In March 2018, one of the top news in Bulgaria was the announcement of the “Dossier Commission” that deals with the files of the former communist State Security Services, that Julia Kristeva, the prominent French writer and intellectual of Bulgarian origin has been an agent of the State Security, according to their findings. What followed was a heated discussion about the interpretation of this information. While Julia Kristeva denied all accusations against her, the Commission published her dossier online, containing hundreds of pages of transcripts of reports by Kristeva on the Bulgarian community in Paris that she knowingly or unknowingly delivered to Bulgaria’s Secret Service. There is also a document in which Kristeva signs up to be an agent of the State Security – according to Kristeva, this is all a fabrication with the aim to tarnish her reputation.
There are of course a few question marks in this particular case, and it remains to be seen, if Kristeva was really the victim as which she is describing herself. What was for me most interesting was the fact, that many intellectuals in Bulgaria tried to downplay Kristeva’s role, based on the argument that – even if she was an agent, it was all rather harmless what she reported, and she wouldn’t have done any harm with her reports – if indeed, she worked knowingly for the State Security. I think it is therefore good and necessary to remember what the State Security did to some Bulgarians abroad, and how a network of informants were complicit into destroying the lives of people like the writer Georgi Markov. The book “Kill the Wanderer” (Gutenberg 2013, translated by David Mossop) by the investigative journalist Hristo Hristov is a breathtaking account of how Bulgaria’s State Security Service assassinated one of the best Bulgarian writers, who had turned into the most feared enemy of the communist nomenklatura in Bulgaria.
Georgi Markov had his first successes as a writer in Bulgaria in the 1950’s, and after his admission to the Writers’ Union, he could embark on a professional career as a writer. At that time, in the early 1960’s, there was a short period in which formal experiments and criticism in works of art and literature were allowed and even encouraged within certain limits; the leader of the communist party, Todor Zhivkov, took matters of literature in his own hands and had frequent meetings with writers, among them also Markov. But it soon turned out that Markov’s and other writers’ hopes for some real reforms and more artistic and personal freedom would never be fulfilled in the totalitarian system in which they lived. Markov decided to apply for a passport and to live for a certain time abroad, until his recent conflicts with the censors in Bulgaria had somehow cooled down. But his hope was in vain. While abroad, a campaign against him started, and he was starting to get worried about serious repercussions against him, once he would return to Bulgaria.
Markov’s position in this moment was precarious. Formally, he was not an emigrant, and was to be expected to return home when his passport expired – a prospect that was not attractive to him. On the other hand, he needed to make a living somehow, since his brother who lived in Italy, supported him financially, a situation that Markov wanted to change in order not to be a burden to his brother.
Markov had big hopes to turn some of his works into a screenplay and movie, and made contacts with the film producer Pierre Ruf (his real name was Petar Uvaliev), but in the end, these efforts came to nothing. Markov turned to journalistic work: he started to write texts for the BBC, later he became a regular contributor to Deutsche Welle and Radio Liberty/Free Europe.
The book describes in detail, how Markov’s work in this field slowly changed his practical attitude towards Bulgaria’s regime. In the beginning, when working with the BBC, he would refrain from political texts, thus not jeopardizing his return to Bulgaria. And indeed, his passport that allowed him to stay legally abroad, was prolonged several times. But his contact with foreign journalists and writers was not without effect; his work with Deutsche Welle and Radio Liberty/Free Europe was much more political, and led soon to Markov’s decision not to return home, a decision that was for sure extremely difficult since he had parents and a wife at home he knew he would most probably never see again. Once Markov broadcasted a series of reports about his meetings with Todor Zhivkov, that included a psychological profile of the dictator and the mechanisms behind the personality cult around him, the State Security Services started an operation with the aim to “remove” Markov (the codename of Markov as a target person was “the Wanderer). Markov was aware of the danger in which he was, especially after he was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison, and was declared an “enemy of the Bulgarian people”.
A big part of the book deals with the concrete plans to assassinate Markov. Considering the close cooperation of the Bulgarian agents with the KGB, it was interesting for me to read that Andropov, then KGB chief, was initially against the planned assassination and only later hesitantly agreed to provide “technical assistance” to the murder, but under the condition that no Soviet agents were directly involved in any way in the assassination. The State Security had already experience to “silence” Bulgarian dissidents abroad: Boris Arsov, another dissident, had been kidnapped in Denmark, sentenced to prison after his forced return to Bulgaria, and there he died, most probably murdered in prison. But in Markov’s case, the State Security decided to use another tactics: assassination with a poison that is very difficult to discover during an autopsy: ricin.
On 7 September 1978, Markov walked across Waterloo Bridge, and waited at a bus stop to take a bus to his job at the BBC. He felt a slight sharp pain, as a bug bite or sting, on the back of his right thigh. He looked behind him and saw a man picking up an umbrella off the ground. The man hurriedly crossed to the other side of the street and got in a taxi which then drove away. When he arrived at work at the BBC World Service offices, Markov noticed a small red pimple had formed at the site of the sting he had felt earlier and the pain had not lessened or stopped. He told at least one of his colleagues at the BBC about this incident. That evening he developed a fever and was admitted to St James’ Hospital, where he died four days later, on 11 September 1978, at the age of 49. The cause of death was poisoning from a ricin-filled-filled pellet.
Author Hristov went to great lengths to uncover the truths in this case. As a court reporter in the 1990’s, he knew many of the agents involved in one phase or another with the Markov murder. He won six court cases against the Bulgarian Minister of Interior and the Director of the National Intelligence Service for their refusal to provide access to the most important documents relating to the murder in the Bulgarian archives. After the court rulings, Hristov was granted access to the surviving documents, and he was able to reveal many details of this case; especially he revealed the identity of the only suspect in the murder case, an Italian national (Codename “Piccadilly”), who worked for decades as an agent for the State Security, and who, until today, is a free man.
Why was Markov such a dangerous person for the Bulgarian regime? After all, he was just an individual, who kept a distance to all Bulgarian political circles in the emigration. The answer is: he knew the system from the inside. he had close contact to leading people of the regime, including Zhivkov. Since in Bulgaria, he worked for years as an engineer and outside intellectual circles, he had access to a wide range of experiences and contacts. His criticism was therefore not a general rant about the inhumanity of communism, but a very sharp analysis of what was wrong with everyday life of average Bulgarians at that time; therefore his radio broadcasts were considered a real danger by the regime, something that could lead to unrest in the country; therefore Markov, who was an excellent author as well, was considered a concrete threat and had to be eliminated, by the logic of this system. But it is also clear that without a small army of helpers and informants, who reported on every step and every visit Markov would undertake, it would have been difficult to assassinate “the Wanderer”.
The book is with almost 450 pages no easy read; I would have preferred a more chronological narrative, and the big number of (to a Western reader) difficult Bulgarian names require a very focused reader. Nevertheless, this is a very important book and a victory of the truth against all attempts to downplay the role of the State Security Services and their deeds.
Unfortunately, very little of the work of Georgi Markov is available in print in English today. His book The Truth That Killed can be found sometimes in antiquarian bookstores. The literary journal Ploughshares has recently published a small e-book Two Essays (translator Dimitar Kenarov) that contains Markov’s texts “Prostitution” and “Wastewaters,” which expose the moral hypocrisy of the communist regime in Bulgaria through the everyday stories of its forgotten members. It would be great to see more of his works translated in English.
Georgi Markov was a Bulgarian dissident writer. He was born 1929 in Sofia. In 1946, he graduated from high school and began university studies in industrial chemistry. Initially Markov worked as a chemical engineer and a teacher in a technical school. At the age of 19 years, he became ill with tuberculosis, which forced him to attend various hospitals. His first literary attempts occurred during that time. In 1957 a novel “The Night of Celsius” appeared. Soon another novel “The Ajax Winners” (1959) and two collections of short stories (1961) were published. In 1962, Markov published the novel “Men“, which won the annual award of the Union of Bulgarian Writers and he was subsequently accepted as a member of the Union, a prerequisite for a professional career in literature. Georgi Markov started working at the “Narodna Mladezh” publishing house. The story collections “A Portrait of My Double” (1966) and “The Women of Warsaw” (1968) secured his place as one of the most talented young writers of Bulgaria. Markov also wrote a number of plays but most of them were never staged or were removed from theatre repertoire by the Communist censors: “To Crawl under the Rainbow“, “The Elevator“, “Assassination“, “Stalinists“, and “I Was Him“. The novel “The Roof” was halted in mid-printing since it described as a fact and in allegorical terms the collapse of the roof of the Lenin steel mill. Markov was one of the authors of the popular TV series “At Each Kilometer“. Despite the ban of some of his works, Georgi Markov had become a successful author. He was among the writers and poets that Zhivkov tried to co-opt and coerce into serving the regime with their works. During this period, Markov had a bohemian lifestyle which was unknown to most Bulgarians. In 1969, Georgi Markov left for Bologna, Italy, where his brother lived. His initial idea was to wait until his status with the Bulgarian authorities improved, but he gradually changed his mind and decided to stay in the West, especially after September 1971 when the Bulgarian government refused to extend his passport. Markov moved to London where he learned English and started working for the Bulgarian section of the BBC World Service (1972). Later he also worked with Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe. In 1972, Markov’s membership in the Union of Bulgarian Writers was suspended and he was sentenced in absentia to six years and six months in prison for his defection. His works were withdrawn from libraries and bookshops and his name was not mentioned by the official Bulgarian media until 1989. The Bulgarian Secret Service started Markov’s file under the code name “Wanderer“. In 1974 his play “To Crawl under the Rainbow” was staged in London, while in Edinburgh the play “Archangel Michael“, written in English, won first prize. The novel “The Right Honorable Chimpanzee“, co-authored by David Phillips, was published after his death. In 1975, Markov married Annabel Dilke. The couple has a daughter, Alexandra-Raina, born a year later. Between 1975 and 1978, Markov worked on his “In Absentia Reports” analysis of life in Communist Bulgaria. They were broadcast weekly on Radio Free Europe. Their criticism of the Communist government and personally of the Party leader Todor Zhivkov made Markov even more an enemy of the regime. In 1978, Markov was murdered in London by an operative of the Bulgarian State Security Service. His “In Absentia Reports” were published in Bulgaria in 1990, after the end of the Communist government. In 2000, Markov was posthumously awarded the Order of Stara Planina, Bulgaria’s most prestigious honor, for his “significant contribution to the Bulgarian literature, drama and non-fiction and for his exceptional civic position and confrontation to the Communist regime.“
Hristo Hristov (b. 1967 in Etropole) is an investigative journalist, documentarist and founder of the websites http://desebg.com/ and http://pametbg.com/. He has written eight factual works on the various crimes of the communist regime in Bulgaria. He began his career as a journalist in October, 1990, as a reporter for “Democracy”, founded that same year. He specialised as a court reporter and in the 1990’s covered the investigations and trials of those involved in the crimes perpetrated by the communist regime in Bulgaria. These included the murder of the Bulgarian writer, Georgi Markov, as well as the court proceedings against the director of the First Main Directorate, General Vladimir Todorov, relating to the destruction of files relating to Georgi Markov in 1992. This gave Hristov a wealth of experience, valuable contacts and sources within the State Prosecutors’ Office, the Investigation Services and the Courts. In 2001 he began work for the recently founded newspaper, “Dnevnik”, where he continues to work at the moment as an investigative journalist. In December 2002 he spent some time working for the UK Guardian and in 2004 in the International Centre for Journalism in Washington. Hristov is the author of – among others – the books The Secret Case of the Labour Camps (1999), The State Security Service against the Bulgarian Émigrés (2000), Kill the Wanderer (2005), and The Secret Bankruptcies of the Communist Regime (2007). His most recent work The Double Life of Agent Piccadilly is a continuation of the book about Georgi Markov. It is a book about the sole suspect in the murder investigation, the State Security agent with the code name “Piccadilly”. In November, 2014, he began a web project dedicated to the Register of Collaborators of the State Security Services and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army (agentibg.com ).
David Mossop has studied Russian and French at Bristol University and the former USSR. He has taught Russian at Bristol University, English for the British Council in Bulgaria and Bulgarian to corporate clients in Bulgaria. He has worked as a translator, interpreter and coordinator for a number of a governmental bilateral projects between the UK and Bulgaria, facilitating Bulgaria’s membership of NATO and the EU. Between 2000-2012 he worked for the Crown Agents, coordinating their project to assist in the development of the Revenue Administration of the Ministry of Finance of Bulgaria. He has a PhD in Linguistics specializing in Lexical Semantics.
Thomas Hübner is a German-born economist and development consultant with a life-long passion for books. He lives in Chisinau/Moldova and Sofia/Bulgaria. He is also the co-founder of Rhizome Publishing in Sofia, and translates poetry, mainly from Bulgarian to German (most recently Vladislav Hristov, Germanii, Rhizome 2017). He is blogging at Mytwostotinki on books and anything else that interests him.
Photo credits: Wikipedia; Hristo Hristov; Translators Cafe; Cornelia Awear
This blog post is part of #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.