Document Friday: The Poisonous Umbrella and the Assassination of Georgi Markov
On 7 September 1978 Georgi Markov –an acclaimed Bulgarian dissident and writer living in London– walked across the Waterloo Bridge and waited for a bus to take him to his job at the BBC. He felt a sharp sting in his right thigh and whirled around to see a man picking up an umbrella from the ground. The man mumbled “I’m sorry” in a foreign accent and hailed a cab. Four days later, Markov was dead. Killed by a poisonous umbrella.
Markov’s assassination may be the most “Bond-like” episode of the entire Cold War. But to chalk up the bizarre killing up as “just another Cold War hi-jinx” is inadequate. Markov’s murder epitomized the Eastern Bloc’s inability to stomach dissent. The totalitarian system –in this case Todor Zhivkov’s Bulgaria, with help from the Soviet KGB– eliminated Markov just as it had the millions of dissenters before him.
Markov’s end was the same as his predecessors, but the means of his assassin were quite different. A month before his death, Markov received a phone call informing him that he would “die of natural causes, killed by a poison the West could not detect or treat.” His dangerous ideas would be extinguished when he died a “natural,” quiet, unremarkable death.
But it turns out that it’s hard for a man to die an unremarkable death when the British tabloids catch wind that he was murdered on Waterloo Bridge by a poisonous umbrella. Likewise –as Diana Bancheva blogged about earlier this week– Bulgarians refuse to give up on the story. As they continue their dogged pursuit of the truth Bulgarian journalists and historians –using Bulgaria’s effective access to information law (see page 53)– have unearthed a trove of documents exposing and explaining the umbrella assassination.
Foremost among these journalists is Hristo Hristov, who has written two books on Markov’s assassination, Kill the Wanderer and The Double Life of Agent Piccadilly. He searched the Bulgarian archives and found these documents –in Bulgarian and Russian– related to Markov’s assassination.
To start, there was an agreement of cooperation between the KGB and Bulgarian Minstry of Interior, signed by the Bulgarian Interior Minister, Angel Canev as well as the head of the Soviet KGB, Yuri Andropov. This document, along with the complexity of the poisonous umbrella, shows that the Bulgarians relied upon Soviet expertise for the assassination.
To me, the most chilling document is a secret decree agreed to in 1973 by the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The decree endorsed “harsh agent-operational activities [read: assassination]” of Bulgarian activists abroad.
Another document identified Markov as an “enemy” and detailed his radio career abroad.
And if you closely examine the second list of enemy émigrés, you can read “22.V.79 killed in England” next to Markov’s name. (This was not the date of his death.)
Markov was not the only Bulgarian dissident targeted for assassination. A document listing Markov and other dissident “enemies” gives further insight. It names another Bulgarian dissident journalist, Vladimir Kostov. Kostov was the victim of a similar, but unsuccessful attack, in the Paris metro. Kostov and Markov had identical poisonous pellets inside of them.
A fascinating PBS documentary reconstructs the assassination. The assassin’s nondescript umbrella used a canister of compressed air to fire its poison pellet. (According to a report by The Guardian, a stack of these umbrellas was found in the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior after the collapse of communism.)
The pellet was originally found when a doctor cut a chunk of skin from Markov’s thigh and began slicing it. It was the size of a pinhead (1.52 millimeters) and was constructed from an alloy of platinum and iridium. This alloy was chosen because would not cause an immune rejection. It had two tiny holes bored into it which could only have been done using a laser. Inside these holes was about a fifth of a milligram of poison. It was likely sealed inside by wax –which melted when it was warmed by Markov’s body heat, released the poison, and killed him.
The poison which killed Markov was ricin, a deadly derivative of the caster bean. (Breaking Bad fans will remember that ricin played a key role early in season two.) Ricin kills with a slow and painful death. Markov succumbed to a fever as the ricin irreparably damaged his lymph nodes and caused hemorrhaging in his internal organs. Finally, four days later, Markov’s kidneys and heart failed.
There were several investigations into Markov’s death, but none have brought Markov’s killer to justice. According to Hristov’s research, the killer was codenamed Agent Piccadilly. Agent Piccadilly was a Dane who had worked Bulgarian Intelligence since 1971. In 1977 and 1978 he made three trips to London; he was in London at the time of Markov’s assassination, and left the day after. Piccadilly was awarded medals for his service, and now lives freely in Europe. His name is Francesco Gullino.
In 1993, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin stated he was present at the meeting where Markov’s killing was planned. Kalugin said that the order to assassinate Markov came from the leader of Bulgarian Communist party, Todor Zhivkov who wanted to silence his leading critic. The seventh of September –the day Markov was shot by the poisonous umbrella– was also Zhivkov’s birthday.