Superstitious Russia Trapped in Medieval Age

Before I start this article, let me have a look at my astrological desk calendar. Just in case. Published by the firm Press-service, in a circulation of 1 million copies. That means there are 999,999 other people who can take advantage of this desk magic.

Ah! Moon in Capricorn. Today's a good day for career and business. Good day for starting a new project. That's what I was looking for! Now I can start my article.

Russia is the most superstitious country in Europe. All my friends -- writers, artists, businessmen -- believe in omens. Everyone is afraid if a black cat crosses his path. My wife wears a silver ring with a jasper stone to ward off the evil eye.

Recently on the popular program "Moment of Truth" the host asked Yakov Urinson, the economics minister, one of the most visible reformers in Russia, "Mr. Urinson, are you afraid that anything bad will happen in your relationship with the president?"

"I hope the president is pleased with my work," answered the reformer and -- attention, reader -- knocked on the table with his knuckles, adding with a serious face, "I'll knock on wood just in case, to ward off any evil."

In short, even our progressive minister believes in omens, in jinxes and that knocking on wood will drive away any evil spirits that might harm his and the president's reforms. In America this type of behavior would be impossible, and Clinton probably walks under ladders without giving it much thought. Although all of us remember that scandal involving Nancy Reagan, who wouldn't let her husband enter the Oval Office without consulting an astrologer.

Recently, I was having lunch with a businessman friend. He told me an awful story about what happened to his friends in South Africa. They had leased, for a very small sum, a plot of land somewhere in the mountains where the Africans had once mined diamonds. But the Africans had mined them by hand. The young New Russian businessmen decided to mine the diamonds using the latest technology.

Everything looked promising, but the Russians were warned that the land they had leased was considered sacred by one of the African tribes. The Russians were told that they shouldn't disturb the spirits there, and that the tribe's sorcerers guarded the abandoned mines. That was why they had gotten such an inexpensive lease.

Our friends were spooked, but they didn't show it. They arrived at the site with a group of local white geologists and started their explorations. But every evening around their camp they heard drums beating in the jungle. The sorcerers had set to work.

They beat the drums for a few months and got on the Russians' nerves. Soon the Russians fell ill: one got an ulcer, a second had horrible headaches, a third had liver problems. For three months the Russians endured the bongos, but then they flew off to Moscow, where they all were put into the hospital, diagnosed with severe nervous exhaustion.

In vain does Mr. Urinson knock on wood, trying to drive away evil spirits. God forbid that the African sorcerers find out about this; they could destroy our economy in the blink of an eye with their drums because Russians believe in the power of magic.

But all of this is more sad than ridiculous.

Russians are indeed prone to believe in magic. For too long, decisions in Russia have been made not by the laws of economics, but by the will of the tsar, the wish of the general secretary or, today, by the president. People are in no way insured against the whim of the powers-that-be, or against a bad fate. That's why all sorts of horoscopes and occult literature are so popular. Everyone's trying to see into the future so as not to fall into a government trap. What if, once again, all bank savings evaporate? What if suddenly there's a currency reform?

Moscow's bookstores are piled high with books on magic. It's considered good form among businessmen and bankers to discuss secret plots. Every bank has new buildings blessed with holy water. Why? For the love of Orthodoxy? No, it's the atheists' curse against the black magic of competitors.

No one clinches a deal on the 13th -- it's an unlucky day. And in May, the number of new marriages plummets throughout the country. Why? Because if you're married in mai, May, all of your life you'll mayat'sya, or suffer.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, his portrait appeared without the birthmark on his head. Birthmarks have always been considered a bad sign, and the Party agreed with this.

Cosmonauts take amulets on their flights into space. But the main amulet for warding off evil is lying on Earth in a mausoleum: a dead leader preserving his dead idea.

I have my own explanation for all this. Aside from the idea that Russians try to guard themselves from the whims of the authorities and fate, there is another reason for their superstition.

To this day, Russia remains in essence a medieval country. On a subconscious level our people still live in the 15th century. Time here passes differently than it does in Europe, where the level of civilization has reached the 20th century. The distinguishing feature of the 15th-century human is a simultaneous belief in God as well as in the wood spirit, the witch and the house spirit. Orthodoxy in no way deters this paradoxical combination of black and white.

It's hard for Westerners to understand this paradox. Recently a Western television company broadcast a program about a man who wanted to repent of his sins and set off from Ryazan to a monastery 100 kilometers away, walking on his knees.

The journalists lay in wait for the pilgrim in a field not far from the monastery. The man, wearing an icon around his neck, was having a rough time getting up the hill. The journalists surrounded him and started asking, "Why are you walking on your knees? What horrible thing have you done in your life? What forgiveness are you seeking?"

The man was silent and merely made the sign of the cross in front of the television camera, as is done against the evil eye, and kept crawling across the ground. His knees were covered with blood, his pants torn to shreds.

Nearby a woman was tending her cow. She immediately understood what was going on and told the foreign correspondents that the man wouldn't answer because he had taken a vow of silence and would not say a word until he had crawled to the shrine of Sergy Radonezhsky's relics. There's a picture of the collision of two worlds, the medieval and the modern.

In short, the woman with the cow and the minister in his white shirt and tie know this: You can't understand Russia intellectually. She will remain silent when asked questions.

A medieval atmosphere still reigns in Russia -- let's knock on wood so we don't jinx the reforms.

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose works include "Aron." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.