After World War II ended in 1945 and the leaders of the “Big Three” composed of the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain, all met in Potsdam in Germany to discuss terms to end the bloodiest war that the world had ever seen. What followed was a brief 18 months of what was supposed to be a lasting peace. Then a Cold War started and lasted until 1991. Each side wanted to know if the others were working on some nuclear weapons, so tons of spying and assassinations happened in the duration of the era. While most of the involved were spies, businessmen, or politicians, one man who was neither of those was assassinated in a peculiar way. His name was Georgi Markov.
Defection to the West
Georgi Markov was a successful author born in Knyazhevo in Bulgaria on March 1, 1929. He was originally a chemical engineer and a teacher before tuberculosis forced him to hop from one hospital to another. It was during this time that he wrote his first literary attempts. In 1957, he finished his very first novel Tsezieva Nosht (The Night of Caesium), which became successful. Because of this, he decided to leave his teaching career and embarked full-time on writing in 1959.
He became famous as a writer in his native country, even in an era of the Cold War when the Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov was ruling all over the country. Zhivkov even tried to co-opt and persuade him into writing for the regime, but Markov chose to instead live in a bohemian lifestyle, something that was unknown to the majority of his fellow Bulgarians. When Zhivkov’s regime began to crack down on his work, he was left with no choice but to defect to the West.
Starting a New Life
In 1969, he left Bulgaria and first lived in Italy, where his brother was. His plan was to just wait until his bad image with the Bulgarian authorities improved, but he changed his mind and decided to stay in the West for good. Markov then moved to London, where he started a new life— he got married, had a child, and worked for the Bulgarian section of the BBC World Service. Later on, he worked with Deutsche Welle and Radio Free in Europe. This was a US-supported organization that broadcasted propaganda against the Soviets across the Iron Curtain. Fueled with indignation against the Bulgarian regime, he passionately attacked not only the government but also criticized Todor Zhivkov without a filter.
Meanwhile, in Bulgaria in 1972, he was sentenced in absentia to six years and six months in prison for his defection while suspending his membership in the Union of Bulgarian Writers. He also began receiving threatening calls, one of which said, “there was a phial (vial) of poison in the Bulgarian consulate in Munich [that] was actually named for Georgi.” Markov thought nothing of it and continued with his life and work.
Then, on September 7, 1978, Markov was at Waterloo Bridge in Central London waiting for a bus when he suddenly felt a sting on the back of his thigh. When he turned around, he saw a man picking up an umbrella from the floor just right behind him. The man mumbled what seemed like an apology in a foreign accent before crossing the road and getting into a black cab that drove off immediately.
Not too long afterward, Markov started to have a fever that rapidly began to get so serious that he was brought to the hospital. There, he was telling the nurses that the KGB was trying to eliminate him. His doctor that day, Dr. Bernard Riley, recalled that day Markov was brought under his care,
In cubicle one we have someone who’s had a heart attack, in cubicle two there’s a road traffic accident case, and in cubicle three there’s a man who’s been shot by the KGB. No one was taking him seriously.
They, however, started taking him seriously when his condition quickly worsened, and they weren’t sure what was going on with him. Four days later, Markov died, and the cops knew there was an element of foul play. They took a chunk of tissue from Markov’s leg where the sting was, and sent it to Porton Down, which was a top-secret military research facility in Wiltshire for closer inspection. There, they discovered a very tiny ball bearing lodged in his leg, which was sent to Scotland Yard for further investigation. The size of the ball bearing made it hard to examine, as it kept flying off the desk as they were working on it. Eventually, they discovered that the bearing had two tiny holes, theoretically filled with a toxin and sealed with a waxy substance that melted at Markov’s body temperature, causing the poison to leak out into his system.
They deduced the toxin to have been ricin, a substance made from castor beans and is more potent than cyanide. The Porton Down researchers injected a pig with ricin to confirm if it was correct. The resulting symptoms were similar to Markov’s, with an autopsy confirming the same damage to its organs.
His assassin was a mystery until the USSR’s fall years later. A Soviet official named Oleg Kalugin confirmed that the assassination was planned by the KGB in Moscow, masterminded by none other than Todor Zhivkov. The documents had been destroyed, but post-Communist Bulgaria investigators uncovered an agent “Piccadilly” to be the person tasked to carry out the assassination. It was revealed to be an Italian-born spy named Francesco Gullino who was working for the Bulgarian regime while also living as an art dealer. Gullino was tracked and captured in 1993. However, he was later released due to a lack of solid evidence that he was behind Markov’s murder that day. Zhivkov, on the otherhand, died in 1998. Thus, the ultimate truth about Markov’s death was still left uncovered.