On Waterloo Bridge in Central London, on 7 September 1978, a man was "accidentally" stabbed with an umbrella. Four days later, at St James's Hospital in Balham, that man died in excruciating pain. The autopsy at Wandsworth Public Mortuary revealed a tiny pellet had been injected into his thigh. The pellet had gone undetected on the X-rays. It was later taken to the Chemical Defence Establishment in Porton Down. A team of forensic experts, including a CIA operative, examined the pinhead-sized object and found it to be concave, with two tiny holes in it. But it was empty.
The man who died was Georgi Markov, a 37-year-old writer from Bulgaria who had defected to the West and was working for the BBC World Service. His radio programmes, critical of the Communist regime in Bulgaria, were also beamed, on a freelance basis, from Radio Free Europe, an American-sponsored operation based in Munich, Germany.
Two weeks before Markov's death, another Bulgarian emigre, Vladimir Kostov, former correspondent for the Bulgarian State Radio in Paris, was stabbed with a similar device while leaving an underground station in Central Paris. Kostov, a Bulgarian State Security officer who had just defected to France, fell sick and was admitted to hospital. A tiny pellet was recovered from his back. It was still full of some kind of substance. Miraculously, Kostov survived.
Detectives from the Scotland Yard Anti-Terrorist Squad flew to Paris and took the pellet for examination. Porton Down established that the pellet was coated with wax that was supposed to melt at body temperature. In the case of Kostov, however, the wax hadn't melted and only a tiny portion of the 450 micrograms of the substance had been released. That had saved his life.
At Porton Down, the deadly substance was identified as ricin, a toxin derived from the castor plant. The extraction process had been patented by the US Army and described as "deadlier than cobra venom". An ounce of ricin would be sufficient to kill 90,000 people.
Thus started one of the great mysteries of the Cold War. Was this a political murder engineered by the Bulgarian regime angered by Markov's broadcasts? If so, could the assassin and the men who gave the orders be apprehended while Communism had not yet been consigned to the dustbin of history? Did the Bulgarians act alone?
Was the KGB involved? Was there a pattern of, the elimination of controversial Eastern bloc emigres in the West? The fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to mark the beginning of the end of the secrets of the Cold War. But in the case of Georgi Markov, no one has been indicted as yet. Over time, the characters in the Markov case have multiplied to include residents of several countries. Markov's widow, Annabel, who lives in London with their daughter Alexandra, has led a campaign to bring the perpetrators to justice, but to no avail.
In Bulgaria, the Markov case has been twisted to suit various political ambitions. In the 1990s, a succession of governments interfered directly or indirectly with the official investigation which had commenced in October 1990. Post-Communist propaganda, using a blend of half-truths and half-lies, obscured whatever was known about Markov as a person and the circumstances of his assassination. Georgi Markov was portrayed equally convincingly as a double, or even triple, agent, or as a national saint. Even now, Bulgarians' opinions remain split according to political preference, just like in the old days, when "patriots" would not believe that Markov was killed on Communist orders and declared any such allegation a "foreign conspiracy to discredit the fatherland". All who believed the contrary were labelled "traitors". That was the official language used at the time Markov was reading his scripts on Radio Free Europe. And it is a language that is still used in Bulgaria in 2007.
Three weeks after Markov's death, another BBC employee, Vladimir Simeonov, was found dead in his flat in Plaistow. Simeonov was discovered by a BBC secretary who had been sent to see why he hadn't reported to work.
Simeonov or Vladimir Bobchev, as was his real name, had defected to England in 1971. Like Markov, he was working as a World Service programme assistant, but unlike him, Simeonov was working on a pretty innocuous youth show. And his voice wasn't on Radio Free Europe.
Simeonov was not liked by many of the BBC staff. In fact, rumour had it that he might have been "planted" in Bush House to spy on emigre colleagues.
Before his death, he had given every appearance of being healthy, but mortally scared. Several days after Markov's assassination, a Bulgarian merchant seaman had come to the BBC and threatened to kill Simeonov.
In the early hours of 1 October 1978, Simeonov was taken home in a taxi. Such was the standard BBC practice after a night shift. The taxi driver, a Mr Simmons, was located and interviewed by investigators. He disclosed that Simeonov had looked "very upset" and, during the ride, had told him his life story. Several hours after he was dropped at his home, he was found dead.
The circumstances of his death were extremely suspicious. It looked as though Simeonov had been in a hurry to pack all his belongings in an otherwise scantily furnished two bedroom flat. His body was found lying on the stairs in an unusual position. There was something amiss with the lock on the front door: the first constables to arrive at the scene were able to enter with just a slight push on the door.
As this was the second death of a Bulgarian in the UK within a month, the Scotland Yard Anti-Terrorist Squad was immediately involved. But after extensive research, the Queen's Road Coroner's Court pronounced Simeonov's death accidental. He had fallen down the stairs and suffocated in his own blood.
Simeonov was by far a lesser figure than Markov and seems, except in the minds of a few conspiracy theorists, to have been largely forgotten. But perhaps the "conspiracists" do have a point. In the 1981 book, The Yellow Rain: A Journey Through the Terror of Chemical Warfare, Sterling Seagrave implied Simeonov might have been a low-grade mole who was eliminated to keep the Bulgarian connection from unravelling further. According to Seagrave, Simeonov's condition could have been induced by an as yet unknown chemical substance, possibly in the form of a spray.
Research in later years would show that such undetectable poisons do exist and it is surprisingly easy to transport them across borders. Before Simeonov's death, Vladimir Kostov had been released from hospital in Paris. The next year, he got a permanent job as an editor at Radio Free Europe in Munich. He had admitted that besides being a radio journalist he had been a senior officer in the Bulgarian State Security. Consequently, the regime in Sofia sentenced him to death in absentia.
That sentence was still pending when Kostov returned to Bulgaria for the first time after the fall of Communism. But no one arrested him. The sentence was later reviewed and repealed.
Kostov, a French citizen, would retire from Radio Free Europe in 1994. The object with which Kostov was stabbed in Paris in 1978 is thought to have come from Dinyo Dinev, a murky Bulgarian figure, who was at that time the only person in the Markov/Kostov story to be indicted on a criminal offence.
Dinev had arrived in France in 1966. In 1978, he was already a naturalised French citizen and was married to a French woman. He had set up two companies in Paris to export films and household goods. As a businessman, he was making frequent trips to Sofia. Dinev was arrested in 1979 in Paris and accused of espionage.
According to a senior French counterintelligence officer who testified at the trial, Dinev had been recruited by the Bulgarian consul to inform on fellow Bulgarians living in France. The French were aware that Dinev was a double agent but thought his loyalty lay with the West. Shortly before the attempt against Kostov, Dinev had tried to use his French counterintelligence contacts to locate the victim. The French State Security Court cleared Dinev of deliberate involvement in the Kostov case but sentenced him to three years in jail for being a spy.
After the fall of Communism Dinev was alive and well. He would tell the media that he was a millionaire and boast that he had a four-man, Kalashnikov armed protection cortege in Moscow. He would refute the allegations that his companies in France were being used to launder Russian Mafia money. Dinev was close to Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovski, whom he openly admired.
In an interview for the Bulgarian press at that time, Dinev claimed Georgi Markov had died of natural causes and that the "umbrella legend" was concocted by the BBC and "other Western circles" to stir up anti-Bulgarian feelings.
Georgi Markov in Sienna, Italy, 1972
Around the time of the deaths of Markov and Simeonov and the abortive attempt on Kostov, there were other incidents involving Bulgarian and other Eastern European emigres. These went largely unnoticed. However, they speak of a pattern of terror and intimidation that the Communist authorities in the East were imposing on residents in the affluent and seemingly secure West.
As late as 1986, a Bulgarian emigre in the United States was stabbed with an unidentified object and poisoned. The man, Vasil Kazashky, recovered in Dallas, Texas, but his attacker, who had casually offered him a cigarette in a parking lot and then stabbed him with the poison, was never found.
That Dallas incident bore a strange resemblance to the Markov murder on Waterloo Bridge.
One of the most spectacular cases occurred in Denmark some time before Markov. Boris Arsov, a Bulgarian emigre, disappeared from his home in Arhus. He had been publishing a small anti-Communist paper at the Huset Forlag. Two months after his disappearance, which had been discovered due to his unpaid bills, he turned up on Bulgarian television and a show trial was staged against him. The Danish authorities suspected kidnapping but never discovered evidence. The official version remains that Arsov returned to Bulgaria voluntarily.
Arsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison and died in unclear circumstances several months after being put in jail.
Very soon after the fall of Communism, it emerged that while senior politicians such as the then President Zhelyu Zhelev were paying lip service to the Markov crime, the Bulgarian investigation would not or could not make any serious revelations.
In early 1991, the Bulgarian Secret Services files on Georgi Markov were destroyed by General Vladimir Todorov who then escaped to Moscow, apparently to flee prosecution. Later, he returned to Bulgaria and was sentenced to 14 months in jail for destroying official documents. At the trial, he gave the explanation that the files "contained nothing important."
Todorov was the successor to General Vasil Kotsev, who was chief of Bulgarian foreign intelligence at the time of the Markov murder. Kotsev died in a car accident in 1991, just after yet another senior official, General Stoyan Savov, admitted to ordering the chief state archivist to hand the Markov files over to Todorov.
Two days before his own trial was scheduled to begin, in early 1992, General Savov, a devout Communist, died in what appeared to be a shotgun suicide. His body was found near the graveside of another Communist and fellow resistance fighter in Savov's home village.Todorov's 14 month sentence was later reduced and he was freed in 1993.
The Markov files had consisted of 17 volumes, 200 pages each.
One of the most plausible theories is substantiated by former KGB General Oleg Kalugin and partially supported by ex-Soviet KGB station chief in Copenhagen Oleg Gordjievsky who defected to the UK in 1985. While these two accounts differ in the details and while even Kalugin's own versions are sometimes contradictory, they come down to Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's Communist dictator from 1956 to 1989, requesting Markov's elimination because of his broadcasts on Radio Free Europe. The last part of them depicted Zhivkov himself.
Before his defection to the West, Markov, as a well positioned writer in Bulgaria, had made the tyrant's personal acquaintance. Markov's murder would supposedly serve as a warning to other dissenters who considered defecting to the West. The year before Markov's assassination, Zhivkov had issued a decree stipulating that "all necessary measures" be used to put an end to the activities of "enemy" emigres.
The assassination, according to Kalugin, was carried out by the Bulgarians with the technical assistance of the KGB. Moscow provided the weapon and the know-how and the Bulgarians did the "wet" job.The request for the "technical assistance" came from Zhivkov via the Interior Minister Dimitar Stoyanov who was in office from 1973 to 1988 and was sanctioned by the then Soviet leader Yuriy Andropov.The name of the person who pulled the trigger was not revealed by Kalugin.
Perhaps one of the most interesting episodes in the Markov saga took place in Denmark in 1993. In February, the two Scotland Yard detectives then in charge of the investigation, Chris Bird and David Kemp, a Bulgarian official and representatives of PET, the Danish counterintelligence service, detained for questioning an Italian born Danish citizen, Francesco Gullino. At the interview, Bogdan Karayotov, the Bulgarian investigator, produced documents incriminating Gullino of being a spy for Bulgaria.
Gullino, at the time of the interrogation aged 47, had a small business in Copenhagen selling paintings allegedly of questionable authenticity and source. He had an old van which he used to travel throughout Eastern and Western Europe.
It emerged that Gullino had been recruited by the Bulgarian Secret Services in 1971 while being detained in Bulgaria on a drugs smuggling charge. In 1972, he signed a declaration of allegiance to Sofia. At the meeting in Copenhagen, several false passports were produced as well as receipts for moneys paid by the Bulgarian authorities to Gullino, code named Piccadilly. Around the time of the Markov murder, it was shown that Gullino was in London and had received a cash payment of £2,000.Gullino continued to receive payments from Sofia until 1990.
Georgi Markov with his first wife, Bulgarian Zdravka Lekova, and friend Nikola Rudarov, Dragalevtsi, 1964
The Copenhagen episode was - and still is - shrouded in secrecy. The Danish authorities would not discuss the case. Neither would Gullino's lawyer in Copenhagen, Jorgen Jacobsen, known otherwise for his enthusiasm to make statements to the media.
A few days after the interrogation, Gullino left his house in a Copenhagen suburb and the country altogether. He left a forwarding address in Budapest with the Public Registration Office. His home later went into receivership.
The scarce information that was made public by Scotland Yard and the Bulgarian investigators indicated that Gullino was suspected of bringing the lethal weapon into the UK. It is unlikely that Sofia would have chosen a foreigner to carry out such a sensitive operation as a murder in London, but it may have used his ability to move freely on a Common Market passport as a courier.
A Danish Television documentary about Markov and Gullino alleged that several days after Markov's murder the Italian/Dane was in Rome and was supposed to stand in a particular spot in St Peter's Square in order to make himself visible to a Bulgarian agent. In that way, he would report that a certain task had been accomplished.
The case of Gullino was compounded by the confict of interest of the states involved. While the British and the Bulgarians were interested in him as a possible accomplice to the Markov murder, the Danes were concerned about his alleged spying activities. On two occasions, once through Interpol and once through diplomatic channels, Copenhagen requested additional information from the Bulgarians so that it could indict Gullino.
Those requests, in the summer of 1993, would be answered with a refusal by the then Chief Prosecutor Ivan Tatarchev: any disclosure would jeopardise "national security," Tatarchev said in an official letter.
After Gullino's disappearance, the Danish media came up with detailed accounts of his story. Similar accounts appeared in Britain, Italy and Bulgaria. Officialdom in Sofia seemed to be infuriated. The Central Investigations Office, at that time headed by Colonel Ani Kruleva, used strong language to denounce what it believed was "a leak" from the Danish counterintelligence service. It even went so far as to officially scold Denmark's and the UK's ambassadors to Bulgaria for the "obstructive" role of the newspapers in their respective countries.
This took place in the summer of 1993 and resulted in a joint British/ Danish/Bulgarian statement and a promise of "no more leaks regarding the Markov case..."
In the autumn of 1993, I found Gullino's address in Budapest and approached him with a proposal to speak out. He returned my phone call but said he needed time to consider and to remember..." it had all been such a long time ago."
Shortly after that contact, a Hungarian woman Gullino was apparently staying with in Budapest sent a fax to a Danish arts journalist in Copenhagen, Susan Jensen (not her real name). Jensen, a music correspondent for a major Danish daily, contacted her editor in chief who, in turn, contacted me. I obtained a copy of the Hungarian woman's fax to Jensen.
This fax had been provoked by my letter to Gullino which the Hungarian, N., had apprehended and opened. It also provoked concern in its principal recipient, Jensen. Being more interested in Wagner and Beethoven than in East European assassination projects, Jensen felt she was being inadvertently dragged into something she neither was interested in nor understood: something she thought could be very dangerous because there were real, living people involved in it - and it smacked of terrorism and drugs. In the fax, it appeared that N. was scared for her life. She seemed to think Gullino, after the cessation of his activities for the Bulgarians, had created contacts with known criminals: people suspected of forgery and other illegal deals. Gullino used N.'s Budapest address as a cover while he in fact lived in Carlsbad in the Czech Republic.
After the fall of Communism, Carlsbad, with its magnificent imperial architecture, spas and proximity to Germany, in addition to the Czech Republic's lax legislation, had quickly become a magnet for the Eastern European and ex-Soviet underworld. Jensen said she had met N. six years previously when she used to go to Budapest to cover musical events there. N. was a "tiny" woman with "several children" who was always assigned as Jensen's interpreter.
In those days, needless to say, an official interpreter to a Western journalist had other functions as well. On one occasion, Jensen was invited to N.'s residence privately. During that episode, a succession of events ranging from stumbling upon a human corpse to the discovery of a large amount of expensive-looking East European icons stacked under a bed, made Jensen run to the Hilton Hotel, spend the rest of the night in an armchair and catch the first plane back to Copenhagen. That happened in 1989. She didn't hear of N. again until my fax of 1993.
Gullino was apparently lost. He could freely cross borders. Interpol didn't want him because the Bulgarians had not rendered any incriminating evidence; they had only shown it in Copenhagen.
Scotland Yard apparently didn't express much interest in him either. In a telephone interview with the investigating officer at the Anti-Terrorist Squad, it was made clear to me that they knew Gullino's whereabouts in Budapest. But the Bulgarians kept reproaching the Danish counterintelligence service for leaking information to the press.
What in fact had happened in 1993 was that there had been no leak at all. An acquaintance of Gullino's in Denmark had tipped Information, one of Copenhagen's dailies, of the ongoing story. Information had paid about £500 for the tip. The source, who, then as now, does not wish to be identified, describes himself as a "non-violent anarchist" and has lived in Denmark since before the war.
According to the source, the Markov murder was only a tiny piece in the Cold War spy puzzle as "there were much bigger things involved." According to him, "Markov was not a clean man, and neither was Kostov."
The source would not divulge hard facts and would only speak in metaphors. However, he describes the environment in which Gullino may have operated as encompassing such personalities as Pope John Paul II, Aldo Moro and Olof Palme. According to the source, most of the people involved in such operations, both East and West, are still very much active though the name of the game has changed: from politically motivated espionage and terrorism to illegal arms sales and trafficking in drugs.
The source describes Gullino as an "idealistic and convinced fascist", a member of the "organised international fascist movement". The relation between the Communist regimes in the East and terrorist and fascist organisations in the West was much more profound than revealed or suspected, "red mingled with black." And the game was "very dirty".
Finally, the source maintains Gullino does not fear the authorities in any country. But he would not visit Bulgaria, Italy or the UK because "he is scared of his enemies". That old guard KGB and their related East European cadres are still operative, both West and East, is no secret at all. According to General Vladilen Fyodorov, former KGB station chief in Bulgaria, foreign intelligence agents and executives have successfully gone into private business throughout Eastern Europe. In the 1990s, the general headed the Association of Foreign Intelligence Veterans in Russia. According to him, the association ran its own bank that "protects from inflation the deposits of colleagues working abroad"; a commercial chamber, and the Pioneer Information Centre. According to Oleg Vishnevsky, the then chief of the Pioneer Centre, many Western businessmen with a background in intelligence, sought contacts with the new Russian and Eastern European structures "as they know we are professionals and see in us reliable partners".
In a separate development, I came into the possession of two Bulgarian State Orders bestowing high awards upon 15 individuals, 14 Bulgarian senior security officers and a Soviet. The orders were marked "Confidential", were signed personally by Todor Zhivkov, and were given for "alacrity, professionalism and the interception of the activities of persons serving a foreign intelligence and of stopping the anti-state activities of Bulgarian citizens." They bear the numbers 1857 and 235. The originals have disappeared from the Bulgarian State Archives.
There are two curious aspects of these orders. In a rare incident of publicity, the then British Foreign Office Minister of State, Baroness Linda Chalker, announced in 1995 that Scotland Yard had compiled a list of 15 people whom it wanted to investigate in connection with the Markov murder. All of these people, according to Baroness Chalker, were KGB agents. And, second, the orders in question are dated 24 October 1978 and 22 February 1979: in the first case, several weeks after Markov's assassination. Coincidental? Perhaps. But the fact that these particular orders have vanished in Sofia and that no information has been made public or even hinted at either about the individuals mentioned in the orders or the nature of their "alacrity" and "professionalism" may hold the key to one of the most gruesome crimes of the Cold War.
Killed in London
A State Security document to archive Georgi Markov's file as he was "killed" in London
The State Council of the People's Republic of Bulgaria bestows state orders upon 14 Interior Ministry officers for "activity, operative alacrity and high sense of responsibility in terminating the criminal activities of persons serving foreign intelligence and putting an end to the anti-state activities of Bulgarian citizens..." Signed by Todor Zhivkov and Dimitar Manolov, secretary of the State Council, on 24 October 1978.