September 08, 2012

Who Killed the Wanderer?--The 1978 Murder of Georgi Markov

In her wildest dreams Agatha Christie couldn't have conjured a more bizarre murder and a more bizarre murder weapon than the one that killed a Bulgaria writer named Georgi Markov who, while living in exile in London, wrote commentaries for Radio Free Europe.

(Ed Bradley, 60 Minutes, CBS Television News Program, 20 October 1991)

On 7 September 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian √©migr√©, who lived and worked in London, was assaulted in broad daylight on London’s Waterloo Bridge. His life and death give evidence of just how far a regime will go to silence its opposition. Below is a short historical overview of this still unsolved mystery.

Time magazine in February 2010, ranked the murder of Georgi Markov at number 5 of the “top 10 assassination plots”, just below the murder of Leon Trotsky in 1940 and the attempt on Adolph Hitler in World War Two.

First Program on RFE
Georgi Markov had been a prolific and successful literary figure in Bulgaria before leaving to the West in 1969. He received one extension of his visa in 1970, but in November 1971, the second extension was rejected.

He settled in England and eventually joined the staff of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He also later became a free-lance broadcast journalist for Radio Free Europe and Deutsche Welle, the German international broadcast service. Markov began broadcasting over Radio Free Europe on 8 June 1975 with a program entilted, "The Debts of contemporary Bulgarian Literature" and had a large listening audience in Bulgaria, for his prime time Sunday-night broadcasts. He dared to tell his listening audience that Bulgarian President and Communist Party chief Todor Zhivkov wore no clothes.

Markov was given the code name "Wanderer" (skitnik) by the Bulgarian intelligence service.

Kalugin in Sofia
Former KGB general Oleg Kalugin has publicly admitted his role and the role of the KGB in supplying the Bulgarian intelligence service with both the weapon and the poison. For example, in March 1991,he agreed to an interview that was broadcast by the Russian Service of Radio Liberty--the sister station of Radio Free Europe. Details of this interview were carried by news agencies, newspapers, radio, and television, including those in  Sofia. 

In 1992, he traveled to Sofia and gave the details of the roles of the KGB and Bulgarian intelligence service in the Markov murder at a press conference.

According to Kalugin, in June 1977, Communist Party Chairman Zhivkov chaired a Politburo meeting, and stated he wanted the activities of Markov stopped. The Interior Minister reacted and requested KGB assistance in the kill Markov in early 1978. 

Georgi Markov’s fate was decided during a meeting in a third floor office in the KGB Main Headquarters Building, “The Center”. Those in attendance were Yury Andropov, Chairman of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, then Chief of Intelligence (First Administration), his first deputy, Vice Admiral Usatov, and General Oleg Kalugin, Chief of Foreign Counterintelligence. 

Though he wanted Markov killed, Andropov wanted no trace to Bulgaria. Andropov agreed to the assassination, as long as there would be no trace back to the Soviets. Thus, the Bulgarians and Soviets were operating under a double case of “plausible denial.“

Kalugin afterwards went to his office and called two of his KGB subordinates: Colonel Sergey Golubev, Chief of the Security Service and specialist on “murder”, and another KGB officer. Kalugin reportedly told Golubev, “We have an assignment, a job to do. You have to get in touch with the Scientific Division that will provide you with the necessary poisons and weapons. We will give you instructions, and you then will go to Sofia to help the Bulgarians."

Purportedly, the highly secret KGB laboratory known as the "Chamber" developed both the weapon, concealed in a US-manufactured umbrella, and biotoxin ricin impregnated in a wax-coated platinum-iridium pellet the size of a pinhead -- about 1.52mm (0.060 inches in diameter).

Golubev received operational instructions in the “Chamber,” and the next week he flew to Sofia with Ivan Surov. Surov’s job was to give the Bulgarian Intelligence Service practical training in the use of special poisons, which could not be traced after the victim’s death. Golubev and Surov reportedly discussed with the Bulgarians intelligence officers the various options of killing Markov. 

Bulgarian intelligence officers directly involved in the Markov case also visited Moscow as early as 1976 and met with General Kalugin and other KGB officers, presumably Golubev and Surov. For example, in May 1976, Colonel Micho Genkovski (directly responsible for the Markov case) traveled to Moscow. In his report written after the trip, Genkovski wrote: 

We examined a total of 17 operational cases of joint interest, including the Wanderer case. For each case an assessment of the work, opportunities and prospects for development was made. We discussed what further measures could be taken by us and our Soviet comrades. Particular attention was paid to the “Wanderer” … We discussed the Wanderer case in detail.

Markov received various warnings and anonymous threats to stop broadcasting   his inside knowledge of Zhivkov and the obsequious circles of Bulgarian intellectuals and government officials. Until his death, Markov persisted and peeled away the artichoke leaves of lies and corruption in Bulgaria.

A grotesque black comedy followed with three attempts to kill Markov. The first attempt was in Munich in the spring 1978 when Markov visited friends and colleagues at Radio Free Europe. There was a planned attempt to put a toxin in Markov's drink at a dinner party to be held in his honor. However, after Markov's brother was warned about the plot, Georgi Markov canceled his trip. The second failed attempt was to be made on the Italian island Sardinia, while Markov enjoyed a summer vacation with his wife Annabel and daughter Sasha. Agents decided against this for fear of his wife or daughter would be victims instead of Georgi Markov. 

Colonel Genkovski traveled to Moscow in June 1978 as part of an official intelligence delegation and met personally with KGB General Kalugin. One can presume they discussed the developments in the Markov case. KGB Colonel Golubev then traveled to Sofia for four days in July 1978 to "discuss certain specific operations."

The final and successful attempt was in London on President Zhivkov‘s birthday Thursday, 7 September 1978. On that day, Markov worked a double shift at the BBC. After finishing the early morning shift, reportedly he went home for rest and lunch. Afterwards, he drove to a parking lot on the south side of Waterloo Bridge, which was his routine and easily observable.He parked his car near the bridge and climbed the stairs to the bridge at about 2 p.m.

As he neared a waiting bus queue, he experienced a sudden stinging pain in the back of his right thigh. He turned and saw a man bending to pick up a dropped  umbrella. 

Bus Stop in 2012
The man, facing away from Markov, apologized with the word "sorry" spoken in a foreign accent, hailed a taxi, and departed. He has never been identified. Whether Markov was waiting for bus himself or the assassin struck while Markov passed by the queue remains one unanswered question in the mystery of his murder. Georgi Markov is the only known witness as to what actually happened.

Though in pain, Markov continued on his way to the BBC building. He then noticed a small blood spot on his pants, told colleagues what happened on Waterloo Bridge, and showed one friend a pimple-like red swelling on his thigh. He worked his shif to the end and returned home. Overnight Markov developed a high fever and was unable to go to work the next day. 

The fever worsened and the next evening, 30 hours after the attack on Waterloo Bridge, Markov was taken to London's St. James' hospital Friday evning. He told the examining physician, Dr. Bernard Riley, "I have been poisoned by the KGB and I'm going to die -- you can't do anything about it." 

X-rays taken that night showed the pellet in Markov's thigh but it was not immediately recognized by Dr. Riley as such: "looked at the x-rays some time after midnight, and there was a very small opacity visible that, I confess, I had

dismissed initially as a speck emulsion artifact on the ‘wet film’ – no digital images in those days."
Markov was treated for an undetermined form of blood poisoning. He did not respond to doctors’ efforts, went into shock, and after days of delirium, pain and suffering, Georgi Markov died in London on Monday, 11 September 1978 -- he was 49 years old. 

Were it not for the unsuccessful murder attempt on Bulgarian exile Vladimir Kostov on 26 August 1978 in Paris, the use of toxin ricin to kill Markov might never have been confimed: In a 1978 statement to Scotland Yard, Dr. David Gall said:

There is some evidence that the blood of Mr.Kostov, Markov’s compatriot   contained small amounts of antibody to ricin, consistent with the administration of a small amount of ricin sometime previously.

An umbrella believed by some to be similar to the one reportedly used to deliver the ricin that killed Markov, is on display at the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin, however, stated to a Bulgarian newspaper interview in 1998: “The umbrella was only a cover. Georgi Markov was killed with a small special instrument, a weapon like a pen manufactured in the Soviet laboratories.”

According to Kalugin, soon after Markov’s murder, he was awarded by Gen. Dimitar Stoyanov for his "personal merits" to operation. In the Bulgarian State Security archives, there is a special order signed by Bulgarian Interior Minister Stoyanov on April 17, 1979 awarding Vice-Admiral Michail Ushatov (Deputy KGB Chairman), Lt.-Gen. Ivan Savchenko (KGB resident in Sofia), General Oleg Kalugin, Col. Sergei Golubev (who had traveled to Sofia), and four other KGB officers with Bulgarian orders and medals.  

It has been estimated that one ounce of ricin could kill as many as 90,000 persons. British scientists later estimated that only about 450 micrograms were used to kill Markov. The pellet and a replica umbrella are on display at "The Black Museum" located at Metropolitan Police Headquarters, New Scotland Yard, London, which, unfortunately, is not open to the public.

Shortly after the collapse of Communism in Bulgaria, both the Bulgarian Lawyers' Union and the Bulgarian Writers's Union appealed to the transitional government to begin an investigation into the the murder of Georgi Markov and release the intelligence files. Both appeals fell on deaf ears of the respective government agencies, which were leftovers from the Communist regime. In fact, most, if not all, of the files directly related to the murder of Markov were deliberately burned, beginning in January 1990.

In 1992, one Bulgarian general (Stoyan Savov) committed suicide rather than face trial for the destruction of thousands of pages of documents related to Markov. Another general (Vladimir Todorov) was found guilty of destroying the documents related to Markov, spent a few months in jail, and died on 23 December 2012, without admitting his involvement in the murder of Georgi Markov or attempted murder of Vladimir Kostov. 

Georgi Markov was buried in the Saint Candida and Holy Cross Churchyard cemetery in Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset, England. In February 1991, former dissident and Bulgaria’s first post-Communist President Zhelyu Zhelev made a six-day visit to England. During the  visit, he had lunch with Queen Elizabeth and met with numerous British business and political figures. He had decided to also do something more personal on his last day in England: leave London and drive to the cemetery in Whitchurch, where he participated in a short memorial ceremony. 

President Zhelev then bent over and placed a wreath on the grave. After a few seconds, he stood up, turned to the small crowd, including Georgi Markov’s widow and daughter, who had gathered around. He emotionally said, “I am hopeful that Bulgarian authorities will soon reach some conclusions on who was responsible. The killing has shamed Bulgarian and mars its reputation abroad”.

Bulgarian Investigative journalist Hristo Hristov spent over 6 years trying to open the Bulgarian intelligence archives on Georgi Markov. In 2005, his book Kill the Tramp (Wanderer): The murder of Georgi Markov and Bulgarian and British Government policy was published in Bulgaria. 

The book includes a copy of the passport and photographs (including one  on the cover) of an Italian-born art dealer living in Copenhagen and small time-criminal Francesco Gullino, code name “Piccadilly”, who allegedly was used by the Bulgarian intelligence service in the murder.
Gullino 2012

Hristov gives details of Francisco Gullino's recruitment, training and Gulliono's activities, including the Bulgarian foreign intelligence service’s use of Gullino up to April 1990. However, Hristov was frustrated with the lack of cooperation from Bulgarian authorities and, even after the publication of his book, he was making appeals and court suits to get the closed files that still exist opened to the public. That has not happened.

Gullino was interviewed by officers of Scotland Yard and the Danish police in February 1993 but was not charged with any crime. 

He was interviewed in 2012 for the documentary film "Silenced: The Writer Georgi Markov and the Umbrella Murder" and denied any knowledge of or participation in the attack on Waterloo Bridge. The film premiered in Sofia on March 14, 2013, and is currently being shown in various movie theaters in Bulgaria.

In 2006, WNET of the television public broadcast service (PBS) network in New York produced and aired a program on Georgi Markov’s death called Secrets of the Dead: Case File Umbrella Assassin. This television program was based on a documentary film The Umbrella Assissin produced in the United Kingdom by Mark Radice and Windfall Studiios. The producers of the American televsion program made their findings available on the Internet, including a re-enactment of the murder, photograph of the pellet, video clips, and an interactive “Teacher’s Toolbox” for educators and students to “examine the evidence.” 

Also included in the program was an interview with American Dr. Christopher Green, of the Central Intelligence Agency's Science and Technology Division, who had participated in the forensic investigation in 1978. Dr. Green said:

We had pretty much all of the story from a forensic point of view. We had   the body, the thing in the body that he was hit with -- the pellet -- and the stuff from the pellet. We knew that the material used to kill him, ricin, had been under development by a foreign service linked to the incident. We also knew that he had been a target of assassination attempts in the past. The story of him being a target was very well known. Therefore, we had information on the means, motive, and the opportunity.

The case has been investigated by generations of Scotland Yard policemen for over 35 years and remains open in the England: under the common law concept of Nellum Tempus (Nullum tempus occurrit regi --Time does not run against the Crown), there is no statute of limitations in murder cases. 

In Bulgaria, the case should have been closed in 2008, due to thirty-year statute of limitations of the murderous act, but authorities decided to keep it open another five years. But in September 2013, the case has been closed in Bulgaria: 
the prosecutors' office spokeswoman Rumiana Arnaudova said, "To overcome the statute of limitations, we need to have a suspect for the crime arrested, charged or put on a search list. As of the moment, we have not established the perpetrator and neither of the above actions are undertaken."

With all the public information and over 35 years of official investigation, no one has been charged with the crime. The dots have not been completely connected: although the "how" and "why" questions have been answered, the final piece of the puzzle to complete the picture remains to be found: who killed Georgi Markov? 

The murder of Georgi Markov  35 years ago seems destined to be another footnote in the history of the Cold War. Georgi Markov deserves a better fate. 

The epitaph on his gravestone is in Bulgarian on one side and English on the other:

In Memory of Georgi Ivanov Markov
Novelist & Playwright
Most dearly beloved
By his wife Annabel
His Daughter Sasha
His Family & his Friends
Born Sofia 1. 3. 39
Died London 11 .9. 78
In the Cause of Freedom

AFP Nikolay Doychinov
On November 11, 2014, a monument to Georgi Markov was unveiled in the heart of Sofia, Bulgaria.  Annabel Markov was in attendance and said, ""Of course he could never go back, it was impossible then. But sometimes he indulged in a fantasy... how he would slip into Bulgaria without anyone knowing, just for 24 hours ... He said he even knew what he would order -- stuffed cabbage... In a sense, Georgi has now returned to Bulgaria, not just for 24 hours but as a permanent part of the landscape of Sofia." 

Further Information:

For the most plausible scenario of the attack on Waterloo Bridge, here is the link to the new documentary film trailer shown below:


Listen to Georgi Markov speak over the BBC in 1976 about his favorite music.

Chapter 3 in my book Cold War Radio: the Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950 – 1989 (McFarland & Co, 2009) is devoted to the Markov murder.

Markov’s Radio Free Europe programs posthumously were collected and translated into English as The Truth That Killed (London: Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1983).

Dr. Bernard Riley gives details of how he treated Georgi Markov and how the experience changed his life in his article published in Bulletin, The Royal College of Anaesthetists, Issue 61, May 2010, pp. 36-39

For information from former Soviet KGB officers about the Markov murder, see Oleg Kalugin, Spymaster; My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage against the West (New York: Basic Books2009). And, Oleg Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (New York: Harper Collins, 1990).

The interactive television program Secrets of the Dead: Case File Umbrella Assassin on the murder of Georgi Markov, including the interview with Dr. Christopher Green, can be viewed at (last viewed April 2013)

For full details of “Piccadilly”, including photographs, see Hristo Hristov’s e-books, The Double Life of Agent Piccadilly and Kill the Wanderer at

Here is the link to the recent ARTE television program program about RFE and the murder of Georgi Markov (in German and French).

For a Romanian language article with more details and photographs see Historia

1 comment:

  1. A brilliant post and I too have that book- an interesting collection of Georgi's thoughts and experiences.