by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

21st Century Bulgarians are still in grip of 'prophetess' myth

A monument to Vanga.jpg

Bulgaria's destiny is to be the friend of Russia. It will overcome its current difficulties when the Saints 40 Martyrs Church in Tarnovo is restored and the ancient gold treasures are found. And a man will come and set everything straight in Bulgaria, ending that stupid game, democracy.

The paragraph above is of course gibberish, yet the ideas expressed in it have been a staple of both tabloid and "serious" Bulgarian media for the past 25 years for one simple reason. They were propagated, or "sources" allege they were, by Vanga, a blind clairvoyant who supposedly never got the future wrong. She died in 1996, without ever writing down any of her predictions, but nevertheless new "prophecies" made by her still pop up, released to the hungry public by some of Vanga's relatives and admirers. They usually claim that Bulgaria should stick with Russia, that Bulgarians are a chosen people and that a saviour will arrive, one day.

Many believe. Why? Because Vanga said so.

Vanga and her husband, Dimitar GushterovVanga and her husband, Dimitar Gushterov

The Vanga phenomenon is one of the oddest events in Bulgaria under Communism and through democracy. To understand it is to know intimately the bizarre mixture of poor man's common sense and the fascination for treasure hunting, the unique mixture of Orthodox Christianity and pagan superstition, the ubiquitous love for conspiracy theories and the at times bewildering refusal to face up to reality that characterise Bulgaria and the Bulgarians.

The woman who spoke with the souls of the dead, healed the sick and predicted the future was born on 31 January 1911 in Strumitsa, now in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Her name was Vangeliya Pandеva. Little Vangeliya was a girl like everyone else, except for her strange propensity to pretend that she was blind and to find her way around by touching objects. One day, when she was 12, she was caught up in and carried away by a whirlwind. When Vangeliya was finally found, she had gone completely blind from the sand that had filled her eyes.

Vanga Superstar: In the early 1990s Vanga was often shown on TV with visiting intellectuals and dignitaries

Vanga Superstar: In the early 1990s Vanga was often shown on TV with visiting intellectuals and dignitaries

Vanga spent several years in a facility for blind girls, and then returned home to help her family. Gradually, her strange powers of divining hidden truths became apparent and the day came when she saw with her "inner vision" a horseman. "Listen to what I'm telling you," the horseman said. "The war is starting tomorrow, and you will keep a candle lit and will tell who is alive and who is dead."

The next day, 6 April 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. Bulgaria was not involved in combat, but being an ally of Germany it was given to administer Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia. According to the official biography of Vanga, a huge number of villagers went to the blind seer to enquire about their relatives' whereabouts.

The fame of Vanga's infallibility grew, and Bulgarian King Boris III himself consulted her. She told him: "You should be ready to get into a nutshell. Remember the date 28 August." The king died on that date, in 1943.

By that time Vanga was already living in Petrich with her husband, Dimitar Gushterov. The two met in 1942, when he came to ask her who had killed his brother. Vanga spent the greater part of her life in Petrich, predicting the future for ordinary Bulgarians and dignitaries in a humble two-storey house, which is now a museum.

Vanga prompted ecstasy in visitorsVanga prompted ecstasy in visitors

Interestingly, even after the Communists took over Bulgaria in 1944 and forcibly imposed atheism and banned clairvoyants and others labeled as charlatans, Vanga continued her work. Her popularity grew, spread by word-of-mouth. It was understandable. Deprived of the solace of official religion, Bulgarians – whose pagan tendencies had never been completely uprooted – found in Vanga an unofficial outlet for their spiritual longings and hopes of a better life. Gradually, the words Baba Vanga kaza, or "Auntie Vanga said," whispered between friends, became the sign of truth, even for those who had never visited her in faraway Petrich.

Possibly the only town in Europe which has a street named after a seer. Vanga Street in Petrich is where she used to live and receive visitorsPossibly the only town in Europe which has a street named after a seer. Vanga Street in Petrich is where she used to live and receive visitors

In 1967, the authorities realised that if they could not stop people from visiting Vanga, they at least could control the unwanted interest in the clairvoyant. Vanga was appointed to the Institute for Suggestology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences as a "fortune teller," with a monthly salary. The government took over the organisation of her visits – including the collection of "consultation" fees, which flowed directly into the state and local budgets. Thus, Vanga became the first and possibly only "official" clairvoyant to be employed by a Communist state. Or by any state, for that matter.

The presence of the DS, or State Security, around Vanga was heavy and there are strong suspicions that her house was bugged. Some speculate that the "phenomenal" knowledge Vanga had about the personal lives of her visitors was due to intelligence collected by DS officers. Was Vanga herself a DS agent? She could have been, but a search of the former State Security archives found not a single trace of her.

The connections between Vanga and the regime went even farther. Lyudmila Zhivkova, Minister of Culture and daughter of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, was fascinated by occultism and mysticism, and became a frequent visitor to Vanga. It was through Zhivkova that a group of well-connected intellectuals, including painter Svetlin Rusev and rhythmic gymnastics trainer Neshka Robeva, were introduced to Vanga. Their relationship continued after Zhivkova's death in 1981.

Vanga's bedroom in her house, now a museum run by the local city councilVanga's bedroom in her house, now a museum run by the local city council

Rumour has it that, in the 1970s-1980s, Soviet dignitaries, too, visited Vanga, but Todor Zhivkov himself never believed her "prophesies."

Under Communism, people knew about the supernatural abilities of Vanga largely through word-of-mouth, but after the fall of the regime in 1989 the clairvoyant became a superstar.

Once not to be seen in the government-run media, Vanga was now all over the newspapers and TV, openly meeting politicians, businessmen and intellectuals. A film was made about her and a biography, written by her niece Krasimira Stoyanova, became a bestseller. Vanga was consulted on important questions such as elections outcomes and the 1994 World Cup.

By this time, Vanga was already in her sunset days, and was living in a small house she had built in Rupite, near Petrich. The area is a surreal place. Hot sulphur springs fill the air with their stench and steam, amid the slopes of Kozhuh Planina, or Fur Coat Mount, a former volcano. According to Vanga, the place is a "centre of energies."

Multimedia at a new museum to Vanga, in RupiteMultimedia at a new museum to Vanga, in Rupite

It was here, in the final years of her life, that Vanga became the centre of a full-blown scandal. In 1994, Vanga, who was an ardent Christian, built a church to St Petka in Rupite. The architectural plan, however, and especially the murals by Svetlin Rusev, ran counter to the Orthodox cannon to such a degree that the Bulgarian Church refused to consecrate it. Indeed, Rusev had painted Vanga not as a benefactor, but in a manner that suggested she was a saint.

Eventually, the Bulgarian Church gave in after a bishop from Macedonia declared that he would proceed with the consecration. Vanga, however, was devastated.

She died in 1996, and was buried next to the church. A crowd of politicians, state dignitaries and even some foreign ambassadors attended her funeral, including the then president, Zhelyu Zhelev.

Vanga's grave and Rupite became a centre of pilgrimage. The once peaceful area is now divided by a wall, encircling the church and Vanga's house, which in 2014 was opened as a museum. A giant cross is carved on the slopes of the mountain. Miracles are reported. The stories of what "Auntie Vanga said" are growing. Strangely enough, they often serve current political agendas. The first sentence of this article, for example, is taken from an 2014 interview with Neshka Robeva, who is now the director of a patriotic dance show of the Lord of the Dance ilk and supports the Bulgaria Without Censorship political party.

Vanga's living room in Petrich. The house is crowded by toys, drawings, china, and other tidbits given to Vanga as presents by Bulgarian and foreign visitorsThe Ss 40 Martyrs Church was restored and there was a surge of archaeological finds, but nevertheless Bulgaria is still in a deep political, economic and moral crisis. However, it is one of those predictions which were rumoured after Vanga's death. The prediction for the saviour is the only one in the opening paragraph of this article, which was revealed in Vanga's lifetime.

For ordinary people, Vanga predicted the future correctly. The list of her "prophecies" include the disintegration of the USSR, the return of the exiled Bulgarian King Simeon II, the sinking of the Kursk submarine and the death of Princess Diana.

As with the Delphi oracle and Nostradamus, however, Vanga's "prophecies" are ambiguous and open to interpretation – and there is the question of their authenticity. Often, words too sophisticated for an elderly woman without formal education are put into Vanga's mouth, for example: "Every nation has a star which charges it with light energy. But there are exceptions. Some nations have a planet instead of a star and one day these nations will not survive. They will suffocate in the unusual atmosphere of these planets. A nation which has a planet instead of a star will disappear. Bulgaria has not a star, but a whole constellation."

How Vanga came up with her prophesies is a question without an answer. She claimed she received them from spirits, or extraterrestrials. A scientific survey done during Communism proved that Vanga predicted correctly only half of the time, within the statistical margin of error.

For the official Church, Vanga was at best a charlatan and at worst possessed by demons, a dangerous woman who duped many weak souls and introduced neo-paganism into Bulgaria. The St Petka Church, however, continues to function and, according to the foundation which manages the property, there will soon be a "monastic quarters" beside it.

Meanwhile, what looks like the formation of a cult of Vanga continues to thrive. The Russian TV series, Vangeliya, was broadcast by Bulgarian National Television in 2014. The signposts to the Rupite church read "To the Vanga Church" and few people seem to object to this ambiguous meaning.

Vanga's appeal is unlikely to disappear in the near future. Bulgarians have been Christians since the 9th Century, yet their spirituality was always mixed with a hefty dose of paganism. The official atheistic policy of Communist Bulgaria only made that worse, spawning an interest in all things occult. And there is another thing which makes Vanga irresistible. Her prophesies are all about Bulgaria's superiority, the divine mission of the Bulgarians in the universal scheme of things, and the bright future which awaits everyone who does not "sell himself to American money" and stays close to Russia.

For a Bulgarian, wasting his life and hopes in a decade-long crisis, what's not to love in these words?

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.


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