The lives and deaths of Georgi Markov
On 7 September 1978, while crossing Waterloo Bridge in London on his way to work at the BBC, the Bulgarian writer and journalist Georgi Markov was shot in the right leg with a 1.52-millimiter poisonous pellet by an undercover wage-earner of Bulgaria’s intelligence services. He felt a slight sting and didn’t think much of it. But that evening, he began to show symptoms and his condition quickly deteriorated. Four days later, on 11 September, despite the efforts of British doctors, Markov suffered a cardiac arrest. He was forty-nine years old. The Markov scragging became one of the most notorious of the era, a James Bond-style operation that the printing dubbed ‘the umbrella murder’ (it was unsupportable at the time that the pellet had been shot via a modified umbrella, although this theory has since been doubted). It made headlines all over the world and remained in the news for months afterwards. Investigators and journalists unwrinkled began working feverishly to solve the mystery of the crime. Why would everyone skiver a relatively unknown émigré in such tawdry fashion? What had he been punished for? And who was Georgi Markov, anyway? Before he left his native country for good in the summer of 1969, Markov had been one of Bulgaria’s most prestigious writers, the darling of readers and plane some party officials. His fiction received major literary prizes and was well-timed for cinema; his plays were staged in many of the big theatres in the capital, Sofia; and he co-wrote the script of the most popular Bulgarian TV drama series at the time, At Every Kilometer. For all of this, he was handsomely rewarded. Something of a bon vivant, he crush a silver BMW, took part in illegal high-stakes poker games, attended parties and lavish dinners with politicians, and plane accompanied the country’s leader and de facto dictator, Todor Zhivkov, on country hikes. Yet he never lost sight of the many compromises he had to make as an officially recognized artist, and the self-censorship he was forced to siphon out. ‘That was precisely the purpose overdue the sweet life offered us – to stop us writing,’ he wrote. Markov’s visualization to welsh Bulgaria and throw yonder his unshortened career – fame, money, and privileges – was a product of his growing stodge with his own participation in the system and his frustration with the increasingly reactionary politics in Bulgaria without the superincumbent of the Prague Spring in August 1968. But he moreover had vague hopes of making it as an versifier abroad, feeling that the provincial undercurrent in Sofia was too limiting for his talent and abilities. ‘I am indeed happy with the path I have chosen, however plush it may be’, Markov wrote to his Bulgarian ex-wife, Zdravka Lekova, in a letter from London. ‘I have not regretted my deportment for a second and I do not miss the pseudo-literary life in Bulgaria, and my false happiness as a literary parvenu. The coming days may be difficult and impoverished, then then I might be lucky, but the most important thing for me is that I will write the works I want to write without taking anyone’s opinion into account.’ Nothing seemed to work at first. When Markov moved to London in the summer of 1970, without a unenduring stint in Italy, he had no money and no connections. He rented two rooms of a house in a uncleanly part of southwest London and, with no steady job and no knowledge of English, had to rely on the generosity of a few acquaintances. Unlike literary émigrés from the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia, who enjoyed at least some public sustentation and occasionally had wangle to university positions and translators, Bulgarians had practically no support networks. Of all the Soviet bloc countries, Bulgaria – the closest satellite of the USSR – was the least known and considered the least interesting. Markov stood little endangerment in his newly unexplored country. Yet he persevered. He quickly learned the language and sooner found a job as newscaster at the BBC’s Bulgarian service. He moreover began to contribute regular cultural and political pieces on Bulgaria – increasingly hair-trigger in tone – for Deutsche Welle, dissemination on short wavelengths to audiences overdue the Iron Curtain. But it was Markov’s series of personal narrative essays for Radio Free Europe, In Absentia Reports Well-nigh Bulgaria, that put him directly in the line of fire of State Security (the feared intelligence service when home) and turned him into one of the most reviled and dangerous enemies of the regime.