Markov originally worked as a novelist and playwright in his native country, then governed by a communist regime under chairman Todor Zhivkov, until his defection from Bulgaria in 1969. After relocating, he worked as a broadcaster and journalist for the BBC World Service, the US-funded Radio Free Europe, and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. Markov used such forums to conduct a campaign of sarcastic criticism against the incumbent Bulgarian regime, which, according to his wife at the time of death, eventually became “vitriolic” and included “really smearing mud on the people in the inner circles”.
He was assassinated on a London street via a micro-engineered pellet containing ricin, fired into his leg via an umbrella wielded by someone associated with the Bulgarian secret police. It has been speculated that they asked the KGB for help.
Life in Bulgaria
Georgi Markov was born on 1 March 1929, in Knyazhevo, a Sofia neighbourhood. In 1946 he graduated from the Gymnasium (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 years he became ill with tuberculosis which forced him to attend various hospitals. His first literary attempts occurred during that time.
In 1957 a novel The Night of Celsius appeared. Soon another novel The Ajax Winners (1959) and two collections of short stories (1961) were published. 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. 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, Stalinists, 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 Lenin steel mill. Markov was one of the authors of the popular TV series At Every Milestone which created the character of the Second World War detective Velinsky and his nemesis the Resistance fighter Deyanov.
Despite the ban of some of his works, Georgi Markov had become a successful author. He was among the writers and poets that Zhivkov tried to co-opt and coerce into serving the regime with their works. During this period Markov had a bohemian lifestyle which was unknown to most Bulgarians.
Writer and a dissident
In 1969, Georgi Markov left for Bologna, Italy, where his brother lived. His initial idea was to wait until his status with the Bulgarian authorities improved, 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 for the Bulgarian section of the BBC World Service (1972). He tried to work for 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 by 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 Phillips, was published after his death. In 1975 Markov married Annabel Dilke. The couple had 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 of the Communist government and personally of the Party leader Todor Zhivkov made Markov even more an enemy of the regime.
Today, we Bulgarians present a fine example of what it is to exist under a lid which we cannot lift and which we no longer believe someone else can lift… And the unending slogan which millions of loudspeakers blare out is that everyone is fighting for the happiness of the others. Every word spoken under the lid constantly changes its meaning. Lies and truths swap their values with the frequency of an alternating current…
We have seen how personality vanishes, how individuality is destroyed, how the spiritual life of a whole people is corrupted in order to turn them into a listless flock of sheep. We have seen so many of those demonstrations which humiliate human dignity, where normal people are expected to applaud some paltry mediocrity who has proclaimed himself a demi-god and condescendingly waves to them from the heights of his police inviolability…— Georgi Markov describing life under a totalitarian regime in The Truth that Killed
In 1978, Markov was murdered in London by an operative connected to the KGB and the Bulgarian secret police under Zhivkov. His In Absentia Reports were published in Bulgaria in 1990, after the end of the Communist government.
In 2000, Markov was posthumously awarded the Order of Stara Planina, Bulgaria’s most prestigious 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.”
Agents of the Bulgarian secret police (Darzhavna Sigurnost; Bulgarian: Държавна сигурност, abbreviated ДС), assisted by the KGB, had previously made two failed attempts to kill Markov before a third attempt succeeded. On 7 September 1978 (the 67th birthday of Todor Zhivkov), Markov walked across Waterloo Bridge spanning the River Thames, and waited at a bus stop to take a bus to his job at the BBC. He felt a slight sharp pain, as a bug bite or sting, on the back of his right thigh.
He looked behind him and saw a man picking up an umbrella off the ground. The man hurriedly crossed to the other side of the street and got in a taxi which then drove away. The event is recalled as the “Umbrella Murder” with the assassin claimed to be Francesco Gullino, codenamed “Piccadilly”.
When he arrived at work at the BBC World Service offices, Markov noticed a small red pimple had formed at the site of the sting he had felt earlier and the pain had not lessened or stopped. He told at least one of his colleagues at the BBC about this incident.
That evening he developed a fever and was admitted to St James’ Hospital in Balham, where he died four days later, on 11 September 1978, at the age of 49. The cause of death was poisoning from a ricin-filled pellet.
Later investigation and aftermath
Due to the circumstances and statements Markov made to doctors expressing the suspicion that he had been poisoned, the Metropolitan Police ordered a thorough autopsy of Markov’s body. Dr Bernard Riley, a forensic pathologist discovered a spherical metal pellet the size of a pin-head embedded in Markov’s leg.
The pellet measured 1.70 mm (0.07 in) in diameter and was composed of 90% platinum and 10% iridium. It had two holes with diameters of 0.35 mm (0.01 in) drilled through it, producing an X-shaped cavity. Further examination by experts from Robert Gergi and 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 °C (the human body temperature). As the pellet was shot into Markov, the coating melted and the ricin was free to be absorbed into the bloodstream and kill him. Regardless of whether the doctors treating Markov had known that the poison was ricin, the result would have been the same, as there was no known antidote to ricin at the time.
Ten days before the murder, an attempt was made to kill another Bulgarian defector, Vladimir Kostov, in the same manner as Markov, in a Paris metro station. Doctors found the same kind of pellet in his skin. However, it seems that the sugar coating of the pellet 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 only fever.
Kostov reported that the shot came from a man carrying a small bag, but not an umbrella. 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.
KGB defectors including Oleg Kalugin and Oleg Gordievsky have confirmed that the KGB arranged the murder, 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.
A British documentary, The Umbrella Assassin (2006), interviewed people associated with the case in Bulgaria, Britain, Denmark and America, and revealed that the prime suspect, Gullino, is alive and well, and still travelling 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.
- On 11 May 2012, a German man (not identified by name in press reports) died almost a year after being stabbed with an umbrella in the city of Hannover. German police – who noted a resemblance to the Markov case – believe the umbrella was used to inject mercury, and the reported cause of death was mercury poisoning.
In popular culture
David Baldacci uses a reference to Markov’s murder in his book, The Whole Truth.
Breaking Bad references his killing while speaking about ricin, and its effects on the human body.