As 2015 was drawing to a close and the unravelling conflict in the Middle East (the ISIS, the refugees, the airstrikes, Russia, Turkey, the EU, etc, etc) spiralled deeper into a state that can best be described with expletives, the name of a Bulgarian suddenly hit the international news.
It was Vanga, the blind clairvoyant who died on 11 August 1996.
Suddenly, the less reliable part of the Western media discovered that years ago the woman they were quick to dub "The Bulgarian Nostradamus" had predicted that the Third World War would start in Syria. More of her prophesies were dug up from the Internet, like her prediction of 9/11. The read-and-despair articles also included "prophesies" that were previously unheard of in Bulgaria. Vanga predicted the 2004 tsunami, they claimed. And the use of chemical weapons in Syria. And the appearance of IS. And the complete devastation and depopulation of Europe scheduled for 2016. Soon, a caliphate in Europe, with the capital in Rome, would emerge, according to Vanga.
A quick search uncovered similar claims in a two-year-old anti-American propaganda film thinly disguised as a documentary, made by Russian TV. In it, Vanga is heavily voiceovered with "prophesies" that she probably never meant.
Is Vanga to be believed?
That depends on who you decide to trust. The name of the clairvoyant is shrouded with myths, legends, rumours and tabloid nonsense to an extent that makes it hard to tell the truth from fables, lies and disinformation.
Here are the facts.
Vangeliya Gushterova was born on 31 January 1911, in Strumitsa, in present-day Macedonia. She could see perfectly, but when she was 12 she was picked up by a tornado that carried her far away. When she was found, her eyes were filled with sand. They never healed, and Vanga had to get used to being blind.
Then the visions began.
On 5 April 1941 Vanga saw with her "inner eye" a man "in golden clothing" who told her that on the next day a war would begin and that her job would be to "hold a candle" and proclaim who would live and who would die. On 6 April, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, and soon the Second World War reached Bulgaria. The women from Strumitsa and the surrounding villages quickly learned that if they wanted to know the fate of their loved ones on the front lines, it was Vanga who could give them an answer. Her fame spread and soon her first VIP visitor came – King Boris III himself. Vanga told him to be ready "to go home in a walnut shell" – a prophecy that came true when the king died on 28 August 1943.
On 9 September 1944, a Communist coup imposed a new, openly atheist regime in Bulgaria. Its first years were hard for Vanga. A campaign was launched against "the fortune-teller of Petrich", and documentaries "denounced" her as a fraud. Radio Petrich ridiculed the people who visited her. They even searched her home on alleged charges of espionage for Yugoslavia. State Security kept an eye on every move she made.
Evangelia "Vanga" Gushterova
In the 1960s it all changed, supposedly after Vanga and Todor Zhivkov, the Communist dictator, met. The clairvoyant's fame among the top-brass in the Party and the government grew, and Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of Todor Zhivkov and increasingly a mystic herself, would often consult her. Apparatchiks from the USSR also visited, and Leonid Brezhnev was supposedly among her clients. Vanga's "supernatural powers" were also turned into a source of profit for the government. In 1967, she was appointed to the Institute for Suggestology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences as a "fortune-teller" with a monthly salary of 200 leva. The government took over the organisation of her visits – including the charging of entrance 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 supposedly atheist state.
In 1981, a prediction by Vanga inspired one of the strangest stories of modern Bulgaria. A secret expedition, backed by Lyudmila Zhivkova, followed a description provided by Vanga of the location of a buried sarcophagus on whose walls the history of the world was written "2,000 years before our time and 2,000 years after it." They ended up in the Strandzha mountains at the Golyamo Gradishte peak, and started digging. What they found remains a mystery to this day. The expedition ended in the summer of 1981 following the deaths of the project's sponsors, Lyudmila Zhivkova and the minister of mineral resources. The excavations were eventually blown up and flooded. In the following years rumours circulated about what the expedition had unearthed and what was hidden beneath the cliff at Golyamo Gradishte – the stories range from the grave of the Egyptian goddess Bastet to an alien spaceship.
The broader public learned about these events in the early 1990s, when Krasimira Stoyanova published the first biography of her aunt, an instant bestseller.
As travelling to the border city of Petrich was now easier, more and more people went to Vanga for advice. Her fame increased, boosted by the now free media. Before 1989 Vanga's name was not found in the national media, but now she was all over the TV and the newspapers. She was reverently called a prophetess and was asked to predict the outcome of elections and Bulgaria's future in the 1994 World Soccer Cup. Some of these she guessed correctly, and others she did not, but even at the time it was already hard to know what Vanga had really said, as journalists and acquaintances started to put words into her mouth.
This was how Vanga, an old woman with only a basic education, started using words such as "extraterrestrials" and "immaterial field."
The “Vanga phenomenon” remains unexplained, but theories abound. Those whom she helped to recover their health or talk to their dead relatives consider her a prophet and a saint. Others are convinced that she had contacts with extraterrestrials. The sceptics accuse her of being a charlatan who collected information about her thousands of visitors using a network of spies. According to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, she indeed had supernatural powers, but these came from the Devil and turned her into a weapon of his in the war for the souls of the people.
Vanga spent her final years in Rupite, reportedly because of the mystic atmosphere of the area created by steaming mineral springs, almost Mediterranean greenery and the rising slopes of a former volcano. Now the feel is all but gone, killed by Vanga-themed tourism and overdevelopment
Devil or no devil, when Vanga died in 1996, 15,000 people attended her funeral in Rupite, a locality near Petrich where she spent her final years. The mourners included President Zhelyu Zhelev and almost the entire government. Vanga herself was buried near the huge disappointment of her life, the Sveta Petka Balgarska Church.
Vanga was a firm believer in Orthodoxy and had dreamt of building a church all her life. The chapel was completed in 1994 and was ready to be consecrated, but the Bulgarian Orthodox Church declined to do so on the grounds that the church was completely removed from the canon. Indeed, the pyramidal church designed by architects Tomalevski and Lozanov is covered with non-canonical murals by artist Svetlin Rusev that, among other things, depict Vanga as a saint.
The church was eventually consecrated. Rumour has it that the Holy Synod changed their collective mind after they learned that the clerical authorities of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia were ready to give it the go-ahead themselves.
Today, the place is better known as the Temple of Vanga and is the focus of the cult of the dead clairvoyant. People come, light candles, and pray.
Many of Vanga's old pals are still alive and kicking. Hacks, a number of artists, people with close ties to the former Communist regime who still crave the "good old times" of Lyudmila Zhivkova continue to venerate the blind seer and rarely miss a chance to make a public pronouncement about how rights she was.
Not only Bulgarians visit. Vanga is extremely popular in Russia and many former Soviet republics. This is probably because of her optimistic predictions about Russia's future. In most of her divinations Vanga insisted that Russia would become the world's leading power in 60 years' time. "The new teaching (which will unite the world) will first come from Russia. It will be the first to purge itself," she is reported to have said.
It remains unknown if she really said so but, as savvy Bulgarians know, Vanga's authority has been – and is still – used by politicians and public figures as justification for many things, from establishing populist parties to urging closer ties with Russia and not with the West. The case with her "latest" Syrian predictions is probably just that, an attempt to spread fear among an already scared populace, and to form opinion.
The only difference is that this time the blind clairvoyant from Bulgaria went global.
A room in Vanga's house in Petrich, filled with presents from visitors
WILL IT HAPPEN?
Before the recent boom of "predictions" on the Middle East attributed to Vanga, her only authorised "prophesies" about the region were these:
"Mankind will experience many cataclysms and many turbulent events. Hard times will come and people will split into groups according to their faith. The oldest teaching will reappear in the world. They ask me, ‘Will this time come soon?' No, not soon. Syria has not fallen yet."
And: "Oh, oh, Syria, oh, what is going to happen in Syria! Poor people of Syria, it will be all in ruins."
Here is a list of other cases when Vanga was correct:
- "Remember Prague! Huge powers fly over Prague and cry: 'War! War!," said Vanga, apparently with the 1968 Prague Spring in mind.
- She foretold the Soviet Perestroyka.
- And the disintegration of Yugoslavia: "Yugoslavia will fall to pieces because the Serbs curse God."
- In 1993, she said: "Simeon will return to Bulgaria. After time – before too long – he will come not as a guest. But there'll be no kingdom." Three years later Simeon Saxe-Coburg, the Bulgarian king in exile, visited Bulgaria for the first time since 1945, and went on to become prime minister in 2001.
- "Keep the bread for the people! Hunger is coming!," she warned, thus predicting the 1995 wheat shortages in Bulgaria. Referring to the 1996-1997 economic crisis in Bulgaria, Vanga mused: "Bulgaria will have a war without war! We will go barefoot and in rags, we will be hungry."
- The enigmatic "In August 1999 or 2000, Kursk will be under water and the whole world will bemoan it" baffled her acquaintances for years, because the city of Kursk is not by the sea. And then, in 2000, the eponymous nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea.
- "Terror, terror! The two American brothers are falling pecked by birds of iron. The wolves are howling from the bush [sic] and innocent blood is flowing like a stream," said Vanga in 1960 and her prophecy came true on 11 September 2001.
Often, however, Vanga got the future amazingly wrong. Have a taste:
- "Before 1990, science will make great discoveries in the immaterial field. All hidden gold will resurface, but the water will become scarce."
- "1996 will be good for Bulgaria." As we already saw above, she was definitely not correct.
- And we are happy that her prophesies for 2000: "The teachings of the White Brotherhood will emerge from Russia," and for 2007: "A war between Russia and China, plus a civil war in Russia" were both wrong.
- "We haven't hit rockbottom yet. Bulgaria will start to improve after 2005." The 2000s were a period of unprecedented economic upswing for Bulgaria. Things started falling apart with the beginning of the world economic crisis and the advent of GERB, in 2009.
Young Vangeliya and her husband, Dimitar Gushterov. They met during the Second World War, when Dimitar came to Vanga to ask who were the murderers of his brother. They married soon afterwards
Vanga's meditation room in her house in Petrich, now a museum. The clairvoyant came here to rest and pray after spending hours meeting visitors, listening to their woes, giving advice and, reportedly, predicting their futures and communicating with their dead relatives
Vanga as a saint, a fresco from St Petka Church in Rupite, by Svetlin Rusev who claims to be one of her closest affiliates
In 2011, the Bulgarian Postal Service issued a stamp with Vanga to mark the centenary of her birth