Georgi Markov

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Georgi Markov
Георги Иванов Марков
Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov.tiff
Born(1929-03-01)1 March 1929
Died11 September 1978(1978-09-11) (aged 49)
Balham, London, England
Cause of deathRicin poisoning
Occupation(s)Writer, broadcaster, playwright, anti-communist dissident
Notable workThe Truth that Killed

Georgi Ivanov Markov (Bulgarian: Георги Иванов Марков [ɡɛˈɔrɡi ˈmarkof]; 1 March 1929 – 11 September 1978) was a Bulgarian dissident writer. He originally worked as a novelist, screenwriter and playwright in his native country, the People's Republic of Bulgaria, until his defection in 1978. After relocating to London, he worked as a broadcaster and journalist for the BBC World Service, the US-funded Radio Free Europe and West 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 he died, eventually became "vitriolic" and included "really smearing mud on the people in the inner circles."[1]

Markov was assassinated on a London street via a micro-engineered pellet that might have contained ricin.[2] Contemporary newspaper accounts reported that he had been stabbed in the leg with an umbrella delivering a poisoned pellet, wielded by someone associated with the Bulgarian Secret Service.[3] Annabel Markov recalled her husband's view about the umbrella, telling the BBC's Panorama programme, in April 1979, "He felt a jab in his thigh. He looked around and there was a man behind him who'd apologized and dropped an umbrella. I got the impression as he told the story that the jab hadn't been inflicted by the umbrella but that the man had dropped the umbrella as cover to hide his face."[4] It was reported after the fall of the Soviet Union that the Soviet KGB had assisted the Bulgarian Secret Service.[5][6]

Life in Bulgaria[edit]

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, 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 Caesium, 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 Every Kilometer (Всеки километър or At Every Milestone) which created the character of the Second World War detective Velinsky and his nemesis the Resistance fighter Deyanov.

Although some of his works were banned, Georgi Markov had become a successful author. He was among the writers and poets that Todor 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.[7]

Writer and dissident[edit]

Although not yet confirmed,[8] Markov's first published work was considered to be "The Whiskey Record Holder", which was issued in the newspaper "Narodna kultura."[9] There are at least three versions as to when he debuted as an author:[10]

  • Slav Karaslavov's version (1972) claims that Markov debuts in the newspaper "Stershel" in 1952. In the same year, signed by B. Aprilov and G. Markov, the feuilleton "The Forest of Horrors" was published in the newspaper.[11]
  • Yordan Vasilev's version (1990) – according to him, Markov debuts in the newspaper "Narodna armia"[12] in 1951. Signed as "Georgi Markov", "The Whiskey Record Holder" (July 7, 1951) and "Bolshevik" (December 12, 1951) were published.[13]
  • Aleksander Kostov's version[14] (1996) says that Markov debuts in the newspaper "Zemedelsko zname" in 1947. Signed as "G. Markov", many of his works, some of which are "Giordano Bruno" (February 19, 1947) and "Heinrich Heine" (February 21, 1947), were published.

In 1969, 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 opened a file on Markov 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, co-written with 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, an analysis of life in Communist Bulgaria. They were broadcast weekly on Radio Free Europe. Their criticism of the Communist government and 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 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 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...[15]

— Georgi Markov describing life under an authoritarian regime in The Truth that Killed

In 1978, Markov was killed in London (see below), allegedly 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."


On 7 September 1978, Markov walked across Waterloo Bridge spanning the River Thames and waited to take a bus to his job at the BBC. While at the bus stop, 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.

When he arrived at work at the BBC World Service offices, he 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, Theo Lirkov, about this incident.[16] 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. His grave is in a small churchyard at the Church of St Candida and Holy Cross in Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset.

Later investigation and aftermath[edit]

Ricin bullet. For comparison, a pin head is about 2 mm.

Bernard Riley, the attending physician treating Markov, considered many possible causes of his illness, including that he had been bitten by a venomous tropical snake. Riley had the inflamed area at the back of his leg x-rayed, but no foreign object was detected at this time.[17] 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 his body. Rufus Crompton performed the autopsy, noting a red mark on the back of Markov's leg. He cut a tissue sample from the area, with a matching sample from the other leg. These samples were sent for further analysis at the Porton Down chemical and biological weapons laboratory. There, David Gall, the Research Medical Officer, found a tiny pellet in the tissue sample.[2]

The pellet measured 1.70 millimetres (0.067 in) in diameter and was composed of 90% platinum and 10% iridium. It had two holes with diameters of 0.35 mm (0.014 in) drilled through it, producing an X-shaped cavity. Further examination by experts from Porton Down could not detect any remnant of poison. Considering possible poisons, scientists hypothesized that the pellet might have contained ricin.[2]

Porton Down scientists also thought that a sugary substance had been used to coat the tiny holes, creating a bubble that trapped the poison inside the cavities, with a specially crafted coating designed to melt at 37 °C (99 °F): human body temperature. After the pellet was inside Markov, the coating might have melted and the poison released to be absorbed into the bloodstream and kill him.[2]

Regardless of whether the doctors treating Markov had known that the poison might have been ricin, the result would have been the same, as there was no known antidote to ricin at the time.[18]

A diagram of a possible umbrella gun

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 Métro station.[19]

KGB defector Oleg Kalugin alleged that the Bulgarian Secret Service arranged the murder with help from the Soviet KGB. Nobody has been charged with Markov's murder, largely because most documents relating to it are unavailable, probably destroyed. Kalugin said that Markov had been killed using an umbrella gun.[5]

The British newspaper The Sunday Times reported that the prime suspect was an Italian, Francesco Gullino or Giullino, who was last known to be living in Denmark.[20] A British documentary, The Umbrella Assassin (2006), interviewed people associated with the case in Bulgaria, Britain, Denmark and America, and revealed that Gullino was 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.[21] Gullino died in Austria in August 2021.[22]

In culture[edit]

Markov's assassination is mentioned in John D. MacDonald's 1979 novel The Green Ripper when a character is murdered.

Markov’s assassination is mentioned in season two, episode seven of CSI, by Aaron as he describes people poisoned with ricin to Gil Grissom.

Markov's assassination is also mentioned in the neo-Western crime drama series Breaking Bad, season two, episode one, "Seven Thirty-Seven" as Walter and Jesse think of plans to kill Tuco Salamanca.

It was also mentioned in an episode of The Young Ones, "Demolition" when Jerzei Balowski gets off the bus.

In August 2018 the case was the subject of the BBC Radio 4 programme The Reunion.[23]

Markov's assassination is used as the basis for an assassination story in the US Naval crime drama series NCIS, season seven, episode twenty-one, "Obsession". The character, Lt Hutton, is working on a classified program at the Naval Info-Ops Centre (NIOC) and is discovered to have been murdered using the same method as Markov, leading to a Soviet KGB plotline.

Markov's assassination is also mentioned in season two, episode one from “Slow Horses”, an Apple TV series. River Cartwright and Shirley point to the possibility of the same technique being used to murder a former MI6 agent, who was following a former KGB agent, possibly “Cicada”. Then River finds out that some poison was inserted into the arm, through a similar but different method.

Similar attacks[edit]

On 11 May 2012, a German man died almost a year after having been stabbed with an umbrella in the city of Hanover. German police – who noted a resemblance to the Markov case – analyzed the syringe which the victim had managed to take from the perpetrator, and found dimethylmercury;[24] the reported cause of death was mercury poisoning.[25][26][27]

In 2016, police in Chennai, India solved three separate murders when the four killers confessed to having used an umbrella tipped with a potassium cyanide-filled syringe. They had ridden past the victims on a bike and jabbed them into the thigh.[28][29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Guardian Staff (14 September 2012). "From the archive, 14 September 1978: Bulgarian dissident killed by poisoned umbrella at London bus stop". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d "Georgi Markov - Death in a Pellet, a report to the Medico-Legal Society" (PDF).
  3. ^ "The poison-tipped umbrella: the death of Georgi Markov in 1978". The Guardian. 9 September 2020.
  4. ^ Panorama, April 1979, 24 October 2014
  5. ^ a b Kirilenko, Anastasia; Bigg, Claire (31 March 2015). "Ex-KGB agent Kalugin: Putin was 'only a major'". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
  6. ^ Rózsa, L.; Nixdorff, K. (2006). "Biological Weapons in Non-Soviet Warsaw Pact Countries". In Wheelis, M.; Rózsa, L.; Dando, M. (eds.). Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons since 1945. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 157–168. ISBN 0-674-01699-8.
  7. ^ "Who Killed Georgi Markov?". Retrieved 27 May 2016.
  8. ^ Един старинар. Джордж Оруел, Шерлок Холмс, българският език и джендърите или Защо не желая да живея в ЕС? Страници из моя блог. С., 2019, с. 57–58. ISBN 978-619-239-159-1.
  9. ^ Речник по нова българска литература 1878–1992. С., 1994, с. 217. ISBN 954-428-061-8.
  10. ^ Чернев, Чавдар. Как се роди Георги Марков? Нов материал за библиографията на писателя // Библиотека, ХІV, 2007, № 5–6, с. 38–50.
  11. ^ Чернев, Чавдар. Как се роди Георги Марков? Нов материал за библиографията на писателя // Библиотека, ХІV, 2007, № 5–6, с. 38–50.
  12. ^ "Вестник Българска Армия – За нас | Информационен център на Министерство на oтбраната" (in Bulgarian). 22 March 2021. Retrieved 4 August 2021.
  13. ^ Чернев, Чавдар. Как се роди Георги Марков? Нов материал за библиографията на писателя // Библиотека, ХІV, 2007, № 5–6, с. 38–50.
  14. ^ "Литературен свят » A » Александър Костов" (in Bulgarian). Retrieved 4 August 2021.
  15. ^ Markov, Georgi (1984). The Truth That Killed. Ticknor & Fields. p. prologue. ISBN 978-0-89919-296-3.
  16. ^ Volodarsky, Boris (February 2018), "Georgi Markov", The KGB's Poison Factory, Zenith Press, ISBN 978-1526724274
  17. ^ The Reunion: The Murder of Georgi Markov, BBC
  18. ^ Rincon, Paul (11 November 2009). "Ricin 'antidote' to be produced". BBC News. Retrieved 20 November 2009.
  19. ^ Bell, John D. (1998). Bulgaria in Transition: Politics, Economics, Society, and Culture after Communism. Boulder: Westview Press. p. 251.
  20. ^ Hamilton, Jack; Walker, Tom (5 June 2005). "Dane named as umbrella killer". Sunday Times. UK. Archived from the original on 17 September 2008 – via Times Online.
  21. ^ Brown, Jonathan (20 June 2008). "Poison umbrella murder case is reopened". The Independent. UK. Retrieved 20 November 2009.
  22. ^ Pachner, Jurgen (17 August 2021). "Notorious agent (75) was dead in Welser apartment". Kronin Zeitung. Germany. Retrieved 15 January 2021.
  23. ^ "BBC Radio 4 – The Reunion, The Murder of Georgi Markov". BBC. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  24. ^ "Namen genannt! Wird der Regenschirm-Mord an Familienvater Christoph (†40) endlich gelöst?". TAG24 (in German). 25 August 2022. Archived from the original on 25 August 2022. Retrieved 30 August 2022.
  25. ^ Albers, Anne; Gies, Ursula; Raatschen, Hans-Jurgen; Klintschar, Michael (1 September 2020). "Another umbrella murder? – A rare case of Minamata disease". Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology. 16 (3): 504–509. doi:10.1007/s12024-020-00247-y. ISSN 1556-2891. PMC 7449996. PMID 32323188.
  26. ^ "Umbrella stab victim dies of mercury poisoning". 11 May 2012. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
  27. ^ "Quecksilbervergiftung" [Mercury poisoning]. Der Spiegel (in German). 11 May 2012. Retrieved 3 September 2020.
  28. ^ "How cops found, arrested an 'umbrella murderer'". The Times of India. 28 April 2016. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  29. ^ Narayanan, Vivek (8 May 2016). "Syringe murders: Three bodies to be exhumed". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 25 August 2022.

Further reading[edit]

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