A Book Peels Back Some Layers of a Cold War Mystery

A Book Peels Back Some Layers of a Cold War Mystery

September 11, 2009

Sofia Journal

A Book Peels Back Some Layers of a Cold War Mystery

SOFIA, Bulgaria — It was one of the legends of the cold war: a Bulgarian dissident writer, Georgi Markov, dying in a London hospital of a mysterious fever after being injected with a poison pellet from a specially adapted umbrella as he walked to work across Waterloo Bridge.

A prominent novelist in his native land when he defected to the West in 1969, Mr. Markov had become a journalist at the BBC’s Bulgarian service and an unflinching critic of Communist rule and Bulgaria’s longtime leader, Todor Zhivkov.

His death in 1978 received lurid coverage in the West, offered as further proof of the nefarious acts of Soviet bloc secret services. Mr. Markov told a colleague four days before he died that he had felt a sharp pain in his leg as he walked to work, then turned to see a stranger picking up an umbrella from the sidewalk.

Now, 30 years later, fresh mystery swirls around the death, a figure suspected in the case and the prospect of ever bringing clarity and a resolution to the crimes of Communism.

A Bulgarian journalist, Hristo Hristov, is releasing a book, “The Double Life of Agent Piccadilly,” that he says shows how the Communist leadership eliminated one of its most eloquent opponents.

Based on the first outside look at previously classified Bulgarian state security service documents, Mr. Hristov concludes that Mr. Markov was killed by Francesco Gullino, a Dane of Italian origin who was an occasional smuggler arrested twice in Bulgaria and given the choice of going to prison or becoming an agent.

Based in Copenhagen with a cover as an art dealer, Mr. Gullino was active until 1990 and received two Bulgarian state medals “for services to security and public order,” Mr. Hristov said. In 1993, Mr. Gullino was briefly detained and questioned by the British and Danish police in Copenhagen, and has not been seen or heard from since.

Case somewhat closed, the reader may think. But now the chief Bulgarian investigator into Mr. Markov’s death, Andrei Tsvetanov, says the authorities here will keep the case open after the Bulgarian statute of limitations expires on Thursday, the 30th anniversary of Mr. Markov’s death.

“We need more time to find the perpetrator and organizer,” Mr. Tsvetanov, chief investigator since 1999, said in an interview.

He also said the Bulgarian authorities had officially broadened the inquiry in the case of Vladimir Kostov, a Bulgarian defector in Paris who suffered a poison pellet attack two weeks before Mr. Markov did — and survived.

Scotland Yard’s investigation also remains active, with the British police traveling abroad to make several inquiries this year.

But 30 years of investigating by the British and 18 years by Bulgaria after Mr. Zhivkov’s ouster in November 1989 have failed to yield answers, so skepticism in Bulgaria runs deep. The judicial system is often criticized as corrupt and ineffective, particularly by the standards of the European Union, which now includes Bulgaria.

Referring to the investigators and the decision to keep the case alive, Lyuben Markov, a first cousin of the dissident writer, said, “I have absolutely no faith in these people.”

“I don’t think they are doing it out of any desire to find the truth, but rather to buy time and drag out the investigation until there is no public interest left,” he said.

Mr. Tsvetanov has long espoused the theory that Georgi Markov may have died because of a medical misdiagnosis. He and other officials say that the pellet found in his body may have been too small to hold a lethal dose of ricin, the poison investigators say was used to kill him.

Such interpretations are “politicized” and “absurd,” according to Bogdan Karayotov, who led the first Bulgarian investigation, begun in 1990. Critics in Bulgaria and abroad note that many people in the country are still interested in a cleaner image of the Communist past.

Mr. Hristov’s new book is based on 97 volumes of documents from the foreign intelligence division of the Bulgarian state security service. A journalist at the Bulgarian newspaper Dnevnik, Mr. Hristov gained access after a six-year court battle.

“Is it normal to keep the Communist-era archives closed for so many years in a country in NATO and the E.U.?” he asked. “This situation is totally absurd.”

Among the ideas his book tries to dispel as myths is the “Bulgarian umbrella” itself. Mr. Hristov says the umbrella Mr. Markov saw was not a weapon, but simply a diversion.

Mr. Hristov quotes from a 1972 document showing that the Soviet K.G.B. had given Bulgaria an injection device shaped like a pen and capable of delivering a tiny metal pellet through clothing and skin into the bloodstream. A forensic doctor who examined Mr. Markov told Mr. Hristov that the pellet was so small that it left no visible mark on his trouser leg.

Another 1972 document reveals an agreement with the K.G.B. to assist Bulgarian intelligence agents in “extreme operations” like assassinations, kidnappings and sabotage.

Mr. Kostov, now 77, was an agent for Bulgaria’s foreign intelligence services in Paris with a cover as a television correspondent when he defected. He was sentenced to death in absentia.

Asked whether the attacks on him and Mr. Markov were linked, Mr. Kostov said: “I’m not a specialist in these techniques. But from everything I have read, I think it has been proven categorically.” He said Mr. Markov was planning a newspaper for Bulgarian dissidents abroad and in Bulgaria. It would have been the country’s only organized opposition under Mr. Zhivkov.

Mr. Kostov remains convinced that political pressures have blocked arrests in the case. “I’m of the opinion that the first investigation of Karayotov had gathered enough information by 1999,” he said.

Mr. Hristov said he hoped that exposing details about the death would help Bulgarians appreciate Mr. Markov and see the evils of the old Communist system.

“Mr. Markov is a classic of Bulgarian Communism,” he said, noting that Mr. Markov’s writing was forgotten in Bulgaria; his name was erased from public life after his defection to the West.

As one of the few Bulgarian writers to tell the truth about Communism at the time, Mr. Hristov said, Mr. Markov should be taught in Bulgarian schools. “He has the talent of a Solzhenitsyn, but on a Bulgarian scale.”

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