In Stranger Things, Nina is a sensory deprivation tank that lets Eleven experience any memory from her past. And the episode’s title, The Nina Project, could be a homage to Nina Kulagina, a Russian woman who claimed to have psychic powers.
*WARNING STRANGER THINGS SPOILERS AHEAD*
In season 4 episode 5, Stranger Things introduces audiences to Nina, the apparent key to Eleven getting her powers back and fighting Vecna/001/Henry Creel.
But to a handful of Cold War history aficionados, this name rang a different kind of bell. Could The Nina Project be connected to mysterious Russian psychic Nina Kulagina?
Let’s unpack this.
Who was Nina Kulagina?
Nina Kulagina was born Ninel Sergeyevna Kulagina on 30 July 1926 in Leningrad in the Soviet Union (present-day Sankt Petersburg, Russia). At the age of 14, she joined the Red Army. She then fought in the Second World War in Russia’s tank division.
After the war, she became a housewife and allegedly began to notice objects around her moving spontaneously when she became angry. She’d always had these powers, she said, and had inherited them from her mother. Sometimes, storms blocked them temporarily.
In the 1960s, Nina Kulagina entered international discourse as her alleged powers started being studied by the Russian government.
Tests, recorded on black-and-white film, were reportedly performed under controlled lab conditions. They appeared to show her moving objects using only the power of her mind. Some of these clips purported to show Nina separating egg yolks floating in a bowl of water or moving a marked matchstick out of a pile of matches placed under a glass dome.
Nina’s powers allegedly extended to living beings, too
The most notable experiment Nina performed happened on 10 March 1970. If she could apparently affect inanimate matter at will, did Nina’s supposed powers extend to living beings? The Soviets had to find out.
So, in an observation room at the Ukhtomskii Military Institute in Leningrad, Kulagina appeared to stop the heart of a lab frog using only the power of intent. Scientists had surgically removed the frog’s heart and placed it in a solution that would keep it beating for up to an hour.
During the experiment, Nina’s heartbeat allegedly increased dramatically, along with that of the unlucky amphibian. It apparently took her seven minutes to stop the frog’s heart, and about 20 minutes to prepare for the test.
One of the scientists observing the experiment said Nina had focused her attention on the frog’s heart. They added she made it first beat faster, then slower, then, using extreme intent, stopped it altogether. Afterwards, another scientist in the room, who remained skeptical of Nina’s powers, allegedly challenged her to do the same to him.
The experiment was purportedly stopped immediately when the scientist’s heartbeat accelerated to what analysts called a “dangerous” rate.
Were Nina’s powers legit?
Nothing has been officially proven, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the effect they had on the US and the Cold War at large.
Over the years, experts have pointed out a number of faults with Kulagina’s experiments. These include the fact they often happened in uncontrolled environments and needed very long preparation times. British experts claimed she was caught cheating in a few experiments by using magnets and threads.
The Soviet press at the time also ran their fair share of debunking pieces on the psychic’s alleged powers. In 1987, three years before her death, Kulagina won a partial victory in a defamation case against Pravda, which published an article accusing her of fraud.
As other debunkings have pointed out, the Soviets had a real incentive to inflate some of these test results and give themselves an edge in the Psi Race against the Americans, an analogue to the more famous Space Race.
Stranger Things: Is The Nina Project based on real people/events?
So, we’ve established Nina Kulagina, an alleged psychic with powers slightly similar to Eleven’s in Stranger Things, was real. But what about The Nina Project? How real is that?
In episode 5 of season 4, Eleven is taken to a secret underground facility in the middle of the Nevada desert where she’ll meet her former captor/mentor Papa, or Dr Brenner. Here, after explaining the odds to a sedating yet frantic El, Brenner introduces her to Nina. She must get her powers back at any cost or Hawkins, her friends, and the world as we know it are all in danger.
Nina is a giant sensory isolation tank where Eleven will relive her own training at the Hawkins lab. She is also set to discover some disturbing repressed memories along the way.
There is some evidence to suggest the title of the episode The Nina Project – and of the machine that helps Eleven – is inspired by Kulagina’s real-life story.
The Stranger Things Wiki has a thread where fans shared Nina’s real-life story. They speculate parallels between the real story and episode 5 of season 4. However, there’s been no confirmation from showrunners the Duffer brothers on what exactly inspired the name.
So, while The Nina Project is not real in the way it appears in the show, it could well have been inspired by Nina Kulagina’s real-life story.
Beyond Stranger Things, Nina Kulagina had a real impact on the Cold War
Whatever the truth of Nina Kulagina’s claims, making their enemy think they were this close to developing a psychic weapon offered the Soviets a powerful advantage. It could influence not only America’s morale but also where they invested their resources next.
And as it turns out, it worked. Shortly after the video of Nina allegedly stopping a frog’s beating heart inevitably made its way into the hands of US intelligence officers, it sparked panic. Not only were the Soviets experimenting with psychokinesis, but it appeared they’d even managed a remote killing.
The CIA concluded: “That report’s conclusion – which echoed the assessments of the CIA officers involved in the program during the 1970s – was that enough accurate remote viewing experiences existed to defy randomness, but that the phenomenon was too unreliable, inconsistent and sporadic to be useful for intelligence purposes. We decided not to restore the program.”