An Enduring Cold War Mystery–The Assassination of Georgi Markov

"Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

The Cold War was a strange, tumultuous time in our history, full of odd happenings and intrigue. Some real-life incidents are stranger than anything concocted for a James Bond film. Perhaps the most infamous of these incidents was the assassination of the Bulgarian writer and political dissident, Georgi Markov, who died in September 1978, three days after an assassin injected a ricin laden pellet into his leg using an air powered gun concealed as an umbrella. The event spawned a mystery that even the legendary Scotland Yard has yet to solve: who killed Georgi Markov?


A Veil of Secrecy

In order to understand the assassination, it is important to get at least some idea of what went on in Communist Bulgaria, particularly the culture of secrecy and paranoia that would make such a heinous act possible. This is difficult, as many records from that time period are gone, up in smoke in the wake of the collapse of Communism in the early 90s.

Still, some facts are well known. Bulgaria was among the most repressive of the Warsaw Pact nations, and it had close ties with the Soviet Union. The dictator running the show at the time of the assassination was a die hard Communist by the name of Todor Zhikov, who ruled his country with an iron fist. Like most paranoid dictators, he crushed any opposition ruthlessly.

"Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B0115-0010-066, Berlin, VI. SED-Parteitag, Warnke, Shiwkow - Zhivkov" by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0115-0010-066 / Schaar, Helmut / CC-BY-SA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons -

Tidor Zhivkov “Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B0115-0010-066, Berlin, VI. SED-Parteitag, Warnke, Shiwkow – Zhivkov” by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0115-0010-066 / Schaar, Helmut / CC-BY-SA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons –

This is where Georgi Markov enters the picture. Markov was an author and playwright who was well regarded in Communist Bulgaria for his works. However, as time wore on and the abuses of the regime became more apparent, Markov’s work became increasingly critical of Communism in general and Zhivkov in particular. The writer began receiving death threats from Bulgarian security forces, and was the victim of at least two assassination attempts.

Markov defected to the West in 1969. He moved to London, where he began to work for the BBC World Service. He also did work for Radio Free Europe. a radio station that broadcast across the iron curtain, where he continued to criticize the Zhivkov regime.

Nine years after defecting, on September 7, 1978, Markov was waiting for a buss on Waterloo Bridge when his old enemies caught up with him in the form of an unidentified assailant who jabbed him in the leg with the tip of an umbrella, squeezed a hidden trigger, and injected the unsuspecting author with a tiny pellet of ricin, one of the world’s deadliest poisons. He died three days later in a London hospital.


A Twisted Web

800px-New_Scotland_Yard_sign_3The easy answer to the question of who killed Georgi Markov is that the Bulgarian state was responsible. While this is true, it does not get to the specifics of the case–who actually pulled the trigger? Who supported the trigger man? Who made the weapon, especially the poison?

In the 30+ years since the killing, the Bulgarian state has done little to advance the investigation. Obviously, Communist Bulgaria was not going to fess up to killing a dissident on foreign soil. Modern Bulgaria is looking to move on from its dark past, and would rather forget the whole killing even happened.

The investigation then has been left to Scotland Yard, and various journalists who have taken an interest in the case. However, their efforts have been hampered by the actions the Bulgarian secret services took on the wake of the collapse of Communism. Many records related to the killing were destroyed by the former Bulgarian intelligence chief, General Vladimir Todorov, who served 16 months in prison for the crime. Still, vigilant investigators have managed to uncover an astonishing amount about who was involved in the crime on that September day. They even managed to discover the identity of a man closely linked to the killing; he may even be the killer himself.

In the immediate years after the fall of Communism, two Soviet spies came forward with information regarding the Markov case. The first was a Russian-British double agent named Oleg Gordievski. He claimed that the weapon used in the killing–both the umbrella and the ricin itself–was supplied by the Soviet Union’s spy service, the KGB. He went on to claim that the murder itself was conducted by Bulgarian agents. The second former spy, a man named Oleg Kalugin,  made the claim that non other than Todor Zhikov ordered the assassination. Naturally, the former dictator never admitted to any part in the killing.


A Viable Suspect?

While these revelations cleared away some of the fog surrounding Markov’s death, they shed no light on the identity of the killer himself. However, in 2005, a Bulgarian journalist struck gold after doing six years of research in the old security service archives. He found files implicated a man named Francesco Gullino, a Danish citizen originally born in Italy, as a suspect. Gullino was arrested at the Bulgarian border in1970 for smuggling drugs. From these dubious beginnings, Gullino was recruited into the Bulgarian spy apparatus. He used his antique business as a front for his clandestine activities, and received the equivalent of thousands of dollars in payouts from the Bulgarian government during the years he served. His code name was “Agent Piccadilly.”

Records show that Gullino flew to London three times in 1977 and 1978. He left the city on a flight for Rome the day after Markov was poisoned. The same records indicate that Gullino was the only Bulgarian agent present in London at the time. This would strongly suggest that he was the trigger-man, although other investigators claim that Gullino was not trained to kill but rather acted to facilitate the killing by transporting the weapon. According to this theory, as many as five people were involved in the assassination.

For its part, Scotland Yard remains mum on the matter, refusing to comment on an open case. Gullino himself, who lives in a small Austrian village, also refuses to speak much on the matter. He does admit that he was working for the Bulgarians at the time of the killing, however. While not an admission of guilt, it does build up the case against him.

Even so, there is still hope for a resolution to this mystery. The statute of limitations for the murder in Bulgaria ran out in 2008, so any murderer would not be brought to justice in Markov’s homeland. While the Bulgarian government itself has no interest in justice for Markov, the Bulgarian people have a renewed interest in the matter. His literary works and principled stand against Communism have attracted new notice in Bulgaria, and new interest in his chilling end. Perhaps this new interest will spur the Bulgarian government to make a new effort to solve the case and remove this particular stain from the country’s tattered history. There may yet be justice for Georgi Markov.



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