The following bilingual Russian MiniLesson is meant to build your vocabulary by providing Russian phrases within English text. Hover over the bold Russian to reveal its English translation.
According to Russian folk beliefs, нечистая сила (sometimes referred to with the shortened “нечисть”) prefer to settle in evil places or places viewed as conducive to evil.
These can be categorized in several broad categories (not all of which are listed here). One consists of uncivilized places or places not conducive to civilization. These include: дикие места, трущобы, трясина, and непроходимые болота. Another category deals with the concept of предел – where one area crosses to the next. These include развилки дорог, мосты, околицы деревень, края полей, пещеры, ямы, and колодцы.
Crossroads are traditionally considered places of evil across Europe because, in ancient times and into the middle ages, people who died while traveling were traditionally buried at the next crossroad. As the places became associated with death, tales of неупокоенные души, которые скитаются у развилок дорог and of убийцы, которые прячутся в засадах у развилок дорог became common.
Places that are considered опасный are also places that might be haunted. These include пруды and especially водовороты, which are often associated with утопление. Places known for their риск пожара such as места за печью и под ней and the баня are often settings for grizzly tales of evil spirits burning people alive or even flaying off their skin. Хлева, where people are at риск обрушения, are also sometimes inhabited by evil spirits.
Places associated with склад make up another category. This includes емкости с водой, емкости с мукой, погреба, and чердаки. Russians once commonly made the sign of the cross before opening flour jars, for instance, and those that didn’t were sometimes tormented by devils.
There are also certain trees associated with evil, such as верба, орешник, and груша. The beliefs about these trees originate from the particular features of each tree. For example, spoilt hazel nuts turn black inside their shell, as though burnt. Folklore explained this with stories of the trees saving people from lightening or fiery devils by catching the evil forces inside its nutshells. Ancient Slavs would sometimes make circles of hazel wood branches around themselves for protection. Some Russians still consider the hazel nut tree to be a талисман.
Sometimes, the same tree can symbolize both good and evil spirits. For example, a young pussy-willow symbolizes growth, health, fertility and protects from natural calamities, evil spits and disease. At the same time, an old pussy-willow is considered a home or hiding place for черти.
It is not recommended to спать под “нехорошим” деревом or to ломать его ветви. This allows evil spirits to завладеть вашей душой.
One difference between haunted houses in Russian culture and western culture is that sometimes, in Russian culture, houses are haunted not because of a зловещее убийство or other ужасное событие connected with it, but because all homes naturally have spirits in them called the “домовой”. Cats can see the домовой, though humans usually can’t. Some Russians believe that when a cat plays, it is playing with the домовой.
While generally positive or neutral spirits, домовой can become evil if not treated well. When moving to a new house, the домовой should also be invited. If not invited, the home becomes haunted by the slighted домовой, who can be extremely dangerous. Anyone attempting to reside in an заброшенный дом, risks смерть, ранение, or безумие at the hands of the спровоцированного домового. An abandoned home may be abandoned for good reason! Sometimes a home to which people move will already have a домовой, and the домовой that the new residents invited from their old home will fight with this second spirit, causing хаос in the home until one is driven from the house or defeated.
Some places are посещается by духи умерших. The Moscow Kremlin is among one of them – where the ghosts of old Russian czars like Alexander II and Ivan the Terrible have been seen. An official working late one night in 1994 in the room under Lenin’s former office обеспокоили by звуки шагов над ним. Sure that this was Lenin’s ghost, the official stopped staying late at the office for fear of disturbing the spirit.
St Petersburg has many ghosts – Peter the Great has been reported haunting the Winter Palace and the murdered Tsar Paul I haunts Mikhailovsky Castle. The ghost of Sofiya Perovskaya, a Russian revolutionary who is best remembered for her role in assassinating Tsar Alexander II and being the first woman казненная in Russia for political crimes, is often seen on the bridge crossing Ekaterininsky Channel, the purple imprint of the noose still around her neck and the lantern she used to signal her terrorists still in her hand.
The village of Kukoboi is perhaps the place with the greatest concentration of haunted places in Russia. This village, in the Yaroslavsky Oblast (some 200 miles from Moscow), is considered the home of Баба-Яга, an old witch immortalized in Russian fairy tales who, among other things, похищает and sometimes eats children. Kukoboi has several haunted houses, spots, and even a haunted library.
Former World War II battlefields are also known as места скопления духов. Here, many people were killed and often not buried properly, leaving their ghosts to remain on earth. One can reportedly see солдаты-призраки, идущие в бой and shouting “Ура!” while attacking enemies. There are such places in many Russian regions with the most notorious being Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), where more than 3 million people died defending the city, and Myasnoi Bor in the Novgorod region where tens of thousands of soldiers died in the swamps and are, to this day, unburied.