Who Killed Georgi Markov with an Umbrella on a Dry Day
The death of a Bulgarian defector
Georgie Markov was a Bulgarian dissident who was attacked with an umbrella in London and died. Markov was a Bulgarian playwright who defected to England in 1969. His current job was as a presenter for the BBC Bulgarian Service at Bush House.
He was forty-nine when he died in St James Hospital from septicaemia and blood poisoning. Although Markov told everyone before he died he had been assassinated, no one believed him, to the degree that a post-mortem was not immediately carried out on the body. As a result, proving who and how he was killed would be a mystery that lasted thirty years.
On 7th September 1978, Markov parked his car across from Waterloo Bridge as he did most days. He then walked across the bridge and waited at the local bus stop to catch the bus to work. Whilst standing there, he felt a sting in the back of his right thigh; turning around, he saw a man pick up an umbrella and walk off.
The site of the sting started to swell; by the next day, he was taken to hospital, where he told the story of the umbrella attack. Unfortunately, none of the doctors paid much interest in his story, and neither did friends of Markov. Markov, it seemed, had a habit of entertaining friends with some unbelievable stories.
The morning of his death, Markov had been in intensive care for two days. Then, he started to have an irregular heartbeat and went into cardiac arrest. After forty-five minutes of resuscitation, the doctors called the time of death 1040 on 11th September 1978.
All his symptoms pointed to him dying of severe septic shock; antibiotics had failed to improve his condition.
When the police heard that a Bulgarian defector had died, they started an investigation and called for a post-mortem; what they found would shock all of them.
Georgie Markov was one of the most acclaimed writers of the 60s. During his popularity in Bulgaria, he went hunting with many political figures. As a result of this, he was well thought of and received many benefits from the communist regime.
This changed in 1969 when he used his writing to speak negatively about Bulgaria's communist leader Zhivkov. As a result, Markov soon found that his play and books were cancelled; he was then faced with no choice but to defect to England.
Once in England, he met and married Annabel Rilke; they had one daughter together. Markov started as a BBC translator, going on to work on radio stations. This included a radio station that half of Bulgaria could receive. He mocked Zhivkov from abroad, making him look a fool.
At this time, he started receiving anonymous phone calls threatening him.
The police investigation started slowly; there were no witnesses to the incident on the bridge. The police also failed to identify the taxi driver Markov saw take the man with the umbrella away. So the only information they had to go on was what Markov had told people before his death.
When the doctors identified the area Markov had been stabbed in; it looked like a needle mark.
Not surprisingly, Bulgaria censored details of Markov's death. As a result, friends and family still living in his native country had to learn of his death from foreign media. What became clear was that since 1969, Markov had been considered an enemy of the state. As a result, all his books had been removed and his name edited out of film credits.
The police also uncovered that Markov had been assassinated on Zhivkov's birthday. Had the dictator given himself a birthday present?
The police ordered a post-mortem on Markov; blood results showed no trace of any toxin. What was discovered was whatever happened to Markov, all his organs had been affected. His lymph glands were swollen; they surmised that all these symptoms were as if he had been poisoned.
The injection site was then examined, but for this, they called in poison experts. When they examined the wound, they discovered a small ball bearing in the injury. The metal ball looked like it had come from the tip of a ballpoint pen. When the pellet was taken to London, it was found to be a round canister with two tiny holes.
The pellet was made of platinum and iridium. The two holes went to an empty reservoir containing no trace elements. It was concluded that the reservoir had poison in it and then sealed. Once the pellet entered the body, the seal had melted, releasing the poison. What the poison was, remained a mystery.
At this point, the investigation stalled.
That was when Scotland Yard received a message that there had been a second attack on a Bulgarian defector. Vladimir Kostov had been walking through Paris when he felt a sting in his back. Shortly after, he fell seriously ill and went to the doctor. Forty-eight hours later, he started to recover.
Kostov had also been receiving death threats. So when he saw the Markov case, he contacted the police. He agreed to have a small operation to remove a portion of his skin where he had been injected. The section was taken back to England. When they looked, they found an identical pellet.
This pellet also didn't include any poison. Scientists believed that Kostov's thick jumper had saved his life as the pellet had not travelled as far into him.
They estimated that the pellet had contained two-tenths of a gram of poison; after much investigation, they believed the poison had been Ricin, a nerve agent.
Bulgaria and the KGB
The police had evidence but no proof of who had organised the assassination. They believed the umbrella had been used to inject the pellet into Markov. Bulgaria, however, did not have the technology to make such a weapon; they also had no research into Ricin.
It became clear that the only country that could have these weapons was the USSR. Bulgaria had close connections with the USSR; any criticism of the communist regime was met with anger. Moreover, the KGB had organised the attack on Markov. The umbrella gun was a known KGB weapon.
The investigation once again stalled as no information was released from either country.
The fall of Bulgaria
Early in 1990, Bulgaria became a free country. In 1991, the Bulgaria government opened up their own investigation.
Markov was found in secret records, including the code name of the secret service agent tasked with neutralising the problem. The code name assigned was Piccadilly. Unfortunately, there was little other information, as General Todorov had destroyed the records, protecting the involvement of the KGB.
After many more years of investigation, Piccadilly was the code name associated with agent Gullino. Gullino was interviewed in the Netherlands, where he lived, in February 1993. He admitted espionage but not to the murder of Markov. He was released without charge.
Gullino died in 2021, never admitting his part in the murder. Officially the case is still under review by the British authorities.
Eighty per cent of documentation points to the fact that a Bulgarian assassination killed Markov. However, Bulgaria refused to comment further as, at the time, they were trying to join the European Union, denying their communist past.The
A team from the Metropolitan police travelled to Sofia in April 2007, then in March 2008 and again later in that year. The hope was to identify the assassin before the statute of limitation expired in September.
In 2008, the case expired. The Markov murder was never solved; no one took responsibility for the assassination. His family still hope that one day someone will tell them what happened. They do not want anyone charged, but they believe knowing the truth would give them closure.