the umbrella assassination
Georgi Markov, the noted Bulgarian writer and dissident, died in 1978.
Like a storyline from a Bond movie, he was supposedly assassinated on the streets of London by a secret agent wielding a weapon disguised as an everyday umbrella.
Before he came to be known as the victim of the “Umbrella Assassination”, Markov was a highly respected author, playwright, and screenwriter in his native Bulgaria.
Born in Sofia in 1929, Markov came of age in the era of Communist rule. Though he graduated as an engineer, his passion was literature.
His first novel was published in the 1950s, but he achieved his greatest successes in the 60s after the publication of his novel Men. Despite the limitations on free speech in Communist Bulgaria, where idealogical conformity usually trumped artistic truth, Markov managed to create work that was both popular and critically acclaimed.
He was feted by the Stalinist upper crust, including dictator Todor Zhivkov, and granted many privileges. At a time when most ordinary Bulgarians weren’t exactly living the high life, Markov enjoyed a rather bohemian lifestyle. He zipped around Sofia in the almost unheard of luxury of a BMV sports car, and he could enjoy foreign travel at a time when a passport was an unachievable dream for most people.
By the end of the 1960s, Markov was finding it increasingly difficult to live and work in Bulgaria. Communist authorities across the Eastern Bloc had cracked down on any signs of criticism following the 1968 Prague Spring reforms in Czechoslovakia that were brutally ended by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
After one of his novels, The Roof, was banned and a play, The Man Who Was Me, an absurdist work dealing with life in a dictatorial society, was pulled off the stage before opening night, Markov decided in 1969 to use his passport to take a break from the strictures of life under Communism.
He travelled to Italy to spend some time with his brother, Nikolai, who lived in Bologna and worked as a postage stamp dealer. Markov hadn’t really committed to being a “dissident”, and seemed to have hoped that he might return to Bulgaria - and perhaps to the good graces of Comrade Zhivkov.
When Bulgarian authorities refused to renew his passport, it became clear that his exile was likely to be permanent.
Markov went to London, where he found work at the BBC as a translator and writer for its foreign language service. He married an English lady, Annabel, and they had a child. In 1975, Markov also started to work for the American-backed broadcaster Radio Free Europe (RFE).
RFE was established in the United States in the 1950s. Based in Munich, West Germany, the station was to be a beacon of truth, democracy, and popular music for the suffering masses behind the Iron Curtain.
RFE was supposedly paid for by subscriptions from patriotic members of the American public; however, it turned out that the main “subscriber” was the Central Intelligence Agency.
In 1971, it came out that RFE was almost entirely funded from a secret CIA slush fund. This didn’t really sit well with the station’s stated mission of promoting the Western democratic principle of free speech.
The United States Congress then legislated to fund RFE directly from the US Treasury. But, if it wasn’t obvious before, it was crystal clear by the 1970s that RFE was a CIA operation. Not that everyone who worked there was a secret agent … but there were plenty of secret agents who did work there.
The Bulgarian authorities had banned Markov’s writings and declared him persona non grata in 1972. However, it was his work for RFE from 1975 that appears to have caused real consternation in the politburo.
After the government of Bulgaria vindictively refused him permission to return to visit his dying father in 1977, Markov’s broadcasts for RFE became even more vitriolic.
In the winter of 1977/8, he penned a series of essays that were highly critical of the Communist leadership of Bulgaria, with whom Markov used to associate. He aired their dirty laundry - affairs, nepotism, graft, etc - and he was especially sharp when it came to the “great leader” Todor Zhivkov.
Even though RFE signals were effectively jammed by the Bulgarian state security service, one channel was deliberately left open to allow official monitoring of the broadcasts.
Markov’s radio programs became essential listening for all top government personnel, who enjoyed hearing the salacious details of each other’s private lives. Many were no doubt worried that they’d be the next in line for a public skewering.
It became a popular joke in Bulgaria: Why is it that the party leaders never watch the news on TV on a Sunday night? Because they’re all tuned into Georgi Markov on the radio!
In 1977 Markov started to receive warnings that his life was in danger. Coming from an unidentified senior Bulgarian source, apparently with contacts at the highest levels of the state, these warnings were met with some skepticism by Markov. He knew the regime in Sofia could be ruthless, but Markov doubted they’d try anything so drastic as assassinating a dissident writer, even if he was writing salacious gossip about their private lives.
Markov continued to receive warnings that his life was in danger - mainly passed on to him via his brother in Bologna - throughout 1978. But he still believed that the authorities in Bulgaria were just trying to scare him off working for RFE.
He reasoned that, if only because it would cause an international outcry, the regime of Zhivkov wouldn’t do anything so risky as to carry out an assassination on foreign soil.
It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption on Markov’s part. The Bulgarian secret service was, in effect, a junior partner of the Soviet KGB. Under Brezhnev and his KGB chief (and successor as Soviet leader) Yuri Andropov, the USSR had pursued a policy of detente with the West for over a decade.
Part of this limited rapprochement between East and West was - unofficially, of course - a general prohibition against killing people on each other’s turf.
There had been several high profile assassinations and assassination attempts in the early stages of the Cold War. But by the 1970s the conflict between East and West looked like it was beginning to settle into something approaching diplomatic normality.
Not that everything was sunshine and roses, and not that killings didn’t take place under certain circumstances. There was just an unspoken rule observed by both sides: we don’t do political murders on foreign soil anymore.
For the USSR especially, much rested on the policy of detente. By the 1970s the Soviet economy was stagnating and an increasingly glaring gap was opening up between the technological base of the Eastern Bloc and the capitalist West.
Brezhnev needed to improve economic ties to the West, and the Soviets also wanted international recognition of their sphere of influence (i.e. domination) in Eastern Europe. To that end, Moscow and its satellite states and Washington and its NATO allies agreed in 1975 to a set of accords, signed in the city of Helsinki, in neutral Finland, that were supposed to pave the way to the full normalization of diplomatic relations.
The crowning glory of this era of detente was supposed to be the Moscow Olympics of 1980, where Brezhnev would preside over a spectacle that would not only showcase Communist sporting prowess but, more importantly, would demonstrate to the World that the USSR was a superpower with which one could do business.
Any whiff of international scandal - and few things could be more scandalous than state sponsored murder on the streets of a foreign capital - was anathema to this carefully crafted Soviet policy.
Unbeknownst, there was a shift afoot in the West. Under the Carter administration, US foreign policy was starting to shift away from detente and the Cold War strategy of “containment” and towards a more confrontational approach that sought to press home the growing economic advantage of the West while increasing geo-strategic pressure on Moscow. This policy would come to be known as “rollback”, and its first major manifestation would be the covert support that the United States started to provide to the Islamic fundamentalist Mujahideen in Soviet-allied Afghanistan in the spring of 1979.
But in the fall of 1978, everything appeared normal in East-West relations, and few people really expected the KGB to carry out a murder in a major city such as London - especially not in a public place - and doubly not of a well-known person.
Markov had developed a certain fatalism by this time. He’d lived abroad for years, he was unarmed, he could be killed at any time. He wasn’t indifferent to his fate, or that of his family, and he took certain precautions, especially if he was working alone at night at the BBC.
Still, if all these warnings that he was receiving were true, and Zhivkov really did want him dead, then there probably wasn’t very much he could do about it.
“If they want to kill me, they can kill me,” Markov told his brother in August 1978 - one month before his death.
On the evening of September 7th, Markov was waiting for a bus at the south end of Waterloo Bridge, on his way to work at the BBC.
The account of what might have happened that day was provided to the police and the media by Annabel Markov and Theo Lirkov.
According to them, Markov said he’d had a strange run-in: h felt a sharp pain at the back of his right thigh, he turned around to see a man stooping to pick up an umbrella, and this man then got into a cab then left the scene.
Markov was in some discomfort, and when he got into work, he went to the toilet to look at his leg. He saw a red welt on his thigh. Lirkov said that Markov told him about the weird incident at the bus stop and showed him the mark on his leg.
By the time he got home that night, Markov was quite unwell. On the afternoon of Friday 8th, suffering from nausea and a fever, he was driven to a local hospital by Lirkov.
Either he or Lirkov told the hospital staff that Markov had been shot by the KGB. The young doctor who admitted him, Bernard Riley, took this tale with a pinch of salt. In fact, he thought that he was being pranked.
However, Dr Riley listened carefully as Markov described how he was a Bulgarian dissident who had powerful enemies that had threatened his life. Markov said that he’d been poisoned - and Riley considered that this was a possibility.
The doctor inspected Markov’s thigh, observing that the red spot looked like it might have been an insect bite or maybe a small puncture from a hypodermic needle.
Riley had the area x-rayed - but nothing showed up.
Markov’s health rapidly deteriorated. On Saturday it appeared that he was suffering from septicemia.
Dr Riley desperately searched for possible causes of his patient’s illness.
Riley thought that Markov’s symptoms were consistent with someone who had been bitten by a Malaysian pit viper. Not exactly an everyday occurrence in London, but Markov’s symptoms were far from everyday, and doctors were desperately considering all options.
Markov’s metabolism was so haywire and his organs were failing so fast that nothing could be done. By Sunday morning, his blood pressure fell to near zero, he had a heart attack, and by 9.45am, after extended efforts to revive him, Markov was pronounced dead.
Markov’s death quickly became a media sensation.
The claim made publicly by Lirkov that someone had assassinated Markov with an umbrella on Waterloo Bridge made the headlines in the UK and around the World.
Rumors swirled about Communist agents, there were guesses as to the mechanism disguised within the umbrella, and various experts were trotted out to speculate as to what poison might have been deployed by the mysterious assassin.
Soon new and equally shocking information came out. A pellet was recovered from Markov’s body. Then another Bulgarian defector came forward with his own story about an almost identical attack. Then yet another Bulgarian died in suspicious circumstance in London.
The CIA, French intelligence, and biochemical warfare specialists all got involved in the case.
The British police investigation into the death of Markov extended from London to Paris, Moscow, Sofia, Copenhagen, and beyond.
This investigation into the “Umbrella Assassination” went on for two decades. In the 1990s, an Italian-Danish art dealer/smuggler cum Bulgarian secret agent was implicated in Markov’s death.
And yet, to this day, much about the case remains unsolved.
The death of Markov and the strange events associated with his demise yield many disturbing questions regarding the operations of the police, the media, dissidents, rival spies, and their agencies - on both sides of the Iron Curtain.