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The Assassination of Georgi Markov
At about 6:30pm on September 7, 1978, while the Communist dictator of Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov, was celebrating his 67th birthday in Sofia, a mortal enemy named Georgi Markov was walking past a bus stop near Waterloo Bridge in London.
The 49-year-old was a freelancer for the BBC World Service, and the anniversary of Zhivkov’s birth would not have been far from his mind. The BBC, expected to maintain a degree of impartiality, allowed him to broadcast but kept him on a shorter leash than did his other employer, Radio Free Europe, where he was allowed to run free with a satirical show called In Absentia that frequently mocked Zhivkov as a buffoon who was way out of his depth running a country. What better occasion to ridicule the grotesque Soviet lackey than on his birthday?
A stranger bumped into him near the bus stop. Markov felt a sting in his right thigh. He turned around and saw a man he described as being in his 40s and swarthy, who curtly apologized, bent over and picked up his dropped umbrella, then scuttled away and got into a cab. He spoke to the driver in heavily accented English.
Markov soon forgot about the incident. It was only that evening that he began to feel woozy, achey, and nauseous. By 2am, he was vomiting copiously and burning up with a fever of 104 degrees. The next day, his wife insisted on taking him to the hospital, where a doctor found a small, irritated puncture wound on his thigh and determined he was suffering from an allergic reaction to a wasp sting. Markov countered that the KGB was after him and had poisoned him. Nonsense, proclaimed the doctor. He would soon get better.
Markov soon got worse and was admitted to intensive care. He began hallucinating, his pulse hit 160bpm, his white blood count was thrice normal, and his organs slowly shut down, one after the other. Markov died on September 11, the cause of his ailment still a mystery.
For Zhivkov, Markov’s death made for a wonderful, if delayed, birthday present. The victim had long been regarded as a stone in his shoe. Zhivkov lacked any discernible sense of humor, especially about himself, while the playwright and acclaimed novelist Markov had plenty of it—and knew that Zhivkov hated being made fun of.
Worse (perhaps), Markov was an ingrate and a traitor. Once a darling of Bulgaria’s elite intellectual community, whom Zhivkov had showered with rewards and privileges in exchange for his artistic acquiescence, Markov had turned dismayingly independent-minded and defected to the West in 1969 after being censored once too often for his liking.
I remember reading long ago in one of Ian Fleming’s early James Bond novels—Casino Royale, I think it might have been—that Bulgarians were used by Moscow Center (home of the KGB) as their go-to assassins. If there was a dirty deed that needed doing, Sofia, the most obsequious of the USSR’s satellites, would happily despatch some heavy at Moscow’s request.
Consequently, the Dyrzhavna Sigurnost (DS, the Bulgarian security and intelligence service), enjoyed a fearsome reputation for ruthless, sleek, and lethal efficiency. Who else would be daring enough to liquidate a famous dissident on the streets of London? And proficient enough not to leave behind any clues, a weapon, or any trace of the killer? As one TV show recently put it, it’s “The Weirdest Cold War Assassination of All.”
Actually, it’s not in the slightest bit weird once one delves a little deeper into the context of the murder and its afterlife. And neither was the DS all it was cracked up to be.
We know relatively little about the planning of the assassination, though we now know enough to be quite sure of what happened, why it happened, and who did it.
After the fall of Communism in 1989, Bulgaria’s former deputy interior minister, General Stojan Savov, and General Vladimir Todorov, the former head of the DS’s First Chief Directorate, diligently rifled the relevant files under their supervision and destroyed more than 90 percent of those pertaining to “Wanderer” (Markov’s codename). They were protecting not only the Party from further investigation, but themselves, as both men had been deeply involved in the affair. (Savov later committed suicide, and Todorov was sentenced to ten months in prison.)
Fortunately, owing to DS’s circulate-in-triplicate bureaucracy, copies of some of the Wanderer files remained in other departments’ archives, and thus out of Savov and Todorov’s reach, though they too were kept locked up. It took the persistent efforts of a Bulgarian investigative journalist, Hristo Hristov, to finally pry them out of government hands in 2008. They, together with the 1994 memoirs of Oleg Kalugin, the former head of KGB foreign counterintelligence, allow us to fill in the background to the events of September 7, 1978.
It’s clear from the files that Moscow was only peripherally involved in the Markov case. If anything, the KGB rolled its eyes at the proposal to kill Markov—they were rather busy at the time preparing for the invasion of Afghanistan—but Zhivkov, being so loyal, was owed a reward.
Even after being given a reluctant nod, the DS, far from being the remorseless Borg terrors of Europe, then had to beg Moscow for weapons, poisons, and instructors. KGB boss Yuri Andropov agreed to help, but stipulated that Moscow would only “give the Bulgarians whatever they need, show them how to use it, and send someone to Sofia to train their people. That’s all.”
Notice that he didn’t offer to send any of Moscow’s numerous operatives specializing in “sharp measures” (as the 1970s jargon had it) to actually do the job. Secretly, Andropov hoped the DS wouldn’t be able to procure an assassin and the whole thing would be called off.
Killing Markov, then, was a peculiar obsession of Zhivkov, not a KGB-ordered liquidation carried out by some Bulgarian assassination bureau to further the cause of Communism. The KGB was actually quite cautious about pursuing its enemies abroad at the time. Killings and kidnappings in the West were undertaken only after prolonged consideration of the possible consequences.
The Bulgarians were clearly rather more zealous. Markov was in fact merely the latest in a series of similar Zhivkov-inspired hits on Bulgarian intellectual and journalistic exiles.
In 1974, Boris Arsov, who published the anti-Zhivkov newspaper Levski, was kidnapped in Aarhus, Denmark. He was put on trial in Sofia and sentenced to 15 years, but was found dead in his cell in 1975.
Around the same time, three Bulgarian intellectuals were shot and killed in Vienna. The murderer was a DS agent who had penetrated the group, posing as an artistically minded émigré.
On August 26, 1978, just a couple of weeks before Markov died, the former head of Bulgarian state radio’s Paris bureau, Vladimir Kostov, who had received asylum from the French government, felt a sting in the small of his back as he left a Paris Metro station. He was sick for several days but recovered. Kostov remembered seeing a man carrying a briefcase walking quickly away from him.
Of these, Markov was by far the most prominent. His Radio Free Europe show was widely (and illegally) listened to in Bulgaria, with the DS remarking that he was the “‘heavy artillery’ of the ideological sabotage conducted through [the West’s] radio propaganda.”
Markov’s assassin can be identified with near-total certainty as Francesco Gullino, an Italian-born Dane (born 1945) considered to be a low-rent smuggler and swindler. He was recruited for intelligence work in 1971 when he was caught bringing in contraband—drugs and foreign currency—to Bulgaria and given the stark choice of: (a) rotting in a cell and dying in questionable circumstances; or (b) being paid to perform questionable work for the DS and not dying.
Soon afterwards, the newly minted “Agent Piccadilly” was posing as an “antiques dealer” (probably more fencing than dealing was involved) in Copenhagen. One of Gullino’s advantages is that he held a Danish passport, allowing him access to Britain and France. As such, he may well have been the briefcase-carrying man and would-be Kostov killer in the Paris Metro, and the fact that Arsov was abducted in Denmark—familiar territory, no doubt—might be something more than a coincidence.
We’ll never know for absolutely sure, though, that Gullino was the assassin, as, thanks to Todorov and Savov’s assiduous handiwork, there is no record of his whereabouts for virtually the whole of 1978.
We do have, however, a mound of circumstantial evidence that the duo failed to destroy. So, we know that he was ordered to travel to London in late 1976 and 1977 to follow Markov, and that in October 1977 Vasil Kotsev (the head of Bulgarian foreign intelligence) approved a special training program for Piccadilly, who traveled to Bulgaria for firearms training, surveillance methods, and learning how to ace a polygraph test.
After completing training on January 3, 1978, he was granted the exceptional honor of a dinner given by Kotsev, Todorov, and Savov. By any definition, this marked Piccadilly as something special.
Finally, having flown to Italy and gone to ground perhaps in Austria after the Markov business, Piccadilly was given a false passport by the Bulgarian residency in Vienna in December of that year and subsequently traveled to Bulgaria. Between 1979 and 1990 he was assigned only minor intelligence tasks, yet was paid significant amounts of money in various currencies.
All very curious.
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The weapon used by Piccadilly was developed, said Kalugin, by the KGB from a stock of umbrellas purchased in Washington by their man at the embassy. If lost on a mission, the umbrella would thus have American not Russian fingerprints on it, so to speak. The silenced gun mechanism was designed to fire a tiny, pinhead-sized pellet (diameter of 1.70mm or 1.52mm, estimates vary) with sufficient velocity to penetrate clothing and burrow into flesh.
The pellet was made of 90 percent platinum and 10 percent iridium, and contained ricin, a poison so toxic only a minuscule amount was needed to kill. The ricin had been supplied by Moscow’s poisons laboratory and given to the DS. It’s thought that two holes were bored into the pellet and sealed with a substance that melted at human body temperature, thereby releasing the ricin after a short period.
It was only after Markov’s death that the pellet was finally found by a pathologist and tests were conducted on it. The newspapers excitedly reported on the discovery and quoted Markov’s recollections of what he had seen and felt that day at the bus stop.
An alarm bell rang at the back of Vladimir Kostov’s mind. He too remembered experiencing a “sting” on the Paris Metro and feeling sick for days afterwards. On September 25, a couple of weeks after Markov’s death, he went to a doctor, who dug around the small of his back and found an identical pellet lodged there—one still containing ricin.
He had been lucky: Perhaps his skin there was thicker, perhaps the briefcase gun hadn’t been powerful enough, perhaps he was younger and fitter, but his antibodies had had time to develop some protection.
It didn’t take long for the authorities to put two and two together.
The Markov assassination has long been part of spy legend, partly because it (sort of) remains unsolved and partly because the “umbrella gun” is a really cool gadget. Walter White even describes it to Jesse in a second-season episode of Breaking Bad.
So, yes, it does have a degree of glamor attached to it—though poor old Georgi Markov, who left behind a family and died an agonizing death, tends to be forgotten about and his works ignored, at least outside Bulgaria.
Scratch a little deeper, though, and we can penetrate the shiny varnish to get to the real grain of the thing: The Markov assassination was a successful failure.
It was a technically complex operation that relied on a single, rather ropey agent threatened into performing secret service. Many things could have gone wrong, as the vain attempt on Kostov’s life in Paris showed. Similar overly complicated operations, such as smearing toxic gel on dissident figures, had failed.
Of course, the Markov assassination did work, but nevertheless may have backfired. Thanks to Kostov’s coming forward, within two weeks British police and intelligence services had already fingered Bulgaria as the likeliest perpetrator. As a result, other Bulgarian exiles became more cautious about their security, yet they did not cease their anti-Communist activities in the West. If anything, the killing called more attention to their campaign. European police, too, were now on alert to look out for suspicious deaths among dissidents and to investigate them more deeply, while at the same time the West was handed the propaganda coup that the Soviets murdered their critics because they were scared of being exposed as hypocrites and incompetents.
In pure intelligence terms, the Markov killing exposed the weakness of Bulgaria’s DS in the West rather than demonstrating its strength. Motivated more by spite than by calculation, the DS had very few assets on the ground, was humiliatingly forced to go cap-in-hand to Moscow to ask for assistance (unenthusiastically rendered), and had to rely on a low-grade operative whose sole advantage was that he owned a foreign passport.
The good news is that in recent years Georgi Markov has been granted a modest second life. In Bulgaria, most of his novels are out of print and nearly all his plays remain unproduced, but there is increasing recognition of his importance to understanding the Communist mentality and the nature of Zhikhov’s regime.
Meanwhile, in 2021, his (alleged) killer, a now-elderly Francesco Gullino, was found dead in his tiny apartment in Wels, Austria, surrounded by old paintings and bric-a-brac. He went to his grave neither confirming nor denying his role in the affair. In 2013, when a German filmmaker tracked him down and asked him whether he killed Markov, he murmured, “if I were the murderer, do you think I should say it?”
Perhaps he didn’t need to.
Further Reading: C. Nehring, “Umbrella or Pen? The Murder of Georgi Markov: New Facts and Old Questions,” Journal of Intelligence History, 16 (2017), No. 1, pp. 47-58; D. Kenarov, “A Captivating Mind,” The Nation, April 7, 2014.