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The Notorious Umbrella Assassination of Georgi Markov: The Story

Updated on January 31, 2009
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Communist Bulgarian Flag (1948-1967)Communist Bulgarian Flag (1967-1971)Bulgarian World War II FlagCommunist Bulgarian Flag (1971-1990)Bulgarian Flag Republic of Bulgaria
Communist Bulgarian Flag (1948-1967)
Communist Bulgarian Flag (1948-1967)
Communist Bulgarian Flag (1967-1971)
Communist Bulgarian Flag (1967-1971)
Bulgarian World War II Flag
Bulgarian World War II Flag
Communist Bulgarian Flag (1971-1990)
Communist Bulgarian Flag (1971-1990)
Bulgarian Flag
Bulgarian Flag
Republic of Bulgaria
Republic of Bulgaria
Georgi Markov (early photo)
Georgi Markov (early photo)

The Strange Assassination Of Georgi Markov

Is the type of story that seems to jump right out of any Ian Fleming super spy thriller. The events of Markov's death in 1978 are a conspiracy theorist's wet dream. Georgi's death and the moments surrounding his untimely passing are a testament to just how real the cold war communist fist was to the rest of the world.

A case that is so mind-boggling that as of March and April of last year, Scotland Yard was still reinvestigating the incident. To the point that Counter-terrorism detectives had spent two weeks in Bulgaria, interviewing 40 witnesses and attempting to access archived documents on the case of Georgi Markov, one of Britain's most famous unsolved murders.

The investigation was a race against time, because the present Bulgarian government intended to wash its hands of the case on September 11, 2008, by invoking its legal code's statute of limitations, which closes the book on all unsolved, or unpunished, crimes after 30 years.

At this time the Georgi Markov inquiry remains open and is still a particularly complex investigation.

Georgi Markov
Georgi Markov

Who Was Georgi Markov?

He was a popular Bulgarian playwright and novelist. In the 1960s, Georgi Markov was well- known for writing the first hit action television series in Bulgaria. The action series titled "Na Veski Kilometer," which translates to "At Every Kilometer"(American translation: "At Every Milestone") praised the Bulgarian Communist Party's fight against Nazi troops in the early 1940s.

Georgi Ivanov Markov was born March 1, 1929 in Bulgarian capital of Sofia. In 1944 the Bulgarian Communist Party took control. Although Georgi's father was a "class enemy" of the communist party, Georgi Markov, at the age of 32, published his first novel. In which his novel received critical acclaim, and stellar reviews. Markov eventually enjoyed a life of the privileged elite, as an acclaimed novelist and playwrite, amongst Bulgarian society; including members of status in the communist party. His admission into these intimate circles, that included even President Todor Zhivkov, would come to an end for Georgi in 1969. It was through attending these meetings of the party and of state. That allowed him not only to be a direct witness of the manner of communication and personal conduct, but also Markov would to get to know Zhivkov and to assess his positive and negative characteristics, weak and strong sides. Markov had learned many of the intimate secrets of high ranking party members.

In the early 1960s, a roof collapsed and killed many workers. The government was slow to react to the incident, and this event was a profound effect on Georgi. Markov wrote his first novel that was critical of the regime, called "The Great Roof," which he described, "as a symbol of the lies...that the regime has constructed over our country." By the mid to late 1960s, many of his novels and plays, such as "The Assassins" (which dealt with a scheme to kill a political leader) had been banned by the government. In 1969, Markov's play "The Man Who Was Me" was closed by an angered goverment and Georgi was warned to leave Bulgaria. Georgi defected to Italy and lived with his brother, Nikola Markov, who had emigrated in 1963.

It had taken a brave person to look into the real face of communism, and an even braver person to speak the truth about it. Georgi Markov on both levels was a very brave man.

In Memoriam Georgi Markov (rare archive of a broadcast)

Truth Finds A Home In Western Europe

For the next few months Georgi traveled to Austria, West Germany and the UK, trying to find a market for his literary works. The communist government in Bulgaria were applying pressure on Markov to return to Bulgaria. He refused to return and in 1970 he settled in London, where the famous Bulgarian refugee and producer, Petar Uvaliev, promised to make a film of his novel, ‘Women of Warsaw." Markov wrote in one of his letters from that time, “I have to tell you that the recent years for Bulgarian literature have been the most difficult of the period since the war, and in some ways even more difficult that the Stalinist period."

In 1971 Markov began to work with the Bulgarian section of the BBC World Services, and other western media (including Deutsche Welle). As a radio journalist, Markov made a name for himself by criticising Bulgaria's communist leaders and regime. He began to broadcast his essays. For these broadcasts in December 1972 he was sentenced in absentia to six and a half years to prison as a traitor to the homeland and for placing himself at the services of “hostile” radio stations.

The 6th department of the SSS (Political Police) started an operation against Georgi Markov under the code name “Wanderer” as a non-returnee in 1971. At the end of the same year, the Bulgarian Embassy in London refused to extend the period of his passport. Markov had no choice but to apply for political refugee status from the British government. In which he was granted.

Markov achieved literary success in the UK in 1974. A London theatre staged one of his plays and that same year his play, “Archangel Mihail” won first place in the prestigious literary festival in Edinburgh.

In 1975 Markov married Annabel Dilk, a journalist from the BBC, and later they were blessed with a daughter.

In 1975 Radio Free Europe, a station funded and supported by the CIA, began having Georgi contribute broadcasts.Mainly excerpts from his book “Distant Reports about Bulgaria”, which became a sharply profound criticism of the Bulgarian communist system. 137 programs were broadcast, one per week over 32 months, and a repeat of the program the following day. The series began at the beginning of November 1975 and the last was in June 1978. The broadcasts led to an 60% increase of listeners to Radio Free Europe.

At that time Bulgarian intelligence analysed the broadcasts and submitted reports to the ruling elite:

“The series of broadcasts entitled, “Distant Reports about Bulgaria”, by the traitor, Georgi Markov are considered to be the most massive propaganda attack against the socialist way of life during the period under examination”.

During the same year, the First Main Directorate (FMD) of the intelligence services began an operation against the writer under the code name, “Wanderer”. A year later an operation for his “disarming” was planned.

In November 1977, Radio Free Europe began to broadcast reports describing meetings between writers and Todor Zhivkov. The first of 11 extracts was broadcast in the middle of November, 1977, and the last at the end of January, 1978. In these broadcasts Markov subjected Zhivkov to merciless criticism:

“Not for single moment did he have the illusion that he might go against the will of the leaders of the Kremlin. Even in the most serious and, I admit, sincere feelings of patriotism, he never forgot that the USSR comes first and only then – Bulgaria… He was the strongest, most reliable and most practical and above all the most loyal. It might be said of him that he served the Soviet Union more zealously than the Soviet leaders themselves”.

In 1977, Georgi Markov was intrducing the free world to an unflitching look behind the iron curtain. His radio programs were increasingly inspiring dissension within his mother country,Bulgaria. At the same time, Bulgarian President Zhivkov signed a decree to "neutralize enemy emigrants" for good and the Soviet KGB would be enlisted to help. It was around this time, that  there was two unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Markov.

Georgi Markov
Georgi Markov

Plotting To Silence The Truth

At the beginning of 1978 the KGB, received a telegram from the Bulgarian Minister of the Interior. It was a request for assistance to fulfill instructions made by Todor Zhivkov for the termination of the Bulgarian writer, Georgi Markov. The request was reported to the KGB Chairman. He initially resisted, but in order to avoid any falling out between Bulgarian- Soviet relations, he instructed the KGB to provide technical assistance for the assassination.

In connection with this the director of the counter-intelligence services for the Soviet Union, General Oleg Kalugin and a number of high-ranking KGB officers visited Sofia on a number of occasions. In his memoirs, General Kalugin wrote, “During the next six months using the talents of KGB scientists trained in the art of poisoning and other methods of murder, together with the Bulgarians we prepared the path for the murder of Georgi Markov."

Beginning in early 1978, Markov began receiving telephone death threats. In the last call, received in August 1978, a man told Georgi that he would die of natural causes, he will be killed by a poison the West could not detect or treat. Within two week of the last phone call, Georgi Markov would be forever silenced.

Waterloo Bridge, London
Waterloo Bridge, London
Georgi Markov
Georgi Markov
Re-enactment photo
Re-enactment photo

The Assassination Of Georgi Markov

On the 7th of September 1978, conveniently Todor Zhivkov’s birthday, Markov was at a parking lot on the south side of the Waterloo bridge. This is where he always caught the bus to go to work at the BBC Headquaters.

While waiting at the bus stop that evening, Geogri felt a sensation, kind of like a strining prick in the back of his right thigh. When Markov turned around, he saw a heavily built stranger bending over to pick up a dropped umbrella. The man, who was facing away from Markov, said in a thick foriegn accent, "I'm sorry" and then hailed a taxi cab; inwhich he left. Markov thought little of the trivial incident, let's face it being bumped into accidently by a stranger is not too uncommon, and it all seemed innocent enough. Without a second thought he caught his bus and continued on his way.

Markov was in pain when arrived to work at the BBC Headquaters. He told his colleagues and co-workers what had happened at the bus stop. Recalling the stinging pain he had felt, which he assumed was from the tip of the umbrella. Georgi noticed an irritating pimple-like swelling had formed on his right thigh, and he also noticed that the pain from being jabbed had not gone away. Hours later that evening, Georgi Markov had developed a high fever.

By the next day, Georgi was having trouble speaking. He was rushed to the hospital, and promptly admitted. Doctors initially began treatment for blood poisoning (septicemia). Over the next couple days, Markov's body was progressively failing. His bloody pressure collapsed, he started to vomit blood, his kidneys were non-functioning and the doctors were doing all they could do. On the morning of September 11, 1978, the system that regulates the beating of the heart failed. His heart stopped. 49 year old, Georgi Markov was dead.

British police probe 'umbrella murder' thirty years later

The Speculation

Over the years, there have been many claims of the Bulgarian State Security asking for the assistance of the KGB to help develop a technology to kill Georgi Markov. Georgi's assassination was a birthday gift to President Zhivkov, which was on the same day as Markov feeling the sting from the tip of an umbrella. Todor Zhivkov died in 1998 , he never admitted to having any link to Georgi Markov's death.

In my next chapter, I will delve into the Clues and Evidence of Georgi Markov's bizarre murder. Including the autopsy findings, the key suspects in the chain of the assassination, and the similiar incident that happened just 10 days before Georgi's death; in a Paris Metro Station. As well as, Scotland Yard's race against time 30 years later and why this is so improtant even today.

Georgi Markov was considered to be one of the most talented young writers of the time in his home country of Bulgaria. Later he would be known as a defector, called a traitor by his own country. He became a voice over the air-waves for those who could not speak, and was classified as "non-person status" by a government that feared him. For that, at the age for 49, he was murdered. Leaving a wife widowed and a daughter without her father.

Georgi Markov's own country could not even offically mention his murder, until 1989 when communism fell in Bulgaria.

I will leave this chapter with words from Georgi Markov, himself:

"Many times I have thought that one everything will be known, absolutely everything will be known. In ten years, one hundred, one thousand or ten thousand years’ time some computer programmed for the resurrection of everything which has exited will summon people, characters and circumstances for examination and bring everything concealed out into the open and cast light on buried secrets. With no compromise and with no mercy. For many this may be comfort, for others – threat.”

Georgi Markov, 1973


Submit a Comment

  • profile image

    Mimi Paunova 

    7 years ago

    There is a popular Bulgarian proverb:the barking dogs cannot stop the caravan to carry on. And I believe the late

    communist president Todor Zhivkov had known it. He was on the top for more then thirty years and all the officials of the world used to spread the red carpet front of him. so he was the last person who would bothered about some dissident writings that he is not capable for his post. Why on earth that complicated public murder been done. It was done because they wanted the world to believe that BG secret agents are in action to execute our dissidents. You see: Markov in England and did it well, also Kostov in France but we failed there. All this was about the people to believe that Kostov is a dissident too. Who is Ivan Kostov by the way? A real evil communist in action since his very young years.He made a list of number of his schoolmates, sons and daughters of businessman and landowners, and they all been sent to Bulgarian concentration camps of death. The price of good job like that was to be taken under the wing of BG secret services. I not know what he was doing in the West, when he "run out" from home but I believe his dissident portrait is a big scam. And I believe that the death of the real dissident Georgi Markov lies on his conscience.

  • Uninvited Writer profile image

    Susan Keeping 

    9 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

    I remember hearing about that when it happened...James Bond indeed.

  • profile image


    9 years ago from Seattle

    Great hub

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida


    This story is very much true.


    Thank you!

    Proud Mom,

    I do enjoy history, but I am just interested in so many things...My major attraction is to the odd, the strange, and things that teeter on the edge.

  • Proud Mom profile image

    Proud Mom 

    9 years ago from USA

    Proof that time is not wasted reading more than the funny stuff. This is great! Can't wait for the next chapter!

    Curious: Are you a history buff? I mean the answer to that may be obvious with this hub, but was just wondering. And if so, is there a particular part of history you are interested in the most?

  • Benson Yeung profile image

    Benson Yeung 

    9 years ago from Hong Kong

    Is this stuff real? It sounds so much like fiction. Thanks for the great read.

  • mistyhorizon2003 profile image

    Cindy Lawson 

    9 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

    Fascinating stuff, looking forward to the next chapter.


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