The Mysterious Death of BBC Journalist Georgi Markov by the Umbrella Assassin

He was running a bit late, though the fact that he was starting the second of a double shift that day would surely afford him some slack from his bosses. Georgi Markov had just parked his Citroën in a parking lot on the south side of Waterloo Bridge and had darted up a flight of steps to the bus stop, from which he could catch the bus across the bridge to Bush House, headquarters for the BBC, where Markov worked. As he reached the top of the stairs where people were waiting for the next bus he felt a sharp stinging pain in his right thigh, and he turned to see a heavy-set man in his 40s picking up an umbrella. The man apologized with a foreign accent, and hurried to catch a taxi.

Markov boarded the bus and went to work though the stinging sensation had grown into a throbbing pain, and he had noticed some blood on his jeans. He showed one co-worker what looked like a small red irritated pimple on his thigh. That evening while home Markov developed a high fever, and was rushed to a local hospital accompanied by his wife and a colleague from the BBC. The initial diagnosis was blood poisoning though he did not respond to any treatments. The next day Markov went into shock, and after three more agonizing days he died. It was 11. September, 1978, and Georgi Markov was dead.

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Georgi Markov was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1929, and became a prominent writer and playwright in his homeland. However, Markov had become disenchanted with the corruption and brutality of the communist regime, so when in June 1969 he had successfully received permission to travel to see his brother Nikola in Bologna, Italy, he immediately defected to the West. Within three years he had migrated to London and was covering Bulgarian affairs as a journalist for the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe. As a prominent cultural icon in Bulgaria, Markov had met the country’s communist leader Tudor Zhivkov on several occasions and had had access to the ruling leadership’s inner circles and many of its secrets. These secrets Markov began to broadcast to the world, and his Bulgarian-language broadcasts were very popular among the Bulgarian population. Several Bulgarian dissidents cited Markov’s broadcasts after the communist regime imploded in 1989 as the rallying cry for their dissident activities. Markov was particularly critical of Zhivkov’s brutal dictatorship.

In 1972 Markov was sentenced in absentia to six and a half years in prison by a Bulgarian court for allegedly working with foreign intelligence organizations against his homeland. He received over the next several years warnings directly and indirectly from Sofia to shut up, but he continued to shine the light of day onto the criminal activities of the communists in Bulgaria. Zhivkov himself is known to have received daily briefings on Markov’s latest broadcasts.

Then in 1977 Markov decided to publish a book chronicling the crimes and corruption of the Bulgarian communists through his previous interviews, broadcasts and subsequent works. The Bulgarian communists learned of Markov’s plans and in June 1977, Zhivkov gave the order to the Durzhavna Sigurnost (Bulgarian KGB) to “silence” Markov. Within months Bulgarian Interior Minister Dimitar Stoyanov contacted the Soviet KGB for help in assassinating Markov, and KGB head Yuri Andropov personally dispatched General Sergei Golubev to help DS. In 1978 Gen. Golubev traveled to Sofia three or four times to help DS plan the secret operation.

One unsuccessful attempt on Markov’s life was made in the Spring of 1978 while he was visiting Radio Free Europe colleagues and friends in Munich, Germany. A toxin was secretly dropped into his drink. Another was made against Markov in Sardinia where he was vacationing with his family. The third attempt was arranged after the Soviet Embassy in Washington bought several umbrellas and shipped them home, where the KGB outfitted them to shoot poisoned capsules. The target date was Zhivkov’s birthday, 7. September.

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Markov’s death was front-page news in London and around the world, and an autopsy at Wandsworth Public Mortuary turned up a tiny metal pinhead in the wound on Markov’s thigh. It was turned over to British and American germ warfare specialists who found two .34 mm holes in the pinhead and several months later in January 1979 the Coroner’s Inquest in London declared that Georgi Markov had been murdered, injected with the poison ricin. Ricin is more deadly than rattlesnake venom and has no known antidote. Scientists estimated that it only took 450 micrograms of ricin to kill Markov.

Years of investigation around the world turned up nil until two Soviet KGB officers (Oleg Kalugin and Oleg Gordievsky) admitted publicly to Soviet complicity in Markov’s murder. The Bulgarian communists fell from power in 1989 and two years later the new Bulgarian President, Zhelu Zhelev, laid a wreath at Markov’s grave in Whitchurch and promised a full investigation. He told Markov’s widow Annabel and his daughter Sasha that the murder and was a great shame for Bulgaria.

Unfortunately the Bulgarian DS was not as forthcoming as the country’s new president. In March 1991 it turned out that the former intelligence head Vladimir Todorov had destroyed all files relevant to the Markov case. Todorov fled to Moscow but was returned to Bulgaria under threat of extradition and in June 1992 was sentenced to 1 and a quarter years in jail for destroying evidence. The former head of DS’ foreign intelligence Vasil Kotsev died in mid-1991 in a mysterious car accident. General Stoyan Savov, who was facing charges of destroying evidence in the case along with Todorov, chose to blow his brains out in September 1992.

In 1993 a new thread developed in the case when authorities tracked down Francesco Guilino in Denmark, a small-time Italian mobster connected to the abduction of a Bulgarian defector Boris Arsoff in July 1973, and who had also been traced to London at the time of Markov’s murder. It was thought that DS had hired Guilino to do the dirty work of injecting Markov with the poisoned pinhead, that Guilino was the foreign-accented man who apologized to Markov at the bus stop. However, after a six hour grilling nothing new came out of Guilino, and he fled Denmark for either Hungary or the Czech Republic where authorities lost track of him.

In 2002 the British Parliament officially requested help from Russia in tracking down former KGB agents who might have information about Markov’s murder, but to date Moscow has not given a single name. Georgi Markov’s murder is still listed officially as unsolved. The pinhead that carried the fatal poison can be seen today in the New Scotland Yard headquarters in London, where it is publicly displayed.

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