Killed for Talent: The Story of Bulgarian Dissident Writer Georgy Markov

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This is a different story of the Bulgarian novelist and playwright, Georgy Markov. What the global public at large knows about him is somewhat one-dimensional: Markov was Communist-era dissident assassinated with ricin-poisoned device believed to be an umbrella, in central London, on September 7, 1978, and died four days later aged 49. On March 1, 2018, Bulgarian intellectuals and liberty advocates marked the writer’s 99th anniversary with a publication of his unpublished and once banned works.

His murder is a text-book case, one can read about it in The Forensic Library, in books published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, Wikipedia, and watch movies about the case on YouTube. The generation of the 1950s-1970s universally identifies him as a victim of the infamous KGB-engineered “Umbrella Murder”. It is, perhaps, not the first one, but one of the most famous cases of using KGB-manufactured poison to liquidate a regime opponent. Before “Skripal”, there was “Markov”.

All this is true but even fellows of my generation outside Bulgaria know almost nothing about Markov’s contribution to the spirit of liberty in Bulgaria and abroad, from mid-1960s to present day. The elucidation that Markov’s “talent killed him” belongs to his closest friend, Bulgarian refugee, novelist, Deutsche Welle journalist, and Radio Free Europe program director of the Bulgaria Section, Dimitar Bochev. These days Mr. Bochev and I raise funds to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous Prague Spring and the infamous Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. 1968 had, as we shall see, a solemn impact on Markov’s life and work, on Bochev’s, mine and, I believe, on everybody else’s life of my generation.

Markov was a complete outsider to literary circles, a son of a sergeant major and a house wife, he finished my First Male High School (Gymnasium), 27 years before me, in 1946; then studied and got a diploma in chemical engineering, worked in different factories but retired at 30 on sick-pension due to tuberculosis.

This fate gave him time to devote himself to writing, a hobby since he was 20, attempting criminal and science fiction. In 1959, his Orwellian novel, The Roof (a factory – “Lenin Steel Mill” – roof collapses and central planners try to rebuild it) was banned from publishing, turned out to be Markov’s first rebel book, he worked on its perfection until the end of his days and it eventually appeared in Bulgarian only ten years ago. George Orwell was Markov’s favorite author.

In those years, Markov was no rebel, just a member of a small group of extraordinary original authors, relatively care-free and nonchalant fellows who completed the Bulgarian literary fashion of the 1960s. The characters of their novels were normal humans, with doubts and weaknesses; their books smelt of reality. They created a quest for normalcy, which twenty years late toppled the regime. To Live Not by Lie was Markov’s credo, as much as it was Solzhenitsyn’s and Havel’s. In an essay comparing Communism with the years before 1944, written in 1969, he explained that that the actual change was that people were forced to live in Fear and Lie.

From my teen age I remember Markov’s books as revealing as the impressions I could get in foreign languages and as a translation of 20th century classics, his dramas attracted huge crowds, and after publication his novels immediately became a rarity, priced on the secondary book market (we called it “black”) three-four times higher the original price. As a screenwriter and a movie maker Georgy Markov was the principal creator on the most popular TV series, At Every Milestone, on Bulgarian WWII resistance, partisan movement, a made-up sitcom blockbuster of best Western or action movie quality. After Markov left Bulgaria, his name, in an accurately Orwellian mode, was removed from the titles of the movie.

As a reaction to winds of freedom, like the Prague Spring, the Bulgaria analogue of KGB set a special “Abtailung” tasked with spying on intellectuals, artists and writers, curbing their impact on public opinion, corrupting, coopting them to serve the regime, and harassing and punishing them if they refuse to cooperate. Georgy Markov seemed to believe that his talent buys him an indulgence, continued writing as usual and did not obey “friendly advices” to give up to authorities. Three of his most popular plays were swept out from the theaters, as insiders recall – for being “too Czech-like”, his books started disappearing even from the public libraries and second hand bookshelves.

The public reaction was that actors-writers’ café downtown Sofia, across the street from the People’s Theater, five minutes’ walk from the place I lived, was gathering larger and larger crowds. As we know now, some of the cafe-goers were secret police agents, Markov was the anima de la compania, most vivid and charming member of the crowd, and, as friends witnessed, the freest talking personality among Sofia bohemia. Curiously for today youngsters, it was always known to us teenagers whether “that famous writer” is in the café, for one very simple reason: he drove brand new BMW (a present from his brother in Bologna, as rumors went), one of the two in the city. (By the same pointer we were informed whether the most popular soccer players were around too – the drove the only two brand new Alfa Romeos in town.)

Additional spark for liberty came to our countries with rock and pop music. This might be and is probably true about the USA and Western Europe that the Beat generation of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Norman Mailer and company, the attraction to Zen, and the Hippie movement was anti-West and against middle class values.

But in the so called East, with minor and temporary exceptions, the Beat etc., was viewed like this by the authorities; the youth and the dissidents perceived Rock, Beat and Hippie as Liberation from fear and opposition to lie. This generation eventually dismantled their Communist regimes and destroyed the Iron Curtain – literally speaking. I was there, and was happy to take my part in the action.

In 1971, the State Security Committee (KDS, in Bulgarian) opened a dossier on Markov, title poetically, “The Wanderer”. This OPF, Operating Processing File, summarizes his case as follows: the “The Wanderer” is a writer from an enemy [to the regime] family, politically unstable. He left in 1969 for the West and refuses to return to Bulgaria. It has been established that he has close contacts with traitors and non-returnees. He has attempted to export his works to be published there, and more recently has approached the BBC to find employment there.” In fact, the “Wanderer” left legally, to visit his brother in Italy and, as far as we know now from his private correspondence, never intended to become a refugee.

The explanation of why Makov stayed in Italy is obvious: first, his work was already severely censored; then, the harassment and discrimination against him and others accelerated with the wind of change from Prague, and, third, he must have been troubled by the choice to submit to the will of authorities or continue to speak out what he find appropriate, remaining unpublished.

Our common friend Dimitar Bochev told me that Markov had been far from easy, “almost handicapped”, learning languages. Invited by British Bulgarians, he moved to London in 1970, sharing a flat with a friend, fishing for assignments and studying English.

By 1972 his proficiency sufficed for a job in the cultural section of BBC. The same year, it seems, he starts his literary exercise in English. In 1974, as Wikipedia remarks, his play To Crawl under the Rainbow, previously successful in Sofia, was staged in London, and at Edinburgh International Festival his anti-Utopian, allegorical and sublimely abstract play Archangel Michael, written in English, won first prize at the performing arts festival. In the following years Markov and David Phillips co-authored a novel The Right Honorable Chimpanzee, it was published posthumously in November 1978.

The masterpiece Archangel Michael deserves a brief narrative. Its action is an argument between an armed Policeman dedicated to punishment and a Doctor of medicine, equally equipped to perform his mission of saving lives, on the borders between Black and Red Forests that are engaged in a bitter fight; the Policeman in the end kills the Doctor.

While “the Wanderer” was learning languages, working for BBC and recording for Duetsche Welle, prosecutors in Bulgaria tried him in absentia, in a closed hearings court case in 1972 and sentenced him to six and a half years in prison. The case was filed by a military prosecutor and the indictment reads:

In 1969, the famous Bulgarian writer, Georgy Markov, left Bulgaria for Italy and then to England where he settled permanently after the expiry of the period of the final permission issued by the Bulgarian authorities. He began work as a journalist in the Bulgarian section of the BBC in London. His materials contained extremely harsh criticism of the totalitarian regime in Bulgaria. For this reason he was sentenced on the basis of act No.77/ December 26, 1972 of the Sofia City Court for treason and anti-state agitation and propaganda.”

As far as one can judge from different sources, this is the only case in which ex-Communist states’ subject was punished for working at BBC, all Markov’s Warsaw Pact colleagues were never banned from visiting their homeland.

Between 1972 and 1978, Markov worked on his In Absentia Reports – an analysis of life in Communist Bulgaria, aired weekly by Deutsche Welle. Besides the above mentioned novel and drama, he wrote other two volumes of literary, philosophy and historic essays – to be first broadcasted and then published. During my last two years in high school, and then in the army, until 1975 (then I left for St. Petersburg, to study, all free radio waves were completely jammed), I and my friends were waiting impatiently Markov reportages. I recall that once, perhaps in 1973, we talked with classmates about them in a tram: an older gentlemen approached and advised us not to do this in public places, and be careful even among friends.

The reason: in England Markov career and productivity as a writer was reborn, KDS panicked, his essays are, as another friend and writer, Georgy Mishev, put it “were permanently and steadily debunking a huge myth, that of Communism”. The reportages by Markov and those of Bochev, they changed one another at DW microphone every second week, were meticulously recorded (to be summarized for top Communist functionaries and filed as evidence for prosecutors) and jammed – to make impossible for common folks to listen to them.

A report by the secret service explicitly state that measures against the Wanderer are taken as planned:

In 1969 Markov betrayed the motherland and established himself in London – England. He maintains close relations with active traitors to the motherland. He works for the radio stations BBC and “Deutsche Welle”. He had frequently expressed hostile opinions of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and party politics. Since the beginning of 1973 he was written more than 10 slanderous articles and given a number of interviews which have been broadcast on the above-mentioned radio stations. Markov is kept on record by the Operational Intelligence Department as “Wanderer” and plans have been developed to compromise him.”

All above references from KDS reports I borrow from a friend’s book, “Kill the Wanderer” by Hristo Hristov (Sofia, Gutenberg Publishing House, 2013, 446 pages).

Hristov, an investigative journalist, managed in 2004, with the help of a freedom of information think tank, Access to Information Program, managed to win in the court a case against “reformed” Bulgaria secret service to declassify Georgy Markov’s file. This was a precondition for a detailed reconstruction of the “Umbrella Case”, to put it in a historic perspective and even to spot a link with the dossier of the likeliest murderer, nick-named nicely Agent “Piccadilly”. Only after another similar court case, in mid-2007 the Piccadilly file become available. Next year Hristov published the findings in a book titled “The Double Life of Agent Piccadilly” (Sofia, Economedia, 2008, 159 pages, available only in Bulgarian). Everything the world knows today with certainty about the Bulgarian authorities’ involvement in the Waterloo Bridge assassination is known, first of all, thanks to Hristo Hristov. And this is the following.

The mechanism of compromising and eliminating (through so-called “acute measures”) “hostile enemies” of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria were developed and “perfected” over time from late 1940s to mid-1970s. KDS has classified 1,011 people as belonging to the enemy contingent, including 70 intellectuals. The “Wanderer” file is the largest, 52 volumes of which three volumes of the “Piccadilly” dossier (of which 720 pages were destroyed in 1987).

The system included a rivalry between different departments of the secret services and was tried on other enemies before Markov. It has been proved, again by Hristo Hristov that in 1974 an order has been authorized by the then KDS head to use “acute measures” and “liquidate” Mr. Boris Arsov, a poor Bulgarian émigré in Denmark, naïve publisher of revolutionary pamphlets with no circulation: he was kidnaped in Denmark, transported by a lorry to Bulgaria, sentenced for terrorist plots and killer in the jail. For logistical reasons this action proved to be too risky.

Soviet KGB was asked for assistance, to provide devices that can be used on the spot. In the early 1990’s at least two KGB generals admitted their committee provided such help to brother-Bulgarians of KDS, equipping them with poisonous capsules and shooting devices.i Less than two weeks before Markov’s assassination another murder with analogous device was attempted the exit of the metro station on the Champs Elysees in Paris, the journalist and defector, Vladimir Kostov, received a ricin capsule in his back but the wound was just a scratch and doctors saved Kostov’s life. This accident is well documented.

In order to write this portrait I interviewed Dimiter Bochev and Lyuben Markov, Georgy Markov’s cousin. They told me that some time before Paris case, Georgy Markov, with his baby daughter in his hands, received an unexpected visit in his London flat by a stranger who looked nervous and lost seeing him with a kid. Mumbling in Bulgarian, the stranger advised Markov to look after himself. The story was interpreted by Georgy as a warning. After Markov death, the visitor disclosed himself before Markov’s brother Nikola, Lyuben and Bochev. They tried several times until mid-1990s to convince him to testify, but in vain.

The killing was done on September 7th, the Birthday of the Bulgaria’s communist dictator (April 1856 – November 1989) and an essential, although rather indirect, personage of In Absentia Reports, Todor Zhivkov. No evidence on the link between events was found but many in Bulgaria believe that at last secret services were competing to make “present” for the birthday. Not only the file of “Piccadilly” was cleaned but he was the only agent sent on a business trip to London that year, Danish and British investigators were denied in 1990s an access to the file and information on “Piccadilly’s” where abouts – their Bulgarian “partners” referred to lack of information and bureaucratic hurdles.

The story of Georgy Markov does not end here. Freedom lovers in Bulgaria are raising funds to publish his collected writing. In a letter to a friend sent immediately after he moved to London, Markov, for some reason stated: “If we look at things historically, the victor in all events, even if I die, will be me!”

i The KGB assistance in fabricating and delivery of the poison has been confirmed by at least three top-brass KGB officers (after 1991).