Russian Ghosts and Superstitions
In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the character Svidrigailov gets a visit from the wife he has murdered. “You’ve forgotten to wind the dining room clock,” she tells him. Ghosts in Russia are not always so pragmatic. Some of them are quite frightening.
Some ghosts are part of traditional folklore. One of the most widely-distributed beliefs concerns the rusalka, which can be found in northern and southern Russia, the Ukraine, and Belorus. A rusalka is the ghost of a maiden who has drowned; it can also be the spirit of an anabaptized infant. The rusalka takes the form of a beautiful young woman with a pallid face, wearing a flowing white gown and draped with garlands of flowers, or sometimes it’s a mermaid that can walk on land. The rusalka stalks the fields, accosting young men and luring them to a river and into a beautiful underwater palace, where they drown. The rusalka likes to lure children into the river, too. The drowned victims are then forced to join the rusalka in their underwater dances. There is a story, though, about a peasant who caught a rusalka by tricking it into a magic circle and holding a cross over it. The peasant made the rusalka do chores around the farm, until it finally managed to escape.
Sometimes the rusalka spends most of its time out of the river. There is a story of a monastery in Murom in the eighteenth century. The monks became debauched and committed sins with the rusalka, until Heaven had had enough and caused the monastery to fall into the earth.
Until the 1930’s many Russians observed Rusalka Week, the first week in June. During this week, the rusalka was considered especially powerful, and no one dared go swimming. At the end of the week, the rusalka was driven away with the sign of the cross, garlic, incense, magic charms, and special songs. Then the river was considered safe again.
A little less scary traditional ghost is the domovoy. A domovoy is a household spirit that may live in the oven or near the fireplace, but never goes outside the house. The word “domovoy’ comes from the Russian for “house.’’ It takes the form of a hairy little man, or it my take the form of the house owner’s double. It guards the family and their possessions, and sometimes helps with household chores. Considerate families often leave milk and bread for their domovoy. But beware, it may play pranks like a poltergeist, especially if it’s teased or pestered, or if the family leaves the house in a mess. Beware, also, of domovoy from other households, which may come and do mischief.
People in Russia become ghosts much the same way they do in other cultures; they’ve died violently by murder or suicide or died too young. The Russian Orthodox Church believes that the spirit remains on earth for about forty days after death. Many people believe that a person whose life ends abruptly must remain a ghost until that natural life span is up. Some may stay around much longer. The ghost of Czar Paul the First, murdered in 1801, haunts Mikhailovsky Castle in St. Petersburg. And the sculptor Koslovsky, who died in 1802, knocks on the door of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg late at night. Sometimes he’s heard calling, “Let me in. I got cold and wet in my grave!”
One of the most haunted places in Russia is the ancient Kremlin, the scene of much terror and unhappiness. The ghost of Ivan the Terrible is seen walking on a bell tower, and his footsteps can be heard. He’s no doubt consumed with guilt over the many outrages he committed, which included killing his beloved only son. Ivan did not like his son’s wife, who was often lippy to him. One night, in a violent argument over the wife‘s behavior, Ivan clubbed the young man to death. He was immediately remorseful, and it’s said he was never the same after that, even giving up persecuting his enemies. Ivan’s ghost appeared to various czars, including the last czar, Nicholas the Second. His visits always portended disaster.
The ghost of Lenin was seen in the Kremlin in 1923, although he wasn’t dead yet. He was also not in Moscow when he was sighted. The ghost was walking very fast, although Lenin was ill at the time and could not walk at all without a cane. The apparition was observed by several people. Lenin died three months after this sighting.
When an area in the Kremlin goes cold, that’s said to be a sign that the ghost of Stalin is present. It’s believed that he’s not happy with the way things are going, and wishes he could run the old Soviet Union as he once did. A native of Georgia whose real name was Djugashvili (Stalin means “steel” in Russian) Stalin murdered his way to power in 1924 and ruled as an absolute despot until his death in 1953. He killed millions of Russians who he suspected of opposing him, and millions more died in his harsh labor camps. So if he’s not at rest, it’s not too surprising.
Many unknown souls wander the Kremlin, too, since part of it was built over an old cemetery. They’ve been seen as transparent wraiths, wearing shrouds.
Russia also has some superstitions that concern witches. An American visitor to Tula in 1883 described an incident he found incomprehensible. The women of a small village, finding that some of their cattle had died unexpectedly, determined that a witch was the cause. They decided to find out who it was by their traditional method. The women gathered at night wearing only slips, let their hair down, hitched a horse to a plow, and drove the horse around the village, plowing a circle. They followed the horse in a procession. Whoever crossed the circle was thought to be the witch, and most of the men in the village stayed sensibly in their homes. Unfortunately, one man who had probably had too much to drink wandered across the circle, and the women nearly beat him to death. The writer pointed out that, not only was the poor fellow beaten up, he also had the problem of proving that he was not a witch.
As in many cultures, Russians had a traditional belief in doubles, or doppelganger. The domovoy was sometimes a double of the master of the house. Lenin’s double was seen before his death. And Dostoevsky wrote a short novel called The Double, about a man plagued by his other self.
Russians also had a traditional belief in the evil eye. The word for it is “glaz,” which means “eye.”
Over the centuries, Russian culture has incorporated many elements. Ancient beliefs and long history make for good stories, and Russian ghosts and superstitions have provided them.
Picture from publicdomainpictures.net