WHAT do the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl disaster, Boris Yeltsin's electoral victory, the date of Stalin's death, the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk, and Topalov's victory in the world chess tournament this year have in common? Before conspiracy theorists get carried away; they are all events said to have been foretold by "Baba Vanga".
Evangelia "Vanga" Dimitrova, or Baba Vanga, as she was know to many Bulgarians, is a powerful, mystical figure in Bulgaria's recent history, whose prophecies have been compared by some to those of Nostradamus.
Vanga was born in 1911. She lived in Petrich near Rupite mineral springs, in the mountains south of Melnik. But beyond this, as is often the case with such figures, it is difficult to separate the fact from the fiction in accounts of her life, as mythologies have grown up and interwoven around her.
The popular story goes that when she was a child, Vanga was caught in a storm or twister, which uprooted trees, blew sand and dust into her eyes and whisked her into the air, before leaving her in a field some distance from her house. When the storm abated, the young Vanga was found to have lost the sight in both her eyes. It was then, when she became blind, that she was said to have received her `gift'. This gift consisted of the ability to foretell the future, to `see' what to others was not visible and thus locate things and people, and to communicate with those who were not physically present; skills referred to by some as clairvoyant or psychic.
In one version of the story, it is said that her skill developed slowly, and that it was not until one day when her father - a shepherd - lost one of his sheep, and she was able to locate it because she could `see' where it was, despite her blindness, that Vanga's talent was recognised. Whatever the truth in this account, as people heard of Vanga's special skills, they came to her for consultations, often wanting news of loved ones fighting in the war. She also developed a skill for healing people by using flowers and herbs.
Some say that Vanga would request a piece a piece of sugar from each of her visitors, which acted as a crystal to focus energy and aided her powers of intuition. "The space around us contains the information about everything. One has to know the way to find it," Pravda.ru quoted Yury Negribetsky, a researcher into clairvoyance, as saying in regard to this.
As word of Vanga's talents travelled, so people were prepared to travel to visit her. Among Vanga's visitors were village people, intellectuals, ministers and politicians. Former prime minister Zhan Videnov and former communist dictator Todor Zhivkov are both reported to have sought her counsel. Petar Stoyanov also went to see her at the start of his (successful) campaign as a presidential candidate.
Such was her standing, that when the communists came to power in 1945, she was not interfered with, and later they even made allowance for her, making her what has been described as the first "subsidised prophetess".
The Vanga phenomenon attracted attention from many researchers, including the Bulgarian Dr Georgi Lozanov, who earnt a name for himself in the field of education with his Suggestopedia approach to teaching. This involved using techniques derived from yoga to combine suggestion and relaxation to make the brain more receptive to data. "Used in education, these techniques show phenomenal promise to increase language learning, memory, artistic and musical ability. Lozanov also is applying his techniques towards the development of mental healing and dermal vision," wrote Jeffry Mishlove, PhD in his book, The Roots of Consciousness.
As director of the Institute of Suggestology and Paraphyschology in Sofia, Lozanov was interested in telepathy and extra sensory perception (ESP). "One of Lozanov's many research activities involves the evaluation of the predictions made by the blind, peasant woman, Vanga Dimitrova, who may be the modern world's first Government supported prophetess. (In fact, the Institute of Suggestology and Parapsychology, with over thirty staff members, is supported by the Bulgarian government.)," wrote Mishlove. "Studies are reported to have shown that Dimitrova's predictive abilities - particularly strong in terms of finding lost relatives and friends - are about eighty percent accurate."
Despite this apparently high success rate, tales of Vanga's prophecies of course attracted scepticism from some quarters. "Because it was such a major disaster that resulted in the loss of many lives, a psychic prophet predicted it many years before the incident. Also like many such predictions, nobody realised that she had made the prophecy until a month after the disaster," said the Sceptic Report in relation Vanga's prediction of the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine. The report cites the Netizens for Spin-Free News: "Among the predictions she said `Kursk will be underwater, and the whole world will mourn about it.' She went on to say, `it can happen in 1999 or in 2000. But that it would happen for sure in the month of August.'"
The report points to flaws in this prediction, saying: "Kursk is also a city, and there's nothing to say that she was thinking of a submarine when she made it. Shouldn't she have been more specific, maybe my mentioning the fact that it was a craft and not a location? Nineteen ninety-nine and 2000 are years that made excellent targets for all kinds of disastrous tragedies. That she would choose either year is nothing amazing. We really have no idea how many other predictions she made, or how accurate they were. We'll go by NSFN again: `According to Russian Psychologist Tatiana Somova, psychic predictions are easy to believe after-the-fact and many of Vanga's predictions have passed without being fulfilled.'"
That notwithstanding, accounts from Bulgarians portray Vanga as a humble woman who wanted to help people; gaining fame for her predictions was not her motivation, and such criticisms seem irrelevant in the face of the respect that Bulgarians have for her and the high esteem in which she is held.
The depth of the nation's feeling for her and her important place in society were seen at the event of her death and reflected in the fact that state news agency BTA issued a news flash on August 11 1996, when she died of breast cancer in a Sofia hospital. Georgi Pirinski, Petar Stoyanov and other high-profile politicians sent condolences to her family. "She lived not for herself but for the people. That made her a living saint for us," said then-prime minister Zhan Videnov.
An interesting footnote to Vanga's story, is that she has also been embraced by UFO enthusiasts around the world. UFO Roundup cites an exchange between their correspondent Yassen Kobarelov and a Ms Stoyanova, said to be Vanga's niece: "According to Mme. Stoyanova, her aunt was in contact with ETs from the planet Vamfim. The entities appeared as elderly bearded sages with mystic and severe expressions and brilliant costumes, saying that the time of contact is not yet ended. There will be even more surprising evidence (of alien contact) in the future. They showed her a vision of a planet surrounded by bright stars in her house' at Petrich," says the report.
According to some sources, one of Vanga's last predictions was that a gift similar to hers had been received by a blind 10-year-old girl living in France, and that soon the world was to hear of her. Time will tell.
For now, Vanga lives on in the hearts of the many who visited her and believe her to be a prophet. St Petka church in Rupite, near Petrich was constructed in remembrance of her and though not officially approved by the Bulgarian Orthodox church, many still visit it to pay their respects to the memory of this remarkable woman.