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Death in London

The Assassination of Georgi Markov

By Thomas Boghardt

Waiting for his bus by London’s Waterloo Bridge, Georgi Markov suddenly felt a sharp pain in his right thigh. As he turned around, he saw a heavy-set man, about 40 years old, bending to pick up a dropped umbrella. The man apologized in a foreign accent, hurried to a waiting taxi and departed. Despite persistent pain in his thigh, Markov proceeded to his office at the BBC.

But in the evening, he was hospitalized with a high fever. After three days of agony, he died on Sept. 11, 1978. Markov’s death remains one of the darkest chapters of the Cold War—and the ending is still being written. A famous Bulgarian novelist, Markov defected to the West in 1969. Eventually, he settled in London and began to produce radio programs that were highly critical of the Bulgarian regime. Broadcast by the BBC, Radio Free Europe, and Deutsche Welle, his programs became so popular that 5 million out of 8 million Bulgarians regularly tuned in, even though the Bulgarian authorities heavily jammed the frequencies. In June 1977, Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov decided Markov had overstepped the line and decreed that all measures could be used to neutralize enemy émigrés. Bulgarian State Security (DS) snapped into action. Lacking the technical wherewithal, DS director Dimitar Stoyanov asked his Soviet brethren for assistance, but even the hardened KGB men were reluctant to become accessories to murder. The days when this kind of thing could go unpunished are gone, exclaimed KGB chairman Yuri Andropov. He eventually agreed to provide the DS with technical assistance only. The KGB residence in Washington, D. C. procured several umbrellas, and a top secret KGB poisons laboratory transformed them into deadly weapons that could eject tiny pellets of the extremely lethal toxin ricin from their tips.

Meanwhile, the DS selected an agent to kill TRAMP, Markov’s code name. From the circumstantial evidence produced to date, it appears the man chosen for the gruesome task was an Italian-born Danish citizen, code name PICCADILLY, a petty criminal whom the DS had pressed into service in 1970. PICCADILLY was reportedly the only Bulgarian agent in London on the day of the attack. His intelligence file, however, remains closed.The end of the Cold War inaugurated the hunt for those responsible for Markov’s death—as yet with mixed results. In 1992, former Bulgarian intelligence chief Vladimir Todorov was sentenced to 16 months in jail for destroying multiple files on the Markov case, and former Deputy Interior Minister Stoyan Savov committed suicide rather than face trial. Ex-DS officer Vasil Kosev, widely believed to have supervised Markov’s assassination, died in an unexplained car crash in 1991. The assassin remains at large. In 1993, Scotland Yard managed to track down and interview PICCADILLY in Denmark, but Sofia was unresponsive to requests for evidence that would have justified his extradition to Britain. Today, it seems, the trail has gone cold. PICCADILLY is believed to be alive, but his whereabouts are unknown.

The author would like to thank Richard H. Cummings for his support for this article.