Every Halloween, I remember how growing up in 1990s Belgrade I was, like many children across the world, fascinated by the mysterious and the occult. Besides gorging on horror and mystery films, I loved going to our neighbours, an elderly lady and her daughter, who would, night after night, tell stories of the paranormal to my sceptical grandmother. During every visit, they would tell stories of supernatural beings, such as the ‘drekavci’, vampire-like creatures of Serbian folklore and hairdressers whose hands were guided by the Virgin Mary, while also sharing theories and prophecies that explained the everyday tumults of Milosevic’s Serbia.
In my eyes, their nightly attempts to conjure up explanations of things all of us barely understood in those murky days – the erratic politics of Milosevic’s regime, why some of our neighbours were unlucky in love and complicated discussions of hexes, masonic conspiracies, cults and prophecies – rivalled anything I could watch on the X-Files.
While my family was adamantly against astrologers, fortune tellers and faith healers, our neighbours spent a lot of money on spiritual cleanses and de-hexing despite their constantly precarious finances. Once they even paid about two hundred deutschmarks, a lot of money at the time, to be locked into their own darkened home and starved for two days in the company of one local occult hobbyist, who had a full-time job as an engineer at a state company. Although they did not seem too happy with the result and they could not explain the process, they would still insist the guy emanated ‘good energy’.
Although my neighbours were on the more extreme end of the spectrum, a rarely discussed abnormality of life in what was left of Yugoslavia under Milosevic’s rule was the ubiquity of the paranormal. From their TV screens and their plush offices in central Belgrade, psychics and astrologers competed with newly formed banks (read: Ponzi-schemes) to enchant tens of thousands of Yugoslavs into giving them their precious savings.
Colourful covers of Trece Oko (Third Eye) and Zona Sumraka (Twilight Zone) regularly told stories of vampire attacks, curses applied and removed and magical wars waged between white and black mages for the future of Yugoslavia. On TV, beside colourful characters displaying their supernatural gifts ranging from resistance to electricity to mind-reading, pundits quoted colourful books of prophecies, as well as alternative histories claiming Serbs were the oldest nation or that the scientist Nikola Tesla engaged in occult work. In addition to our local divinely-inspired hairdresser, there were also decorators, electricians and artists who regularly claimed otherworldly connections.
Indeed, belief in the paranormal spread so far that our very sober family friends who emigrated to London assured us in an email sent during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (then formed of Serbia and Montenegro) in 1999 that we ‘needn’t worry, as Tesla’s weapon’ was almost ready. Needless to say, this mythical weapon conceived by Nikola Tesla, a famous scientist of Serb origin, which uses electromagnetic waves for mind control and/or destruction, depending on which conspiracy theory you subscribe to, failed to materialise.
Descent into Chaos
While folk magic traditions and beliefs existed throughout the run of scientific-rational, socialist Yugoslavia, the turn towards the paranormal started after Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav-era socialist ruler, died in 1980.
The first major indication things were heading in a paranormal direction came in 1981, when the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared before six youths in Medjugorje, a town in Southern Herzegovina. The town has since become a major pilgrimage site, despite not being recognised by the Vatican.
In Serbia in 1982, the 19th century Kremna Prophecies were put back in the spotlight after Dragoljuc Golubovic, a famous journalist, and Dejan Malenkovic, published a popular book about them. Allegedly dictated to a priest in a remote mountain village by two illiterate shepherds, the prophecies were part of Serbian pop culture and were used to interpret various political happenings up until World War II.
According to Serbian essayist Voja Antonic, who published an analysis of the Kremna phenomenon, the Golubovic-Malenkovic version of the prophecies had been modified to include allusions to events that took place in Yugoslavia during World War II, the rise of communism and Tito himself. In subsequent editions of the book, prophecies were constantly amended to reflect new events until in its 8th edition published in 1991 as Yugoslavia fell, an optimistic prophecy about long-lasting peace in Yugoslavia was removed from the book.
The speed of Yugoslavia’s decline into instability in the late 80s and early 90s was only matched by the growing popularity of various clairvoyants, mages and healers. The most popular were foreign imports Allan Chumak, a Russian faith-healer who came to prominence during Gorbachev’s Perestroika, and a blind Bulgarian prophet, Vangeliya Dimitrova, better known as ‘Baba Vanga’. Chumak’s popularity in Serbia was such that in addition to appearing on most popular TV shows, a magazine published his photos so that his believers could be healed by his energy.
Although none of the local occult stars ever reached global fame, they were making good use of new technologies and the chaos of the Milosevic years. Many of them had their own shows on new TV networks such as Pink and launched their own psychic telephone hotlines.
Of course, these 1990s psychics were a colourful bunch. Lav Gersman, a Jewish Ukrainian ‘white mage’ who moved to Serbia and was consulted on political events, used to be circus performer. Kleopatra, the self-styled ‘queen of clairvoyants’ who helped and scolded her fans each night on TV, was a folk singer in the 1980s and one of the first trans personalities of the former Yugoslavia. The problems they dealt with on their shows were varied and ranged from romantic troubles to darker topics of domestic violence and tracing relatives who had disappeared in the Yugoslav wars.
Milosevic’s Psychic Soldiers
One of the most bizarre episodes of this early 90s magic mania was the formation of a group of psychics within the army of what was left of the Yugoslav Federation. Called Group 69 (due to the number’s numerological, rather than lascivious associations), it sought to use the talents of local psychics to fight against what its prominent member and chief theorist Svetozar Radisic called ‘an economic, technological, psychological, informational, religious, cultural, geographic and neo-cortical war against Serbs’.
Although Group 69 members were frequent guests in mainstream media, such as the popular astrologer Milja Vujanovic who claimed to be married to Regulus, a star in the constellation of Leo, much of the group’s work was covert. They counted the downing of several planes during the war in Bosnia and the NATO bombing of Serbia, plus a few mishaps that befell the Pope and several Western officials, among their achievements of the time.
According to many sources however, one of the group’s main concerns was the ‘Roman well’ – it was actually built in the 18th Century – inside Belgrade fortress, which they considered a major source of evil. To combat its noxious influence on Serbia, they are said to have contemplated kidnapping prominent Western politicians, such as George H W Bush, and throwing them inside the well to counter its evil spirits. The ‘Tesla weapon’ was a Group 69 project and its existence was ‘leaked’ to the press during the 1999 NATO bombing.
Much of the insanity of 1990s magic mania stopped after Milosevic was deposed. Psychics were banned from Serbian TV in 2009 and every few months there is news about a faith healer being arrested, often for putting someone at risk through dangerous advice or untoward sexual activity. Even my two neighbours whose magical exploits expanded my awareness of the occult, now focus more on making a living in present day Serbia than finding magical cures to their problems.
Still the traces of the ‘magical 1990s’ linger in Serbia. In 2014, the former Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic quoted a line from the Kremna Prophecies that foretold “people from the East, yellow people” will rule the world and drink from Serbian rivers when he met the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Publications that spread conspiracy theories are still around and in many bookshops you can still find quack-science books explaining the mythical origins of Serbs or masonic conspiracy theories next to respected, authentic ones. Enough people distrust conventional medicine and vaccination that this year Serbia topped the list of measles-related deaths in Europe.
The past and present popularity of magic in Serbia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia is to a large extent due to the fact that many of us experienced our lives being controlled by hidden forces beyond our comprehension: the collapse of the socialist economy, new geopolitical realities, and even new interpretations of history. Many saw the certainties of Tito’s Yugoslavia, such as state-provided cushy jobs for life and the belief in a common Yugoslav future, collapse spectacularly in front of their eyes to be replaced with completely new ways of looking at the world.
In that maelstrom, which has only recently ebbed, believing that there are powerful truths and forces beyond your comprehension, may not seem that far-fetched after all…
A version of this article appeared in Belgrade Insight newspaper.