with
its cupboards stocked full of medicinal herbs, hand-picked at the dacha,
knows to what extent Russians, especially Russian women, still rely on
time-honored, natural treatments for anything from flu to fertility.

This is not always dictated by economic necessity. The recent interest in
alternative medicine in the West has proven that many folk remedies, derived
from natural, easily accessible ingredients found in every home, do the trick.
They have nothing to do with superstition. Rather, they are rooted in scientific

Hot liquid – such as tea – does soothe the throat. It also flushes toxins
out of the system. Garlic (like its cousin, onion) is universally touted
as a miracle cure, both for its pungent properties and the potent antibiotic
it contains. And yes – even the sweat and bacteria in a worn pair of socks
can produce vapors strong enough to clear nasal passages.

What most unfortunate dependants on limited Western medicine don’t realize
is that so many of the relatively new, chemical drugs manufactured by a
billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry were originally derived from simple
remedies that had already been in use – in cultures around the globe – for
centuries. Russians love honey, and for good reason: Not only is it an excellent
salve for wounds, when ingested, the sugar in it coats the throat and stifles
coughs – the exact same soothing relief provided by sugary “Hall’s mints,”
for example.

Drugs like Tylenol, Coldrex and Theraflu contain pretty much the same beneficial
ingredients found in a lot of traditional folk remedies that boost the immune
system and help a person get through the flu. They are also larded with harsh,
abrasive chemicals that can potentially rip up your stomach lining, disrupt
your sleep rhythms, and even kill you.

Mark Ames asserts that Russians don’t dare point out Westerners’ over-reliance
on orthodox medicine, such as ineffective vitamin supplements. As a matter
of fact, they certainly do, and often, when faced with a choice between a
well-marketed Western drug and the cure they grew up with, Russians will
invariably opt for the natural way.

Their wealth of babushka folklore is to be envied. The explosion in alternative
medicine studies, institutes, and literature observed in recent years in
the West points towards a serious deficiency in modern, orthodox medicine.
Americans in particular – as practitioners of the single most unhealthy lifestyle
in the industrialized world – are slowly catching on that treatments such
as homeopathy, herbal supplements, aryuveda, and Chinese medicines not only
work well, they work better. I’d be willing to bet Lally’s “Baltimore-area
readers” were more intrigued by her recent piece than by Primakov, and that
many were grateful for the insight. Folk remedies, and a more holistic approach
to health in general, are at last gaining recognition in the West as neither
primitive nor regressive, but as more enlightened – even advanced.

Surely Mark Ames, of all people, would not argue with the assumption that
Russians are more responsive to their bodies’ needs than Westerners. This
is not to say that Russians are any healtheir. Recent reports exposing their
country’s environmental devastation shows they are not. But all the over-priced,
imported chemical drugs in Europe and America can not combat grotesque levels
of pollution – not to mention debilitating emotional stress – any better
than can honey and garlic.

The symptoms of an everyday nuisance like the flu, however, ARE easily treatable,
and you don’t need a thick bankroll to do it. Russians know this, and when
they exhibit a conscious preference for tried-and-true methods over harsh
chemicals, they are not backwards, unlearned, or savage – they’re right.

The Times (UK) April 5 1999

If you buy anything of value, you drink to it.

By Anna Blundy

This applies to cars, fur coats . . . anything the purchaser feels he can’t
afford, if the truth be known

Buy it and you have to obmyt it. Russians are very superstitious people and
any purchase that has not been satisfactorily obmyted is liable to find itself
lost, stolen, vandalised or otherwise rendered useless to the owner.

This superstitious attitude to life is highly infectious, and it takes only
a month or two of residence to find oneself forbidding people from whistling
indoors (you will be penniless for ever), refusing to sit at the corner of
a table (you will never marry), avoiding shaking hands across the threshold
(a bad omen for friendship) and always putting empty bottles on the floor
(not sure about this one, but it is probably something to do with avoiding
confusion in your drunken stupor over which bottles are still of use and
which are not).

The obmytiye, however, is a different issue entirely. As much a tradition
as a mere superstition. A part of national heritage and a process considered
to be a cheap alternative to expensive, and anyway hugely unreliable, insurance.

To the Westerner it can be the cause of great confusion. The first time I
ever came across it (I realised in retrospect) was ten years ago when I was
forced to participate in a vile, drunken evening at a Korean restaurant that
served only mushrooms in soy sauce, and sliced cucumber (there were shortages
in Moscow back then). The entertainment was a strip show that began at 6pm
and involved some bored teenagers in yellow leotards writhing round the largely
empty tables.

Sasha, a terrifying thug, spent the whole evening toasting his new car, which
seemed to me the height of vulgarity and bad taste. It brought out the worst
in me, and, as a kind of anti-materialistic backlash, had me up on my feet
every few minutes making toasts to world peace, the love of my neighbour
and the spirituality in all of us.

It seemed depressing that people who only a year or so earlier had amazed
me with their apparent absence of consumer psychosis and their heightened
appreciation for the finer things in life had so quickly transformed into
the worst kind of suburban American property enthusiasts. Not only was property
suddenly not theft, it seemed to be a human right. Little did I know.

Years later I got off a boat in the Volga town of Togliatti and bought a
ceramic blue and gold fish-shaped decanter with some charming little shot
glasses to match. As I re-embarked, a trumpeter told me I should obmyt the
set later. Since obmyt comes from the words “to wash”, I thought: “He’s right.
I must give it a rinse,” and I wandered off back to my cabin. I had no idea
that he was in fact inviting me for a drink.

It all became clear when a friend recounted a fur-coat-buying trip to Greece.
Olga and her husband had taken a cruise around the Mediterranean with the
object of buying this coat (they are apparently cheaper there than in Russia
and are obligatory winter wear for women here). Safely back en route for
Russia, Olga’s husband spent three days obmyting the coat with some friends
he had made at the bar. I imagined him hanging over the side of this ship
washing it in the sea for three days. When she explained what he was actually
doing, it was even stupider.

Basically, if you buy anything of value you have to drink to it. This is
similar in concept to wetting the baby’s head, but in Russia it applies to
cars, fur coats, televisions and anything else that the purchaser feels he
cannot really afford, if the truth be known.

Obmytiye is taken very seriously indeed here. Another friend of mine recently
had her car stolen and called the police to report the crime. “Did you obmyt
the vehicle, madam?” they asked, as though asking whether or not it was legally
insured. “Actually, no,” she replied. “We had to go away the day after we
bought it and we never got round to it.”

The policemen rolled their eyes, tutted and shrugged their shoulders. They
seemed to be saying: “Why should we investigate the theft of this car when
its very owners cannot be bothered to look after it properly?” Everybody
has proof of the obmytiye – stories about the appalling disasters that befell
items they stupidly neglected.

Now your Western cynic might think that this is just another Russian excuse
for drinking as much as possible, but I attended a fur-coat obmytiye last
week, and sitting around it, drinking champagne and discussing its virtues,
one did feel that even if it did get stolen or lost in the near future, at
least it had been fully appreciated first.