Who Killed Georgi Markov?

Known as the Umbrella Murder, it was one of the most notorious crimes of the Cold War era. But who was behind this brazen execution in the heart of London?

The Buzludzha Monument, Bulgaria

WHO WAS GEORGI MARKOV?

Dashing and charismatic, Georgi Markov was one of the most celebrated Bulgarian writers of the 20th Century. This was during an era of Communist repression, when the Bulgarian ruler Todor Zhivkov tolerated no dissent among writers and artists in his country. Despite the oppressive atmosphere, Georgi Markov lived a life of bohemian zeal and gained huge acclaim for his writing. He was even admitted into Todor Zhivkov's inner circle, sitting in on meetings with the top Bulgarian brass.

It wasn't to last, though. As tensions started to rise and Markov's plays were forbidden from being performed, he realised it was time to flee his country. Markov eventually ended up in the UK, where his plays were staged and he started making satirical radio broadcasts about the Bulgarian regime. He was utterly scathing, describing Todor Zhivkov as "some paltry mediocrity who has proclaimed himself a demi-god". Little wonder that the Bulgarian secret police considered Markov's broadcasts to be the "most massive propaganda attack against the socialist way of life."

Georgi Markov (left) was pricked with an adapted umbrella as he crossed Waterloo Bridge, from the programme The Umbrella Assassin.

Georgi Markov (left) was pricked with an adapted umbrella as he crossed Waterloo Bridge, from the programme The Umbrella Assassin.

HOW WAS HE KILLED?

On 7 September 1978 - which just happened to be Todor Zhivkov's birthday - Georgi Markov stood by a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge in central London. It was an ordinary work commute on an ordinary day. Markov suddenly felt a sting in his right thigh. A passer-by with an umbrella muttered an apology in a foreign accent and rushed off into a taxi. Markov went to work as usual, thinking nothing of it, but noticed a red pimple at the site of the sting.

Fever eventually set in, and it got so bad that Markov was taken to hospital, where his body underwent total catastrophic collapse. Just days later he was dead, and investigation of the "pimple" uncovered a tiny metal pellet with holes drilled into it. It was assumed the pellet had been filled with poison, and then sealed with a kind of waxy coating which would melt at body temperature, releasing the toxin into the victim's flesh. Investigators guessed it was the lethal substance ricin, and proved it by injecting a luckless pig with ricin to see if its symptoms matched Markov's. They did. Like something from a Le Carré, Markov had apparently been murdered by a poison pellet deployed by the tip of an umbrella.

WHO WAS BEHIND IT?

There is very little doubt the killing was ordered by the Bulgarian government. Todor Zhivkov had apparently wanted Markov "liquidated", and according to Markov's British publisher, Markov had previously been approached by a would-be assassin who said "I've been sent to murder you, but I'm not going to do it - I'm going to take the money and vanish." High-level KGB defectors have also confirmed the Bulgarians approached the KGB for help in orchestrating the murder, although there continues to be controversy over who exactly planned the operation.

There's also the question of the identity of the assassin himself. The most "popular" suspect is a man named Francesco Gullino, who was allegedly coerced into becoming a Bulgarian agent after being apprehended for drug smuggling through the country. According to Bulgarian documents, Gullino was codenamed "Piccadilly" and was their only operative in London at the time of Markov's murder. Although he was questioned in 1993, the lack of evidence meant he was released without charge, and his name continues to be linked with Markov's. Just to complicate things more, there's also been speculation that ANOTHER Bulgarian agent, codenamed "Woodpecker" was the real killer, although details remain shady.

It may well be that we'll never know for certain who was behind the most audacious murder of the Cold War.