The Notorious Umbrella Assassination of Georgi Markov: The Two Failed Attempts on Georgi's Life

Georgi Markov
Georgi Markov

No Longer A Criminal Investigation

For Markov's brother, Nikola Markov, finding the truth about Georgi's murder is no longer personal, he says, "My brother's murder is not a criminal case, but a political case," He further continued to say,  "I'm not looking for the killer, but the person who ordered and organized it. And who was guilty? The system. I want to show the world what the communist system really was."

For Markov's family, his widow Annabel, and his daughter, Sasha; it's now about a broader social justice. It is about Bulgaria's willingness to look into the face of its own past; it is about the post-Communist Bulgarian rulers admiting to the crimes commited by their past leaders, and those who were the enforcers. The Umbrella Murder of Georgi Markov has become the watershed point of Bulgaria, finally letting go of past, and washing away the era of Communism.

Officially,  the Bulgarian government still denies what has happened, the State rejects the assassination as the official explanation. Claiming the whole situation was a "medical mistake" by British doctors. They deny there was an umbrella, and that Georgi Markov was murdered. The Bulgarian government still would rather sweep this under the rug, then admit to any wrong doing in it's past.

Castor Beans
Castor Beans

Attempt 1: Munich, Germany

After postponing of his trip to Munich, Germany twice, Georgi Markov made arrangements to fly to Munich in May of 1978. He made a call Radio Free Europe on May 10, 1978, and said he had decided to keep his upcoming trip to Munich quiet. He planned to touchdown in Munich on Friday, May 19th, and except a few trusted friends in Munich, Markov told one else. On Saturday the 20th of May, Georgi planned on a visit to RFE and an editor, who then was seriously ill in a Munich hospital. Then Markov would fly back to London quietly.

The Security Office of RFE notified, in advance, the Munich police. As well as, other German authorities, of Markov's visit. Munich police decided not to interview Markov or provide him protection, since the threats seemed vague in their opinion. Markov returned to London with any incident. Or, may there was an incident?

According to the former KGB General, Oleg Kalugin, there was an attempt to kill Markov made during his trip to Munich in the spring 1978. A Bulgarian agent was to put a poison pill in Markov's drink, during a party that was in Georgi's honor. The plan failed for unknown reasons. The Bulgarians, and KGB, decided to try something else when to time was right.

One of the books written about Georgi Markov's Murder
One of the books written about Georgi Markov's Murder

Attempt 2: Sardinia, Italy

The agents decided that the time was right, to hatch another plan to kill Markov. While Georgi and his family were vacationing on the beautiful Italian island Sardinia. The agents wanted to put some kind of poison either on his car door handle, or on the walls of a room where he was staying.

This plan failed, because the agents, during the surveillance of Markov realized that Markov's wife (Annabel) or daughter (Sasha) may also be poisoned.

Who would have thought assassins had a conscience, or cared about a target's family?

The Bulgarian intelligence agents decided to postpone their mission, until they perfected the umbrella weapon. As we know a few months later, the modified umbrella was perfected and its wielder would hit his unsuspecting victim with the skill of a fencer.

Soon after this decision to wait, the Bulgarian Intelligence agents assigned to the British Embassy stepped-up their watch of Markov.

For Georgi Markov, unbeknownst to him, he survived two possible attempts on his life. Now,his luck, and time were dissolving quickly.

BBC Bush House Studios
BBC Bush House Studios

Life in Bulgaria

Waterloo Bridge
Waterloo Bridge

The Threats And The Promise Kept

Starting in January of 1978, the Security Office at Radio Free Europe  started to receive the first warnings that Markov would be killed. Georgi's brother, Nikola Markov, called and said he had been warned in a very brief telephone call that his brother would be killed. Nikola said the warning came from a Politburo member, who opposed the order to kill Markov, but was still in close political association with Bulgarian Communist President Zhivkov.

Nikola Markov said he would not identify the informant, because he would endanger the informer. The voice from the telephone told Nikola that additional information would come from a third party contact, a Bulgarian dissident who was living in Western Europe.

Georgi Markov contacted the Radio Free Europe- Bulgarian Service Director. Georgi said that a Bulgarian refugee visited his brother, Nikola, in Italy and told him that "the Bulgarian Intelligence Service had planned to kill Georgi in Munich in January." Georgi dismissed this as harassment, but he did postpone his visit to Munich, twice. Nikola Markov would later say in a 1991 interview, with RFE that between January and the end of July 1978, the informant from the Politburo had repeatedly told him , "Georgi Markov's days are numbered." Nikola would pass along every warning to Georgi.

Georgi Markov did not, at first, believe the Communists would actually harm him. After all, Georgi had been a personal friend of state and Communist President, Todor Zhivkov. As time passed and the warnings continued, Nikola says his brother became more convinced that the Communists would not harm him. Georgi thought it would create a "world scandal." Georgi Markov started to not believe the information, carried by his third party contact, to his brother in Italy. Markov thought it was meant to frighten him and stop him from publishing the book he planned about President Zhivkov.

The thrid party informer later told Nikola that two Bulgarian agents had been in Munich and were attempting to learn the full details of Georgi Markov's trip. The informant told Nikola he should not question him about his continuing association with the Bulgarian Intelligence Service. He should just accept it. 

The contact told Nikola that the Bulgarian Intelligence Service had "planted a mole" inside Radio Free Europe and was kept fully abreast of all that's going on. Even though, he was under death threats, Georgi Markov continued to write creative scripts and topics for the RFE airwaves.

On 3 July 1978, Georgi was excited to start a new series of Sunday night, twenty minute long programs entitled, "Markov Speaks." The first in the series was called, "The Mind Under House Arrest." Georgi would continue  to broadcast throughout the summer. Markov's last visited  to RFE in August 1978.

For the first time, Georgi would  admit that four months earlier he had received a telephone call in London from a man who "advised" him to stop writing for Radio Free Europe. The unknown caller told him that if he did not stop these programs, he would be killed. The threatening phone calls continued.

Once when threatened, Markov's pointed out to the caller that his assassination would only make him a martyr. His murder would prove that his broadcasts were telling the truth.  Killing him would show the world just how corrupt the Bulgarian regime was. He received what would be his last threat just before he flew from London to Munich. This last threat would be different from the other telephone calls. The tone and conviction in the voice deeply bothered Georgi. "Not this time," said the caller. "This time you will not become a martyr. You will simply die of natural causes. You will be killed by a poison that the West cannot detect nor treat." The voice would repeat this message so Markov fully understood.

After that phone call, Markov understandably slept poorly. The following morning, he went to work at the BBC. Georgi told only his closest co-worker about this latest threat.

The brothers met at Heathrow airport.  Nikola told Georgi again of the threat information . This time, according to Nikola, Georgi was fed up with hearing about the murder plot. He told Nikola to leave him alone. "If they want to kill me, they can do it." This would be the last time the brothers would ever see each other.

That final death threat Georgi recieved, would not be a threat, but a promise. Two weeks later while waiting at the Waterloo Bridge bus stop, Georgi would feel the sting of that threat carried out.

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Comments 3 comments

mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 7 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

I love hearing of this mystery, I just wish it had now been solved so we could ultimately know all the facts of what happened and who did it. Keep these coming if there is more info to reveal.


SiddSingh profile image

SiddSingh 7 years ago

Hi SJ,

Great, well reasearched hub! Apparently, such antics are not really limited to James Bond only!


BrianS profile image

BrianS 7 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

I actually remember this happening when I lived in the UK in the late seventies, it really was murder, mystery and intrigue. Sinks in more when you actually read about the person and his family though, there can be no political justification for taking a mans life really although we would be naive to think it never happens.

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