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sat down on the bench, and Nikolai said what sounded like a few prayers in Russian. Then
he noisily opened his plastic grocery bag, arranged four glasses, and poured shots of vodka,
placing one on top of the gravestone.
“It's for my mother. It's Russian tradition to leave a shot for the deceased,” Sergei ex-
plained. Nikolai's eyes filled with tears, and he and Sergei sat quietly for several minutes.
Then we raised our glasses, motioning to the glass sitting atop the gravestone, and drank.
Russian traditions are ubiquitous. In her 2002 book Russian Myths , British scholar El-
izabeth Warner described how for centuries, Russians believed so strongly in pagan cus-
toms—some of them peculiar—that they blended them with Christian Orthodoxy into
what Warner called a “dual faith.” The Soviet government suppressed religion any way it
could—a 1976 article in the London Telegraph detailed the aggressive campaign to con-
vince citizens that religion was “useless superstition.” Russians still yearned for spiritual
encouragement, and one way to find it was to adhere to actual superstitions. You'll find a
mirror right by the front door of many Russian homes. It's bad luck to forget something
after you've left the house. If you do, when you return home to retrieve the item, you have
to look in the mirror on your way out to make sure your image is still there. Another super-
stition: never shake a Russian's hand across a doorway or your friendship will be severed.
Whenever this rule slips my mind at someone's front door, the host will generally yank me
back across the threshold to complete the handshake.
One final tradition that Nikolai passed on to me was one we Americans share: Na
pososhok—“one for the road.” This was one final good-luck shot before Nikolai hugged
me good-bye and sent Sergei and me on our way.
In the following hours I wandered the streets of Donetsk with Sergei, chatting with
voters in conversations I frankly don't remember. It was late afternoon when the ten or so
shots of vodka began to wear off and Sergei and I began meaningful interviews. We spent
hours in the break room at one of Donetsk's mines, an aging brick building where the walls
were sprinkled with Russian Orthodox icons—small pieces of religious art that Russians
often display, especially when they are doing something dangerous. The room was dark,
the smell of coal oppressive. We were surrounded by various hunks of equipment, too old
and dirty even to guess what purpose they served or when they were last used. The workers
sat on wooden stools, still wearing grimy helmets outfitted with flashlights. One man at a
time would speak to us. The others occasionally glanced up but mostly chain-smoked and
paged through photos of naked women in Russian-language Maxim magazines.
Ukraine had gone through political upheaval in recent years. A Western-backed leader,
Viktor Yuschenko, had become president in the 2005 Orange Revolution, an event hailed
by U.S. president George W. Bush as a watershed moment in democracy's march to new
corners of the world. (At the time, I was covering the White House for NPR and saw on
television somewhere close to a million people filling the streets of Kiev, declaring victory
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