How writer Georgi Markov was assassinated with a poison-laced umbrella

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Georgi Markov was waiting on London’s Waterloo Bridge when an assassin struck. (Illustration: Nick Wiggins)

As he stood on a London bridge on a cloudy afternoon in September 1978, Georgi Markov didn’t know he was being watched. 

He didn’t know that in four days he’d be dead.

The 49-year-old Bulgarian dissident was waiting to catch a bus to the BBC, where he worked as a broadcaster.

Nearby, a man was holding what appeared to be an everyday object — an umbrella.

“Markov feels a very sharp pain in the back of his thigh and turns around to see someone who is picking up an umbrella,” Kyle Wilson, a visiting fellow at ANU’s Centre for European Studies, says.

“This someone murmurs excuses in a very foreign accent, dashes across Waterloo Bridge to the other side of the road, jumps in a taxi and disappears.”

Markov boarded the bus and went to work. His fate was sealed. 

Threats and paranoia

Markov had been on edge.

He had received veiled threats and told a colleague at the BBC that the Bulgarian authorities were “gunning for him”.

Bulgarian freelance journalist Dimiter Kenarov says Markov became “a little bit paranoid”, and would sometimes lock himself in his office.

“Sometimes he would go to visit friends and he would refuse to touch the food, things like that, the sort of precautions that a lot of emigres at the time were taking,” he says.

Fleeing the country

Markov had good reason to be cautious.

A famous playwright and author in Bulgaria, by the late 1960s his writing was pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to the dictatorship. 

Kelly Hignett, a senior lecturer in history at Leeds Beckett University, says Joseph Stalin once referred to writers and artists as “engineers of the human soul”. 

“He thought the cultural elite had a very important role to play in shaping popular opinion,” Dr Hignett says.

“Used positively they could … reinforce and promote the values of the regime. But any independent thought, any criticism, was seen as very dangerous.”

She says Markov became concerned that his criticism of the government was about to get him imprisoned.

“It was during a performance of his play that was taking place in Bulgaria, where a member of the intelligence services stood up in the audience and declared that the play was anti-communist and kind of criticised Markov,” she says. 

He escaped to London in the summer of 1970, where his life changed dramatically.

“He went from being a celebrity who was driving a BMW in Bulgaria, to somebody who was down and out in London for quite some time. He didn’t speak the language at first,” Kenarov says.

By the late 1970s, Markov began working for the BBC as a journalist. 

He also presented a program on Radio Free Europe, which could be heard throughout the Soviet Union and cast light on the cracks beginning to appear in the regimes behind the Iron Curtain.

It also put him in the spotlight.

A task assigned to the KGB

According to Mr Wilson, there’s credible evidence that the Bulgarians sought the assistance of the KGB to “physically liquidate Markov”.

He says the Soviet Union had possessed a highly secret poisons laboratory since 1921. 

“It had very rich experience in using poisons and other methods to assassinate people who were perceived as threats to the Soviet Union, its political culture, its government or its regime,” Mr Wilson says. 

“It was the KGB, according to KGB General Kalugin, who designed and manufactured the umbrella which would shoot and inject the tiny, microscopic sphere into Markov’s thigh,” he says. 

The projectile would be laced with the poison ricin.

On the day of the umbrella incident, Markov left work at the BBC with a high fever.

“At first he thought that it was just some kind of flu,” Mr Kenarov says.

“But Markov started suspecting that the little jab during the day that he had received in his thigh had something to do with his condition.”

Within 24 hours his situation had deteriorated so much that an ambulance took him to hospital.

Three days later he was dead.

A long line of assassinations

In the Soviet Bloc, the news was kept quiet.

“Markov’s assassination was not mentioned on state media, there was complete silence about it. Nobody ever talked about it, although it was the hugest scandal in the UK, around the world,” Kenarov says. 

Mr Wilson was a postgraduate student on exchange in Moscow at the time of Markov’s death.

“There was a great deal of … what you might call ‘suppressed subversion’. People were really careful of what they said. We used to leave the university building if we wanted to have a conversation around a sensitive topic,” he recalls.

Mr Wilson’s study was focussed on state control and censorship of the arts.

“I was fascinated by the question about why the Soviet Russian authorities paid culture, literature, theatre and film the great compliment of seeking to control it very strictly,” he says.

“Quite clearly they did that because they perceived it as a potential threat.

“Georgi Markov was a writer, and he was perceived in Bulgaria — [because of] what he wrote and said on the BBC — as a serious threat to the Bulgarian state.”

Mr Wilson says the use of assassinations for political reasons runs through Russia’s history, and that a 2006 law even legalised the “extra-judicial killing” of those Moscow accuses of extremism. 

“If you look at the history of these assassinations by the Russian Secret Service, either by poisoning or by pistol, revolver, from the years 1921 until now … we have well-documented evidence that about 70–75 such assassinations have been carried out.”

Those are just the assassinations we know of, he adds. 

In August last year, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was flown to Germany for treatment after collapsing on a plane in Russia. Germany has, an assertion many Western nations accept.

To this day, no-one has been charged over Markov’s death. 

“It’s still an open case. The case has not been closed either by Scotland Yard or by Bulgaria. Here we are nearly half a century later,” Mr Wilson says.

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