What it all goes back to is Ukraine's status as a nation full of people who remain intensely close to their rural past. Even the slickest of Kyiv city slickers are only a generation or so removed from the selo, and it's the rare resident of Ukraine's capital who doesn't have a babushka tucked away somewhere in the sprawling hinterlands, raising her own chickens and weeding her own voluminous kitchen garden. And rural people are generally superstitious. In honour of Halloween, then, that holiday saturated with spooks and sinister vibrations, we thought we'd do a little overview of the superstitious and mystical sides of Kyiv, starting with the many (and sometimes puzzling) local guidelines to what sort of behaviour is likely to bring bad mojo down on your unsuspecting head, and have everyone frowning at you like you'd dared to pour yourself a drink. Since drinking is not uncommon in Ukraine, even the greenest ex-pats are likely familiar with the proscription on leaving an empty bottle on the table. It's of course a no no, and could bring ruin on whatever house you're in. But so too is pouring a drink into a glass that's not solidly sitting on a table or some other surface - that's why your host, in dealing you another shot, will always take your glass from your outstretched hand and place it on the table before he dispenses the precious dram. In emergency situations, when there's simply no stable surface handy (you're on a boat, perhaps), you'll be asked to make a little "table" under the glass with your upturned palm. Whatever it takes.
In fact, there are so many gestures in Ukraine that can lead to disaster that it's wonder any of us are still alive. Others include: shaking hands over a threshold; taking the garbage out after dark; leaving your keys on a table; giving someone who isn't dead an even number of flowers (this is actually an important one in a country in which people give each other flowers all the time, for birthdays and International Women's Day and so on); giving a handkerchief, a mirror, or an empty purse as a gift; making borshch on Thursday (could that be true or was our source putting us on?); celebrating your birthday before it officially comes; remrning to your house after you've already left (though you can mitigate the dire potential effects of this mistake by changing yourclothing when you go back, or by glancing in the mirror); throwing breadcrumbs in the trash; lighting a cigarette from a candle; and sitting on cold stones (this last might not only be superstition, but also driven by the peculiarly Eastern European fear of infertility). In addition, you should settle all your debts by New "bear's Eve to avoid financial disasterin subsequent years (good advice, that, actually), never sit at the corner of a table if you’re female, and send a cat into your new house before you enter it yourself. The latter has to do with the rural Ukrainian belief in house spirits, or domovyki, potentially benign entities that intercede with the ghosts of your dead ancestors and just generally take care of things. Apparently felines get along with them quite well. On the other hand, there are also things you can do to improve your chances of success and survival. It’s good luck to break dishes, for instance, and spitting over your shoulder three times is a local equivalent to the practice of knocking on wood. Seeing a pig in the street is also good luck, though not the sort of thing that’s especially likely to happen in central Kyiv. The suburbs are another matter.
Ukrainians, then, are heirs to an ancient peasant culture of stupefying richness, one that’s saturated with magical thinking and intermixed with a residual paganism that persists in Ukraine, side by side with the prevailing Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Those above-mentioned house spirits are a good example of that. They’re holdovers from the original pantheon of gods that pagan inhabitants of the lands of Rus used to worship before Christianity took over, just about a thousand years ago. Visit the deepest recesses of rural Ukraine, particularly in the Carpathian mountains, and you’ll find that elements of paganism are right out in the open, especially among the elderly. As the oft-repeated line has it, life is hard, and people need all the divine intervention they can get. Thus the persistent belief not only in domovyki, but in all sorts of magical entities. Witches, for example, are also a popular motif in the folk culture. Not all witches are bad – get sick, and a babka vorozhka just might cure you with her life-giving herbs and potions. Then there are lisovyky (woodland spirits) and bolotianyky (swamp spirits) that frolic and make mischief in the Ukrainian countryside. Visit a gorgeous Carpathian hollow on a beautiful autumn night, and you’ll understand why a belief in magic and enchantment has managed to stay alive. It’s not only the hinterlands, however, that are filled with enchanted or haunted places. So is Kyiv – not surprisingly, perhaps, given that the capital itself used to be a pagan capital. The place is still said to be saturated by supernatural energies. Every ex-pat knows that the ‘Bald Hill’ complex of hills behind the Historical Museum, near the top of Andriyivsky Uzviz, is a place of deep mystical significance to Kyivites. It’s where pagan masses and assorted other witchery used to take place during the pre-Christian era, which is why the location still draws devotees of the Native Faith movement that’s trying to revive paganism in the Slavic countries – not to mention, especially on Halloween, lots of goth kids hanging around campfires while they play guitars and do god knows what else besides. Superstitiously-minded Kyivites will tell you that the Bald Hill area irradiates, for reasons that seem part geological and part mystical, an intense spiritual energy that’s not always positive. Others will tell you flatly that the place is under a curse that goes back to the medieval Mongol invasions, when Kyivites barricaded themselves in caves, and were murdered en masse, right on the spot. It’s no wonder that Mikhail Bulgakov, who grew up on the Uzviz a short walk from Bald Hill, saturated his greatest novel, The Master and Margarita, with all sorts of satanic energies. They were in the air he grew up in. Sofiyivska Ploshcha, in front of the gorgeous cathedral, is another area rumoured to exude a sinister energy. That’s probably why the notorious ‘White Brotherhood’ suicide cult chose it as the location for their ultimately unconsummated ‘end of the world’ mass suicide back in the weird autumn of 1993.
"Geopathogenic" - cursed is another way to put it - zones abound in kyiv, if you take the word of the right people. They`re rumoured to be hell on drivers, attracking more traffic accidents and pedestrian killings than other spots. One of these zones is said to be the intersection of Pushkinska and Shevchenko Boulevard. Other zones that city centre-hugging ex-pats are likely to come across are the intersection of Kominterna and Shevchenko Boulevard; and Prospect Pobedy, around house number 64. Mystically-minded locals say these spots are characterised by energy ‘breaks’, where the flow of mystical power is broken up, with potentially dire consequences. But it’s on the Andriyivsky Uzviz, with its proximity to the “cursed” pagan zones of the pre-Christian city, that stands Kyiv’s one and only authentically haunted building, the so-called ‘House of Richard the Lion-Heart.’ Located at Number 15, the house was built a little over a hundred years ago as an elegant family residence. It’s got the requisite dark backstory for a haunted house, given that one of the rich men associated with the property was killed in the Far East under mysterious circumstances. But even more importantly it’s got a good haunted atmosphere. For years after the house was built, local residents were spooked by the eerie sighing that seemed to emerge from the structure’s depths – a ghostly, infernal keening. There were even calls for the building to be wrecked. Then it emerged that the sound was merely due to a peculiarity of its piping system. Still, ask many in the neighborhood if the house is really haunted and you’re likely to get a confident yes. On Bulgakov’s home street, nothing should get in the way of a good, dark story.