Georgi Markov

Georgi Ivanov Markov (Bulgarian: Георги Иванов Марков [ɡɛˈɔrɡi ˈmarkof]; 1 March 1929 – 11 September 1978) was a Bulgarian dissident writer.

Georgi Markov
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 deathPoisoning via umbrella
OccupationWriter, broadcaster, playwright, anti-communist dissident
Notable work
The Truth that Killed

Markov originally worked as a novelist and playwright in his native country, the People's Republic of Bulgaria, until his defection in 1968. 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]

Georgi Markov was assassinated on a London street via a micro-engineered pellet containing ricin, fired into his leg from an umbrella wielded by someone associated with the Bulgarian Secret Service. It has been speculated that they asked the KGB for help.[2]

Life in BulgariaEdit

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 years 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.

Despite some of his works being 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.[3]

Writer and dissidentEdit

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 file 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 the 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...[4]

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

In 1978, Markov was killed in London (see below) 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. The event is recalled as the "Umbrella Murder".

When he arrived at work at the BBC World Service offices, Markov 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 about this incident. 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. The cause of death was poisoning from a ricin-filled pellet.[5][6][7]

Markov's grave is in a small churchyard at the Church of St Candida and Holy Cross in Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset.

Later investigation and aftermathEdit

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 Markov's body. Dr Bernard Riley, a forensic pathologist, discovered a spherical metal pellet the size of a pin-head embedded in Markov's leg.

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 showed that the pellet contained traces of toxic ricin. A sugary substance coated the tiny holes creating a bubble which trapped the ricin inside the cavities. The specially crafted coating was designed to melt at 37 °C (99 °F): human body temperature. After the pellet was shot into Markov, the coating melted and the ricin was free to be absorbed into the bloodstream and kill him. Regardless of whether the doctors treating Markov had known that the poison was ricin, the result would have been the same, as there was no known antidote to ricin at the time.[8]

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 metro station.[9]

KGB defector Oleg Kalugin confirmed that the KGB arranged the murder, even presenting the Bulgarian assassin with alternatives such as a poisonous jelly to smear on Markov's skin, but to date no one has been charged with Markov's murder, largely because most documents relating to it are unavailable, probably destroyed.[10]

The British newspaper The Times has reported that the prime suspect is an Italian named Francesco Gullino (or Giullino) who was last known to be living in Denmark.[11] A British documentary, The Umbrella Assassin (2006), interviewed people associated with the case in Bulgaria, Britain, Denmark and America, and revealed that the prime suspect, Gullino, is 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.[6]

In August 2018 the case was the subject of the BBC Radio 4 programme The Reunion.[12]

Similar attackEdit

On 11 May 2012, a German man (not named in press reports) died almost a year after being stabbed with an umbrella in the city of Hanover. German police – who noted a resemblance to the Markov case – believe the umbrella was used to inject mercury, and the reported cause of death was mercury poisoning.[13][14]

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ 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.
  3. ^ "WHO KILLED GEORGI MARKOV?". Retrieved 27 May 2016.
  4. ^ Markov, Georgi (1984). The Truth That Killed. Ticknor & Fields. p. prologue. ISBN 978-0-89919-296-3.
  5. ^ Hamilton, Jack, Umbrella Assassin, Secrets of the Dead: PBS TV, retrieved 20 November 2009
  6. ^ a b Brown, Jonathan (20 June 2008), "Poison umbrella murder case is reopened", The Independent, UK, retrieved 20 November 2009
  7. ^ Schep LJ, Temple WA, Butt GA, Beasley MD (2009). "Ricin as a weapon of mass terror—separating fact from fiction". Environ Int. 35 (8): 1267–71. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2009.08.004. PMID 19767104.
  8. ^ Rincon, Paul (11 November 2009), "Ricin 'antidote' to be produced", BBC News, retrieved 20 November 2009
  9. ^ John D. Bell, Bulgaria in Transition:Politics, Economics, Society, and Culture after Communism, Westview Press, Boulder, 1998, p.251.
  10. ^ Anastasia Kirilenko; Claire Bigg (31 March 2015). "Ex-KGB agent Kalugin: Putin was 'only a major'". RFE/RL. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  11. ^ Times Online(UK) article revealing Giullino as the umbrella killer by Jack Hamilton and Tom Walker. 5 June 2005
  12. ^ "BBC Radio 4 – The Reunion, The Murder of Georgi Markov". BBC. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  13. ^ "Umbrella stab victim dies of mercury poisoning", article reporting the second (2011, with death occurring in 2012) incident (in English.) 11 May 2012, accessed 3 September 2020
  14. ^ "Quecksilbervergiftung", tr. Mercury poisoning article in Der Spiegel (in German) reporting the 2011 incident. 11 May 2012, accessed 3 September 2020

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit