Baba Vanga’s Afterlife in Russia: Reception, Construction, Instrumentalization

Author: Viktoria Vitanova-Kerber

The “Bulgarian Nostradamus,” the “Pythia of Petrich,” or more conventional “Grandmother Vanga” (Baba Vanga) – many names have been attributed to the clairvoyant, healer, and recent internet celebrity Vangeliya Gushterova (1911–1996). Born in poverty, growing up with a disability, and living through two World Wars and three political systems – despite or perhaps because of her turbulent life, corresponding to the classical hagiographical narrative of a seer’s biography (Valtchinova 2006, 328), the blind clairvoyant became one of the most popular Bulgarians of all times. Regardless of her framing by the authorities consecutively as a charlatan (1950s), a healer (1960s–1980s), or an orthodox specialist (1990s), thousands of people consulted her throughout her life seeking information about dead relatives, mysterious illnesses, personal and professional problems, and desires (Valtchinova 2007, 16f).

Vanga’s real fame, however, came with her appropriation by mass media after the fall of the socialist regime in Bulgaria in 1989 (Valtchinova 2010, 254), and I would argue that it has not yet peaked. This medialization, which turned the clairvoyant into a contemporary Internet “star” since the mid-1990s, enabled her popularization abroad, especially in Russia and in the ex-USSR, where best-sellers, numerous TV shows, and even a series on the state-funded Channel One (Pervyi kanal) are being dedicated to her nowadays in addition to the materials, already published in Soviet times. Moreover, Vanga is the main character of numerous Internet memes and has inspired even the invention of the verb – vangovat’ – humorously meaning “to predict” (Krongauz 2016). Indicative of Vanga’s significance for Russian popular culture is the expression “How should I know, do I look like Baba Vanga to you?” commonly used to reply to questions that no one could know the answer to.[1]

Another example of Vanga’s sustained popularity in Russia is the Biggest Encyclopedia of the Clairvoyant Vanga – an ambitious book series published in 11 volumes (out of 20 planned) by the former Russian-Bulgarian journal Druzhba between 1998 and 2002. As revealed in the online version of the encyclopedia, created by the journalist, writer, and scholar Anatolii Bogdanovich, the book series aimed at offering not just a biography but a “systematized scientific understanding of the phenomenon of the clairvoyant,” based on the “empirical evidence” of Bulgarian parapsychologists. The online encyclopedia contains biographical information about the seer, list of prophesies, testimonies of witnesses, photo and video materials, systematic collection of Vanga’s opinion on different subjects like “god,” “the church,” or “Russia” and even “Vanga’s horoscope.” Additionally, there is information on everyday topics like “Vanga’s recipes” and a guide for interpreting dreams (sonnik). Today, despite Vanga’s even more substantial fascination among Russians, the encyclopedia’s website is abandoned and dysfunctional, and most of the materials are unavailable.

It is important to note that there is not one homogenous discourse on Vanga in Russia but somewhat different discourse strands. The clairvoyant is an essential reference for conservative but also for religious (related to New Age, Agni Yoga, or even Russian-Orthodoxy) individuals and groups. This blog post will trace one dominant strand of Vanga’s reception in today’s Russia, which goes hand in hand with processes of creative interpretation or invention of facts, events, and predictions, as well as an overall politicization and a tendency towards instrumentalization of Vanga’s image for conspirative, conservative, and antiliberal ideas. Moreover, I will demonstrate how, considering Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, Vanga is being used to legitimize aggression and create hostility towards “the West” in the public sphere.

The works of two Russian public figures – the journalist Sergei Vlasov (1950–2012) and the writer Valentin Sidorov (1932–1999) give indications that Vanga was (well-) known in Russia before the demise of the Soviet Union. For instance, Vlasov’s collection of essays on “human phenomena” The School of Geniuses (1992) puts the Bulgarian clairvoyant in what can be called a Russian ‘pantheon’ of modern New Age stars together with the healer Dzhuna, the hypnologist Vladimir Raikov, the “psychic healer and charismatic teacher” Igor Charkovskii (Ozhiganova 2021, 39), and the spiritual “teacher” Porfiry Ivanov among others. This was not Vlasov’s first publication about Vanga – already in 1982, he wrote an article about his meeting with the seer for the November issue of the journal Bulgaria’s Lights (Ogni Bolgarii) (Vlasov 1992, 147). As a correspondent of the famous Ogoniok magazine for twelve years, Vlasov was a renowned public figure. His appreciation of the Bulgarian seer seriously contributed to her establishment in the Russian public sphere. It also expressed the overall high interest in New Age spirituality at that time (Menzel 2012, 161ff).

Cover of Sergej Vlasov’s book
“School of Geniuses,” 1992

The writer Valentin Sidorov, who personally met Vanga twice, also played a pivotal role in her reception in post-Soviet Russia. In 1979, he was introduced to the seer by Bulgarian cultural minister Liudmila Zhivkova (1942–1981), whom he befriended over their shared fascination with the Russian artist and theosophist Nikolai Roerich (1874–1947). Sidorov was associate with the son of Nikolai Roerich – Sviatoslav – and was a prominent adherent of Roerich’s teaching Agni Yoga in the Soviet Union and later in Russia. In the late 1970s, under Zhivkova’s command, Agni Yoga had reached the status of official state policy in Bulgaria (Ivanova 2018; Vitanova-Kerber 2021). In this context, parapsychology was implemented to research Vanga’s alleged psychic abilities and their potential use for intelligence in the Cold War (Ostrander and Schroeder 1970, 223ff). In his book Liudmila and Vangeliia, published 1992 Sidorov wrote about his contacts and conversations with Zhivkova, which were centered around Agni Yoga, as well as about him meeting Vanga and sharing her predictions about Russia. Later, in 2009, this book was reprinted under another title Vanga. Russia. 2010, 2012, 2019, 2039. Sidorov’s texts were enthusiastically received in Russia, and he was broadly cited, for example, in the Encyclopedia of Vanga.

According to Sidorov, Vanga foresaw a glorious future for Russia:

Only one thing will remain intact – the glory of Vladimir. […] Russia, old and new at the same time, is destined to pass through the hotbed of a new, fiery baptism and must become – in the words of Vanga – “ruler of the whole world.” “Like an eagle Russia will rise above the earth – these are the literal words of Grandmother Vanga – and will overshadow the whole earth with her wings.” Her [Russia’s] spiritual primacy is recognized by everyone, including America. But this will not happen suddenly. According to Vanga, it will happen in sixty years. (Sidorov 1992, 15)

Although the author further clarified that Vanga meant Vladimir of Novgorod (958–1015), to whom the Christianization of the Kievan Rus is often attributed, today this reference is often related to Vladimir Putin, for example in English-speaking online media. Sidorov underlined the spiritual kind of the allegedly predicted Russian “primacy” over America, and yet an aftertaste of the Cold War binary rhetoric of competition and rivalry remains. Since there is no official record of what Vanga really said or did, all claims to present “Vanga’s predictions about…” are rather apocryphal and should be taken with a grain of salt, Sidorov’s included. Since “fire” – a central symbol in Agni Yoga – was a permanent feature of the author’s vocabulary, it is unclear whether he did not break the words of the clairvoyant through the prism of his own beliefs. The “fiery baptism” is also a classical term in Agni Yoga marking the beginning of a new and spiritually advanced era.

In contrast to this glorious future of Russia, Vanga supposedly foresaw difficult times for all mankind:

Cities and villages will crumble from earthquakes and floods, natural disasters will shake the earth, bad people will prevail. […] Questionable and insecure relationships will be created between people […]. (Sidorov 1992, 18)

Despite touching upon some (geo-)political topics, Sidorov’s book is primarily a demonstration of his spiritual interest in theosophy, psychic phenomena, and New Age. It thus cannot be qualified alone as an example of political propaganda. Even so, it was a point of departure for the next generation of Russian “Vanga experts” emerging in the public sphere in the last ten years. These took the trademark, which Vanga had become, to a political level. Receiving Sidorov’s works as the only available “first-hand” testimony of Vanga’s predictions about Russia, they exaggerated, complemented, and reinterpreted the information (once again) until it suited the dominant narratives of today’s Russian identity politics: national grandeur, anti-westernism, and conservation of the “traditional values” of eastern-orthodox Christianity as opposed to the “rotten” liberal values of “the West.”

The most prominent example of the new generation of Russian self-proclaimed “Vanga experts” is the journalist Sergei Kostornoi (*1957), better known as “kum Vangi,” meaning “Vanga’s best man.”[2] Allegedly, Kostornoi learned about the seer from his friend, the former president of Kalmykia and of the World Chess Federation Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (*1962) in 1995. The oligarch, sanctioned for supporting Assad’s regime in Syria and claiming to have been abducted by aliens himself,  not only had “friendly relations”  with Vanga but was cast to play himself  in the popular biographical series about her – Vangeliia. The Hollywood-like movie develops an asynchronous plot, skipping back and forth between the present (2000) and the past (1931–1953) to tell the seer’s life story. Before the background of a love story, intertwined with a Russian intelligence operation against the Gestapo, it presents a compilation of Vanga’s most infamous alleged prophesies like the outbreak of the Second World War (and Russia’s win over Germany), Stalin’s death, the explosion of the “Kursk” submarine, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and her own death. While reproducing the Second World War rhetoric of “us” (the Russians) against “them” (the Germans), the series presents Vanga’s life as strongly tied to Russia. While she is portrayed to have used her talent to help her best friends (Russians) in their private affairs, and having friendlily consulted politicians like Boris Yeltsin, Dmitrii Medvedev, and the abovementioned Kirsan Iliumzhinov, Vanga’s meeting with Hitler in the series ends in hostility. The co-production of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian film companies was released on behalf of Channel One in 2013 and was shown in Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Israel, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Commercial for the show “Vangelia,”
director Sergei Borchukov, 2013.

Actively frequenting the Russian TV broadcast with “long forgotten tapes” of Vanga, allegedly revealing unknown predictions, Sergey Kostornoi disseminates conservative nationalistic ideas and conspiracy theories. I will give some examples of his media presence in the last years without any claims of exhaustiveness.

On June 17th, 2021, he gave an “exclusive interview” for the Youtube Channel Hayasa, with almost 80 thousand subscribers. In its self-description, it is a “cultural and educational channel” created in 2012 in the United Kingdom. However, all the contents are in Russian and deal with political topics, often related to Armenia, spreading pro-Russian propaganda. The sensational title of the interview “Slavic Union. Fall of Turkey. World Government. New revelations of Vanga” allegedly had to reveal “previously unknown prophecies” of Vanga. Kostornoi addressed typical conspiracy theories like the formation of a “world government,” combined with a supposed “collapse of the European Union” and the “creation by Russia of the mighty Slavic union, which will include Greece and Bulgaria.” Kostornoi was a guest at Hayasa two more times, claiming to talk on Vanga’s behalf about political and spiritual issues like “who sent us the Covid pandemic,” “when did society enter the fifth dimension,” and a “cross would be hung over Constantinople again.”

On May 21st, 2022, three months after Vladimir Putin’s troops attacked Ukraine, Kostornoi participated in Channel One’s talk show “As a matter of fact” (Na samom dele), claiming that Vanga had predicted “a big war” in the Kursk region. He developed an anti-Western narrative according to which the seer had warned the Ukrainians to “stop surrendering to the West” and had foreseen the coming of the “green master, to whom all of Europe will applaud” and who would “lead the whole [Ukrainian] country to (the) ruins.” Claiming to quote Vanga, Kostornoi concludes by yelling, “The green master will be the Last Ruler of Ukraine. The Last!”

The collective West turned Ukraine into its marionette and wanted to use it to attack Russia. For eight years, the West did everything to ensure that the bloody fratricidal war in the Donbass would not stop so that the women and children of Donbass continued to die for their freedom from the ocean masters of Ukraine. Vanga warned that all this would lead to events that would turn the world upside down. (Kostornoi, 21.05.23)

Тhe show must have been a success since only a week later, on May 28th, 2022, Kostornoi was invited again to present his new finding: a “lost” tape of Vanga from 1995. The topic of “the West” was deliberately continued by the show’s writers, who invited the director of the Russian orthodox brotherhood Radonezh Evgenii Nikiforov (*1955). Together with the businessman and Putin’s supporter Konstantin Malofeev (*1974), he is also a co-founder of the orthodox-nationalist media channel Tsargrad TV. In the show Nikiforov spreads the conspiracy myth of the Covid-19 virus being created in a laboratory as a chemical weapon, then comments on the “moral decay of the world,” allegedly coming from the USA’s “radical liberalism.” Another guest, a lawyer, adds that in England “gender ideology” and “sodomy” have long been part of normality. All participants agree that Vanga has predicted that Russia will stop this.

To summarize: Similar to other New Age actors like Anatolii Kashpirovskii (*1939) and Evgeniia Davitashvili “Dzhuna” (1949–2015), the Bulgarian clairvoyant Vanga became popular during late socialism. However, in contrast to them, Vanga’s popularity in Russia continuously rose after her death, and it is safe to say that today it is exceeding the attention she gets in her homeland. Vanga’s case is a demonstration of how some key characteristics of New Age spirituality – being oral, performative, and esoteric (here meaning: fully accessible only for those who witnessed or experienced it themselves) – enabled it turning to an “empty signifier” for practically anything in Russia’s (state-controlled) public sphere. When modern “experts” successfully claimed the rights to interpret Vanga’s alleged prophecies, they invented facts or twisted the scarce historical sources to fit their own political views or interests. Anything, no matter how bizarre, can be publicly expressed and taken at face value if “Vanga has said it,” as she lends it a metaphysical authority. Thus, any position becomes an argumentum ab auctoritate – in this case, a highly revered power that cannot be disproven. This is how, in the process of conservative political propaganda, the seer can continuously be instrumentalized to legitimize anti-democratic ideas.


[1] I thank Anna Tessmann and Svetlana Barzukova for these remarks.

[2] Kostornoi’s “honorary title” dates to an anecdote about him visiting the clairvoyant in her house in Rupite in 1995, a year before she died. Her female relative was about to get married, and Vanga, who was a witness at the wedding (“kuma”), supposedly invited Kostornoi to be a male witness “kum.” Provided this is a true story, it makes the Russian journalist a “kum” of Vanga’s niece and not a “kum Vangi,” as he likes to introduce himself.

Primary sources

“22.2.22: что еще предсказала Ванга?” На самом деле. May 21, 2022. https://www.1tv.ru/shows/na-samom-dele/vypuski-i-dramatichnye-momenty/22-2-22-chto-eshe-predskazala-vanga-na-samom-dele-vypusk-ot-21-05-2022

Mandzhieva, Baira. “Former President of Kalmykia and Movie ‘Vangelia’.” Republic of Kalmykia Southeast Europe. September 29, 2013. http://www.kalmykia.net/2013/former-president-of-kalmykia-and-movie-vangelia/#more-4490

“Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: ‘Two predictions of Vanga have not yet come true.’” Khirsan Ilymzhinov Information Portal. June 6, 2018. https://kirsan.today/en/archive/item/2362-kirsan-ilyumzhinov-two-predictions-of-vanga-have-not-yet-come-true.html

Letters of Helena Roerich Vol. 1: 1929–1935” Agni Yoga Society. https://web.archive.org/web/20170210212205/http://agniyoga.org/ay_en/Letters-of-Helena-Roerich-I.php

“The Series “Vanghelia”: Actors and Roles Performed by them.” Paulturner Mitchell. https://paulturner-mitchell.com/49977-serial-vangeliya-aktery-i-roli-imi-ispolnennye.html

“Большая энциклопедия Ванги, онлайн версия,” https://vanga.ru/

“Власов Сергей Михайлович, Командор Международного Ордена Константина Великого в России.” Международный объединенный биографический центр. http://www.biograph.ru/index.php/whoiswho/17-society/1338-vlasovsm

“Найдено новое предсказание Ванги.” На самом деле. May 28, 2022. https://www.1tv.ru/shows/na-samom-dele/vypuski-i-dramatichnye-momenty/naydeno-novoe-predskazanie-vangi-na-samom-dele-vypusk-ot-28-05-2022

“Славянский союз. Лекарство от рака. Мировое правительство. Падение Турции. Новые откровения Ванги,” HAYASA. June 17, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFonmm7uAUg&ab_channel=HAYASALIVE

Ostrander, Sheila, and Lynn Schroeder. Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall (1997 New York: Marlowe & Co), 1970.

{Sidorov} Сидоров, Валентин. Людмила и Вангелия: Повесть. Международная ассоциация “Мир через культуру,” 1992.

Youtube Channel HAYASA, https://www.youtube.com/@HAYASALIFE

References

Ivanova, Veneta. Occult Communism: Culture, Science and Spirituality in Late Socialist Bulgaria. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2017.

{Krongauz} Кронгауз, Максим, ред. Словарь языка интернета.ru. Москва: Аст-Пресс Книга, 2016.

Menzel, Birgit. “Occult and Esoteric Movements in Russia from the 1960s to the 1980s.” In The New Age of Russia. Occult and Esoteric Dimensions, ed. by Birgit Menzel, Michael Hagemeister and Bernice Glatzer-Rosenthal, 151–185. München; Berlin: Otto Sagner, 2012.

Ozhiganova, Anna. “Giving Birth to a Baby Dolphin. Esoteric Representations of Human-Dolphin Connections in the Late Soviet Waterbirth Movement.” Baltic Worlds 4(2021): 39–49.

Valtchinova, Galia. “State Management of the Seer Vanga. Power, Medicine, and the Remaking of Religion in Socialist Bulgaria.” In Christianity and Modernity in Eastern Europe, ed. by Bruce R. Berglund and Brian Perter-Szucs, 245–267. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010.

Valtchinova, Galia. From Postsocialist Religious Revival to a Socialist Seer and Vice Versa: The Remaking of Religion in Postsocialist Bulgaria. Working Paper No. 98. Halle/Saale: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, 2007.

Valtchinova, Galia. Balkanski iasnovidki I prorochitsi ot XX Vek [Bulgarian clairvoyants and prophetesses of the 20th century]. Sofia: Bulgarski bestseller. University Publishing House “St. Kliment Ohridski,” 2006.

Vitanova-Kerber, Viktoria. “From Sofia’s Salons to the Mountain Ranges of Kozhukh – Social and Functional Dimensions of Esotericism in Late-Socialist Bulgaria.Baltic Worlds 4(2021): 56–67.

Cite this article as: Viktoria Vitanova-Kerber, “Baba Vanga’s Afterlife in Russia: Reception, Construction, Instrumentalization”, in New Age in Russia, 29/05/2023, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/?p=7200.



OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Anna Grechanaia (May 29, 2023). Baba Vanga’s Afterlife in Russia: Reception, Construction, Instrumentalization. New Age in Russia. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/sblv


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