Georgi Ivanov Markov
(Георги Иванов Марков) (March 1, 1929 – September 11, 1978) was a Bulgarian dissident
Markov originally worked as a novelist and playwright, but in 1969, he defected from Bulgaria, then a communist state under the leadership of President Todor Zhivkov. After moving to the West, he worked as a broadcaster and journalist for the BBC World Service, the US-funded Radio Free Europe, and Germany's Deutsche Welle. He criticised the Bulgarian communist regime many times on radio. It is speculated that, as a result of this, the Bulgarian government decided to dispose of him—and asked the KGB for help.
Life in Bulgaria
Georgi Markov was born on March 1, 1929, in Knyazhevo, a Sofia
neighbourhood. In 1946 he graduated from high school and began university studies in industrial chemistry
. Initially Markov worked as a chemical engineer
and a teacher in a technical school. At the age of 19 he fell ill with tuberculosis
which forced him to attend various hospitals. His first attempts in writing occurred during that time. In 1957 he published “The Night of Celsius”. Soon the novel “The Ajax Winners” (1959) and two collections of short stories (1961) saw the light. In 1962 Markov published the novel “Men” which won the annual award of the Union of Bulgarian Writers and he was subsequently accepted as a member of the Union, a prerequisite for a professional career in literature during the Communist
times in Bulgaria
. Georgi Markov started working at the “Narodna Mladezh” publishing house. The story collections “A Portrait of My Double” (1966) and “The Women of Warsaw” (1968) secured his place as one of the most talented young writers of Bulgaria. Markov also wrote a number of plays but most of them were never staged or were removed from theatre repertoire by the Communist censors: “To Crawl Under the Rainbow,” “The Elevator,” “Assassination in the Cul-de-Sac,” “Communists,” and “I Was Him.” The novel “The Roof” was halted in mid-printing since it described as a fact and in allegorical terms the collapse of the roof of the steel mill “Lenin.” Markov was one of the authors of the popular TV series “On Every Milestone” which created the character of the Second World War detective Velinsky and his nemesis the Resistance fighter Deyanov.
During that time and despite the ban of some of his works Georgi Markov was an acclaimed author who among other writers and poets that Zhivkov tried to co-opt and coerce into serving the regime with their works. During that period Markov led a bohemian lifestyle which was unknown to most Bulgarians.
Writer and a dissident
In 1969 Georgi Markov left for Italy
where his brother lived. His initial idea was to wait until the clouds around the ban of his plays cleared, but he gradually changed his mind and decided to stay in the West, especially after September 1971 when the Bulgarian government refused to extend his passport
. Markov moved to London
where he learned English
and started working at the Bulgarian
desk of the BBC World Service
(1972). He tried to enter the film industry, hoping for help from Peter Uvaliev
, but was unsuccessful. Later he also worked with Deutsche Welle
and Radio Free Europe
. In 1972 Markov’s membership in the Union of Bulgarian Writers was suspended and he was sentenced in absentia to six years and six months in prison for his defection.
His works were withdrawn from libraries and bookshops and his name was not mentioned in the official Bulgarian media until 1989. The Bulgarian Secret Service started Markov’s file under the code name “Wanderer.” In 1974 his play “To Crawl Under the Rainbow” was staged in London while in Edinburgh the play “Archangel Michael,” written in English, won first prize. The novel "The Right Honourable Chimpanzee," coauthored by David Philips, was published after his death. In 1975 Markov married Annabelle Dilk. The couple have a daughter, Alexandra-Raina, born a year later.
Between 1975 and 1978 Markov worked on his “In Absentia Reports” analysis of life in Communist Bulgaria. They were broadcast weekly on Radio Free Europe. Their criticism towards the Communist government and personally towards the Party leader Todor Zhivkov made Markov one of the most hated enemies of the regime.
The Reports were published in Bulgaria after the fall of the Communist government in 1990. In 2000, Markov was posthumously awarded the Order of Stara Planina, Bulgaria's highest honour, for his “significant contribution to the Bulgarian literature, drama and non-fiction and for his exceptional civic position and confrontation to the Communist regime.”
Attack and death
Agents of the Bulgarian secret police, Darzhavna Sigurnost (Държавна сигурност, abbrievated ДС) assisted by the KGB
had previously made two failed attempts to kill Markov before a third attempt succeeded. On September 7, 1978 (the birthday of Todor Zhivkov
), Markov walked across Waterloo Bridge
spanning the River Thames
, and was waiting at a bus stop on the other side, when he was jabbed in the calf by a man holding an umbrella
. The man apologized and walked away. Markov would later tell doctors that the man had spoken in a foreign accent. The event is recalled as the "Umbrella Murder" with the assassin claimed to be Francesco Gullino
codenamed "Piccadilly". The latest research claims that Markov was actually shot with a pellet fired from an adapted pen; the umbrella was dropped nearby to distract him.
Markov recalled feeling a stinging pain from where he had been hit, he assumed by the umbrella tip. When he arrived at work at the BBC World Service offices he noticed a small red pimple had formed and the pain from being jabbed had not gone away. He told at least one of his colleagues at the BBC about this incident. That evening he developed a high fever and was admitted to a hospital where he died three days later, on 11 September 1978, at the age of 49. The cause of death was poisoning from the ricin-coated pellet.
Later investigation and aftermath
Due to the circumstances and statements Markov made to doctors expressing the suspicion that he had been poisoned, Scotland Yard
ordered a thorough autopsy
of Markov's body. The forensic pathologists discovered a spherical metal pellet the size of a pin-head embedded in Markov's calf.
The pellet measured 1.52 mm in diameter and was composed of 90% platinum and 10% iridium. It had two holes with diameters of 0.35 mm drilled through it, producing an X-shaped cavity. Further examination by experts from Porton Down showed that the pellet contained traces of toxic ricin. A sugary substance coated the tiny holes creating a bubble which trapped the ricin inside the cavities. The specially crafted coating was designed to melt at 37° Celsius (the temperature of the human body). As the pellet was shot into Markov, the coating melted and the ricin was free to be absorbed into the bloodstream and kill him. Even if the doctors treating Markov while he was alive had known he was poisoned with ricin, it would have made no difference because there is no known antidote to ricin poisoning.
Ten days before the murder, an attempt was made to kill another Bulgarian defector Vladimir Kostov in the same way as Markov, in a Paris metro station. Doctors found the same kind of bullet in his skin. However, it seems that the sugar coating of the bullet protecting the ricin content was damaged during the shot or before, and thus, only a tiny portion of the poison got into his blood, causing fever only. Kostov reported that the shot came from a man carrying a small bag, but no umbrella. This story suggests that the "umbrella" was a pure invention of the British media. The main reason for this was the declaration of Markov who saw the umbrella but never said he was shot by it. However, forensic experts declared that the probable "gun" that shot the bullet was probably very sophisticated, another reason to believe in State action.
A book describing the whole story and facts was written by Vladimir Bereanu and Kalin Todorov. The book has been removed from sale but is still available.
Several high profile KGB defectors, such as Oleg Kalugin and Oleg Gordievsky have confirmed that the KGB was behind the assassination, even presenting the Bulgarian assassin with alternatives such as a poisonous jelly to smear on Markov's skin, but to this day no one has been charged with Markov's murder, largely because most documents relating to his death were probably destroyed. The leading British newspaper The Times has reported that the prime suspect is an Italian named Francesco Gullino (or Giullino) who lives in Denmark. The story goes on to note that the Bulgarian statute of limitations runs out in 2008.
A British documentary, The Umbrella Assassin, interviewed people connected with the case in Bulgaria, Britain and America, and revealed that the prime suspect, Gullino, is alive and well, and still traveling freely throughout Europe.
There were reports in June 2008 that Scotland Yard had renewed its interest in the case. Detectives were sent to Bulgaria and requests were made to interview relevant individuals. There also appears to be a newfound interest on the part of the Bulgarian authorities to see the case resolved.
Markov's grave can be found in a small churchyard at Whitchurch Canonicorum in Dorset.
In popular culture
- The Scottish postpunk group Fingerprintz recorded a song for their 1979 album The Very Dab that was inspired by Markov's assassination. The name of that song is "Wet Job," and the song itself references how Markov "was waiting for a bus [..] in the rush hour" when he was assassinated (the song also mentions that the deed was "a hit").
- In an episode of the Discovery Channel television show MythBusters, the two hosts of the show, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, created working replicas of the umbrella used to assassinate Markov.
- The assassination of Markov with a Bulgarian umbrella inspired the creation of the French film "Le coup de parapluie" ("Umbrella coup") starring Pierre Richard and directed by Gerard Oury.
- In the Tom Clancy novel Red Rabbit, the assassination of Markov is a topic of much discussion in the story. A minor character in the novel, a Bulgarian operative named Boris Andeyevich Strokov, is revealed to be the killer. Strokov is hired by the KGB to carry out an operation to assassinate Pope John Paul II. At the end, Strokov is caught and assassinated by the British SIS.
- In the second episode of John Brason and Gerard Glaister's 1981 thriller serial Kessler, the sequel to Secret Army, Belgian journalist Hugo Van Eyck is murdered by being poisoned in the street with the tip of an umbrella. The effect of the poison is immediate and he dies moments after being jabbed.
- An episode of Quincy, M.E. has Dr Quincy stabbed with a poisoned pellet. At the end Quincy survives and the assailant is caught.
- In an episode of CSI: NY ("Past Imperfect"), a man is found to have been shot in the leg with a pellet containing ricin. A character references the 'Umbrella Assassination' in London as a similar occurrence to the events in the story.
- In an episode of sitcom Yes, Prime Minister ("A Diplomatic Incident"), the President of France is about to visit London and will be bringing with him the gift of a Labrador puppy in reciprocation for a similar offering made by The Queen during her last state visit to France. Well aware of British quarantine laws, the French are seeking to create a diplomatic incident in order to gain an upper hand in the Channel Tunnel negotiations. While discussing the issue on the phone with a servant from the British Embassy in Paris, Bernard Woolley facetiously suggests the assassination of the puppy and then advises his interlocutor to "see if the Bulgarians have got any spare umbrella tips".
- In the video game No One Lives Forever, Volkhov uses a specially modified umbrella to deliver a biological explosive to a British businessman.
- The Markov murder is referred to on p22 of A Touch of Danger, a Play by Francis Durbridge published by Samuel French Ltd ISBN 0 573 01692 5
Crane Did you ever, by any chance, read a book called The Truth That Killed?
Max Yes, I read it.
Crane Then no doubt you recall the Markov murder? The incident with the umbrella? (He slowly raises the walking-stick, deliberately pointing it at Max. He no longer limps)