Stranger Things: The real-life Eleven was Russian

Ninel Kulagina became famous for videos in which she moved objects "with her mind" - and was investigated by more than 30 scientists.

In fiction, superhumans with the ability to communicate, move objects, and control people abound (hello, X-Men). Eleven appears in Stranger Things.

Stranger Things: The real-life Eleven was Russian

Using her powers, the character, played by actress Millie Bobby Brown, can levitate objects, push people, and even close portals (not without having been a guinea pig for scientists). And get this: it has a real-world counterpart.

Fifty years before Eleven took over pop culture, Ninel Kulagina appeared to the world - a psychic who claimed to move objects with her mind, and who as a result spent years of her life under the scrutiny of Soviet researchers.

A quick context: in the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union invested in research into the paranormal, hoping to find advantages that could be exploited from a military perspective.

Telepathy, called pseudoscientific "biological communication", was also a topic studied, mainly by the Institute for Brain Research at the University of Leningrad. The reason: the Soviets wanted to find a way to get in touch with submarines without needing technology. Already telekinesis, the ability to move objects with the mind, could be used to deflect or sabotage guided missiles, the Russians imagined.

It was against this backdrop that, in the 1960s, scientists from the USSR discovered Ninel Kulagina. Born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1926, she was a radio technician in World War II until she was wounded in the stomach and became a housewife. She was 33 years old when she first came into contact with scholars of the paranormal.

Ninel (who became known in the West as Nina) said that for as long as she could remember, objects moved around her when she got angry. Later, she would have learned to control her "powers" with meditation and concentration - but, according to her, the skills came at a physical cost and caused severe pain in her spine every time she rolled a ball, for example.

Between the 1960s and 1980s, Nina was evaluated by more than 30 Soviet scientists. Biologist and parapsychologist Edward Naumov filmed her performance several times and spread the videos around the world. The story began to be followed by the American press.

Nina could see objects kept in people's pockets, according to reports in the American newspaper The Pittsburgh Press in 1978. According to Russian scientist Fenady Sergeyev, Nina went to a laboratory where a frog's heart had just been removed. The heart was being monitored outside the amphibian's body by sensors from a cardiogram. In general, it takes 4 hours for the animal's heart to stop beating under these conditions. Nina was able to make the organ beat faster, slower, and then completely stop in a matter of minutes, according to Sergeyev.

After becoming a national celebrity, Kulagina came under fire from skeptics such as Canadian James Randi, who became famous for unmasking charlatans. None of the tests on Nina had been done under controlled conditions, and more powerful demonstrations of her (aside from the frog, she would have separated the yolk and white of an egg two meters away) were never filmed.

For Randi, well-done tricks could fool even scientists, and the videos – which show compasses spinning, small boxes being moved, and a match floating out of a pile inside a glass case – could be forged with magnets in the hands and small nylon threads.

Kulagina even sued a Russian magazine for libel in 1987 as a result of such criticism. Scientists such as Naumov testified in her favor, and she won.

Even so, most critics never believed Nina's alleged powers, accusing the Soviet government of collaborating with the hoax to scare Americans, who would fear the USSR's "supernatural secret weapon." Despite her alleged heart-beating abilities, the Russian died in 1990 of a massive heart attack at the age of 64. She stated at the time that she no longer possessed her abilities.

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