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The Assassination of Georgi Markov

Following the end of World War II, relations between Western countries and those in the Eastern Bloc became increasingly tense.

This period was later known as the Cold War and it is mostly peppered with incidents and paranoia that almost brought nuclear war.

Bulgaria was under the control of the Bulgarian Communist Party and the Agrarian People’s Union from the end of WW2, in 1955 Bulgaria joined in a defence alliance with the Soviet Union, Albania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania now known as the Warsaw Pact.

This organisation provided support for the Soviet army, strengthening their power and maintaining communist control in much of Eastern Europe.

Following the communist takeover in Bulgaria, the government adopted a forceful approach to controlling its citizens, including a mass trial of over 10,000 people which resulted in the execution of hundreds, many of whom were anti-Nazi activists and liberals.

There were also those killed without getting a trial. The socialists who were in coalition with the communist government either conformed or they were removed by force. Soon the state not only controlled everything, but they owned it too. Industrial and commercial monopolies were established under the Dimitrov Constitution.

Forced mass emigrations occurred, prompting Jews, Turks and Roma individuals to leave the country. Todor Zhivkov, who had headed the communist party, became the country's leader in 1962. Under Zhivkov, Bulgarian relations with the Soviets improved.

Zhivkov was friends with one of the most popular writers in Bulgaria, Georgi Markov. Markov was an award-winning playwright, penning scripts and stories that were celebrated nationwide. Markov’s boss was Zhivkov's only child, Ludmilla. After the Bulgarian government took part in an invasion of Czechoslovakia with some of the other Warsaw Pact countries in 1968 to prevent a democratic reform, Markov became disenchanted with his home country and travelled to Italy where his brother Nikolai was living.

Markov was granted a visa to visit his brother in Bologna, due in part to his occupation as a writer and because of his close friendship with the president, Zhivkov. When he applied for an extended visa, it was refused. Markov became a defector, refusing to return to Bulgaria and he was tried in his absence and sentenced to 6 years in prison for the crime. He was also stripped of his writing accolades and his literary works were banned.

After living in Italy for a few months, Markov travelled to Britain where he began to work as a programme assistant in the Bulgarian section of the British Broadcasting Corporation, known as the BBC. Markov was based at Bush House in the Strand, London, it was here that he met his future wife, Annabel.

Annabel was a talks writer for the BBC, and Markov had begun working on a cultural programme. Markov’s work became increasingly directed at the communist regime in Bulgaria after the government denied him and his brother the right to travel back to visit their terminally ill father.

Markov began broadcasting on Radio Free Europe in Munich which was funded by the CIA, although it was blocked in Bulgaria, it’s highly likely the government elites were made aware of Markov’s presentations, especially when he began exposing their extra marital affairs.

Annabel later said in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph;

“Georgi was so incensed by his father’s death that his broadcasts for Radio Free Europe became absolutely vitriolic. He named the mistresses of the high-ups, really smearing mud on the people in the inner circles. His father's death made him more and more angry and determined to cause embarrassment”

In August, 1978, Markov’s brother Nikolai told him that he was at risk, because the Bulgarian government were blaming the defection of a popular tv commentator on Markov. Vladamir Kostov had been sent to Paris to report back to the secret service as the chief of Bulgaria’s state radio and television network.

Kostov had defected in June, he was also tried in his absence and sentenced to death. A month after he defected, he was in the Champes Elysees station with his wife, while on an escalator in the Paris Metro something strange occurred.

He felt a sting in his back, and when he turned around, he saw a man walking away with a briefcase. He became ill within hours and had to be hospitalised for almost 2 weeks, by the time he was released something similar had happened in London.

On the morning of September 7th Georgi Markov had driven to the city and parked his car close to the National Theatre as normal. He made his way towards the bus stop near Waterloo Bridge where he usually took the bus to Bush House, as he was waiting, he felt a sharp stinging sensation in the back of his right thigh.

When he turned around, he saw a man who looked to be in his 40s, picking up an umbrella and running to hail a taxi. Markov went to work as normal, but he told his colleagues about the bizarre incident and showed them a small patch of blood on the back of his trousers.

After work he made his way back to his house in Balham where his wife Annabel, and his daughter Sasha were waiting to greet him. Markov was due to do an early news bulletin the next morning so he went to sleep in the study as to not wake his wife with the sound of his alarm.

Instead, Annabel was awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of her husband vomiting, she called his name, but he didn’t respond. She went in to where he was lying and found him burning up with a temperature of around 104f or 40c.

Only then did Markov tell her that he was worried it was connected to the injury on the back of his leg. After telling her the story about the man with the umbrella, they both decided that it was too strange to be true.

Annabel called the doctor at around 3AM, the doctor said that it was likely the flu and to keep him warm and give him plenty of fluids, the doctor also agreed to come around the next day to check on him.

The following morning Annabel went to work, she brought Sasha with her so Markov could sleep, but when the doctor came to visit, he rushed Markov to nearby St James’ Hospital fearing the man had tetanus.

Markov relayed the story to the doctors at the hospital, and while they highly doubted the incident was connected, they ordered an x-ray to determine if there were any foreign objects in Markov’s leg. There didn’t seem to be, so they presumed he was suffering from a viral infection. Within hours his condition worsened, his heart rate was far faster than it should be and he still had a high fever.

Dr Bernard Riley was one of the physicians over Markov’s care, he thought that Markov may have developed septicaemia, blood poisoning, because he was declining quickly. He examined the area on the back of Markov’s thigh and found that 6cm of the area was swollen, and there was a 1-2mm puncture wound in the middle. It seemed like an insect bite in appearance.

Markov told the doctor that he believed he had been poisoned by the KGB and there was nothing they could do for him.

Markov’s white cell count was three times the normal level, so it was clear that his body was trying desperately to fight off whatever was causing his organs to shut down, but doctors had no idea what it could possibly be. His lymph nodes were swollen, especially in the area near his right leg. His blood pressure began to drop overnight, as did his temperature.

The puncture wound was far too small to have been inflicted by the tip of an umbrella, his trousers showed no sign that they had been pierced by a hypodermic needle, and there were no traces of gun powder found either.

Dr Riley later said to the BBC that his wife had been reading an Agatha Christie novel in which characters had been killed with a poison called ricin, and she had inadvertently suggested that may have been what was killing Markov, but Markov was now in intensive care, delirious.

The doctor phoned Scotland Yard to inform them, and he began researching toxins and antidotes to try and treat Markov. Markov was given plasma expanders to fight vascular collapse, but he stopped passing urine and began to vomit blood. An echocardiogram showed that there was a blockage in his heart and he went into cardiac arrest shortly after.

By September 11th his heart had given out and after failed resuscitation attempts, he was pronounced dead. Markov’s death likely led to countless others being saved, as Dr Riley credits his decision to specialise as an intensive care consultant instead of pathology to having Markov as a patient.

An investigation revealed that Markov had written a few controversial plays before he left Bulgaria, like ‘Let’s Go Under the Rainbow’ which is said to draw distinctions between life in a tuberculosis ward and life under the communist regime. Another play ‘Assassination in a Dead-End Street’ was about insurgents from a secret communist organisation before the rise of the party in Europe.

They are tasked with killing a general, but they’re then killed themselves by the general's supporters. As he often wrote satirical work, it began to be scrutinised by the Government as an act of dissidence.

The plays were pulled by government censors, and Markov began to see how the state would stifle his creativity. When he was summoned to meet with a committee and refused to attend, he was warned to leave the country immediately.

Having enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and political immunity in Bulgaria, Markov had to start from scratch when he moved to the UK, but his experience led him to positions with the BBC, Duetsche Welle, and Radio Free Europe.

As determined as he was to speak out about the communist regime in Bulgaria, he was careful not to tell anyone when he travelled, out of fear that the Bulgarian Secret Service would kill him. When he went to Munich to broadcast three months before his death, he told friends that someone had called him and threatened his life if he did not stop criticising the Bulgarian government.

His widow Annabel said in the Belfast Telegraph;

“His defection caused rage and shock in Bulgaria. He had been afraid for years. Very close friends often teased him that he was paranoid. We know now he was right. I am an Englishwoman brought up in this country. I think there is no common perception of just how nasty some gov are. Here you think you are safe from that kind of thing.”

After he felt the sting in his thigh on September 7th, he saw a man getting into a taxi, holding an umbrella. He told his wife and doctors that he believed the man had very little English because the taxi driver couldn’t understand him very well.

A post-mortem was carried out by Dr Rufus Compton at Wandsworth Public Mortuary the following day, he discussed his work on the case in a March 1980 talk at the Royal Society of Medicine. At the commencement of the examination, Dr Compton removed portions of tissue from the back of Markov’s left and right thigh and had them sent to the Metropolitan Police lab.

Upon examining Markov’s internal organs, Dr Compton noted fluid in the lungs, liver damage, haemorrhagic necrosis of the small intestine, haemorrhaging in the pancreas and testicles, and haemorrhagic disruption of the lymph nodes in his right groin. There were also haemorrhages inside the heart muscle which caused the cardiac arrest.

The damage to the lymph nodes bolstered Markov’s claim that his illness was related to the injury on his right thigh, as they would have been closest to the site. Dr Compton concluded that Markov’s death was due to toxaemia, but he could not deduce which toxin or poison was used.

They were able to rule out some poisons and toxins due to the rate at which Markov’s health declined, such as diphtheria, arsenic, and thallium.

The pieces of tissue excised from Markov’s thighs were sent to the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down to try and determine what poison had been used to kill him.

As Dr David Gall and Dennis Swanson began to examine the tissue samples, they brushed across the surface, and a metallic ball came loose from the tissue taken from Markov’s right thigh.

The ball was the size of a pin head, it measured about 1.6mm in diameter and there were two minute holes drilled into it, measuring approximately 0.34mm each. They calculated the volume of the holes and found them to be 0.4 microlitres, meaning the pellet could have held around 0.4mg of poison.

The pellet was sent off to the metropolitan police lab to try and deduce what poison was strong enough in such small quantities to cause death so quickly.

No trace of toxins or poison was found within the tissue itself. Going by Markov’s symptoms they could rule out a neurotoxins and dioxins.

The analysists were able to narrow their search down to plant toxins, abrin and ricin. Ricin seemed more likely but this poison derived from castor oil seeds usually has a more prolonged onset and a slower death. They tested their theory on a pig, and just over 24 hours later the pig was dead.

Ricin is highly poisonous, a dose of ricin in an equivalent measure to a few grains of salt could kill an adult. Castor oils seeds make the toxic protein molecules before they germinate so it can only be extracted from the plant prior to germination.

Ricin molecules bind to the cell membrane before passing through it, once inside the cell it targets the area which produces enzymes, which are essential for the cell's survival. It would only take a small amount of concentrated ricin to destroy every cell in the human body.

Depending on how the poison enters the body, the rate of cell damage varies. If it is injected into the body, it can kill a person in 36-72 hours. Symptoms include reduced blood pressure from cardiovascular collapse, organ failure, vomiting and gastrointestinal issues.

Castor oil plants are grown in warm climates around the globe, and it the form it is sold, oil, it is relatively harmless, it’s not advisable to drink it if pregnant, but other than that it has many uses. The scientific name for the plant is Ricinus Communis.

Based on the pig's response to ricin, they were pretty confident that was the poison that had been contained within the pellet, but they needed more information.

Specialists at Scotland Yard as well as anti-terrorist police began to investigate Markov’s deathbed claims, and once his death was publicised, Vladimir Kostov came forward to tell them about the eerily similar event that had happened to him weeks prior.

In late September police from the British Anti-Terror Squad went to France to speak with him. An X-Ray was performed which showed a foreign body in his lower back, it was subsequently removed and found to be a metallic pellet identical to the one removed from Markov’s thigh.

Luckily for Kostov, the membrane lining that covered the holes in the pellet had not evaporated as quickly as it did in Markov's case, because the pellet had not gone far enough into the body. They found that Kostov had built up some immunity to ricin from the small amount that had escaped the pellet.

Ultimately, it was believed that Kostov was shot with an air or gas-powered gun concealed in a briefcase, when this failed to kill him, the assassin used a weapon that produced more force and could be aimed more accurately – an umbrella gun.

Now investigators had to try and figure out who had killed Georgi Markov.

A few weeks later, another Bulgarian defector who worked for the BBC, Vladimir Simeonov, was found dead at the bottom of his stairs. His cause of death was ruled to be caused by inhaling his own blood from a broken nose, an injury that many found suspicious in cases where someone falls down the stairs.

An aneurysm was found in his heart which may have caused some dizziness, but there was no explanation as to why a young man would suffer from that. It was ultimately ruled as an accidental death. Few suspected that Simeonov was a Bulgarian mole planted in the BBC, and believed he was killed to tie up any loose ends.

The British Intelligence Agency, MI5 suspected that this level of advanced poison warfare could only be carried out by the Russian State Security, the KGB. As more Eastern Bloc countries began to become democracies, relations between those who were still communist states needed to be strengthened in order for the Soviets to maintain their military strongholds.

MI5 didn’t think that the Bulgarian secret service known as Komitet Durzhavana Sigurnost or the DS had the skill or confidence to carry out an overseas assassination.

The KGB’s department V was believed to be in charge of assassinations, their lab, The Chamber, had made weapons using poisons with no known antidotes before.

It seemed likely that the DS had provided the information and surveillance for the KGB assassin after Markov had publicly exposed their secret affairs, corruption, and in the case of the President's daughter heading the media, nepotism.

Ludmilla Zhivkov was effectively Markov and Kostov’s superior when they worked in the media in Bulgaria.

Over the next 30 years the investigation hit numerous blockades. After the fall of communism in the late 1980’s it was hoped that the mystery of who killed Georgi Markov would finally be solved, but when one of the prime suspects, allegedly committed suicide two days before he was due to be tried for destroying files on Markov held within in government buildings, it seemed as though the truth would never come out.

Georgi Markov’s work was once again hailed in his home country and information given by General Oleg Kalugin who had worked with the KGB, implicated that a General, Stoyan Savov, had hired a Danish smuggler named Francesco Gullino, codenamed Piccadilly, to travel to the UK to shoot Markov with the poisoned pellet.

Gullino admitted working with the KGB but denied any involvement in Markov’s assassination. Former president Todor Zhivkov was brought to trial after the fall of the USSR and communism in Bulgaria, he said that Kalugin should be put into an asylum for his claims, and that he had never signed a political death warrant. There had been accusations in 1981 that the Bulgarian secret service were involved in an attempted assassination of the Pope.

Zhivkov said that he had no reason to kill Markov and he was surprised when his former friend decided to stay in Britain. Zhivkov said;

`This is a lie ... Can you imagine me going to Brezhnev and asking him to do this? ... These are all imaginary things, just like all the stories about the Pope."

After 20 years the case in Bulgaria was closed as the statute of limitations on murder had elapsed. Numerous members of the secret service were convicted of covering up the murder by destroying files held in the archives, others allegedly took their own life or died in suspicious circumstances.

A statue of Georgi Markov was unveiled in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia in 2014. The new Government had readily accepted the crimes of their communist predecessors and President Rosen Plevneliev said that;

“The words of Georgi Markov spiritually liberated the Bulgarians even before the toppling of the Communist regime”

Annabel Markov and her daughter Sasha had travelled to the country in pursuit of justice, something Georgi was not able to do once he left. Annabel said in an interview with The Times;

"Of course, he could never go back, it was impossible. 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."

The case remains open in the UK. The pellet is held in Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum, also known as the Black Museum.



Aberdeen Press and Journal - Saturday 20 June 1992 -

Aberdeen Evening Express - Wednesday 13 September 1978 -

Aberdeen Press and Journal - Wednesday 27 March 1991 -

Illustrated London News - Thursday 01 February 1979 -

Aberdeen Press and Journal - Wednesday 24 April 1991 -

Aberdeen Press and Journal - Tuesday 07 January 1992 -


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Georgi Markov — Death in a Pellet, Dr. Rufus Crompton, Dr. David Gall, First Published June 1, 1980 Research Article Find in PubMed -

Ricin – threat, effects and protection, Swedish Defence Research Agency, 2014

“Global Dissident”: Georgi Markov as a Cold War Playwright and Exile, Warner, University of Alabama, 2014


‘Scotland Yard's History of Crime in 100 Objects’, Alan Moss, Keith Skinner, History Press Limited, 2015

Molecules of murder : criminal molecules and classic cases, Emsley, John,Royal Society of Chemistry (Great Britain), 2008

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