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A Captivating Mind | The Nation

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A Captivating Mind

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“If you are a hero today, you may be a traitor tomorrow, hanged the day after tomorrow, and rehabilitated with a monument erected to you the day after.” These prescient words appear in the prologue of In Absentia Reports. At the end of December 1989, the month after a palace coup removed Todor Zhivkov from power and communist regimes across Eastern and Central Europe began crumbling, Markov’s name resurfaced in Bulgaria. His membership in the Writers’ Union was posthumously restored, and his magnum opus, In Absentia Reports—first published in Zurich in 1981—was officially reprinted in Sofia in the summer of 1990, with an original print run of 70,000.

In Absentia Reports had the same journalistic verve and power as The Gulag Archipelago,” remembers Georgi Borisov, a writer and magazine editor who brought Markov’s work back to his home country after the political changes and penned the introduction to the first Bulgarian edition. “Solzhenitsyn’s book was more concrete, full of numbers, while Markov’s was memoiristic, but an authentic document of his times nevertheless. He didn’t use verbal arabesques, but related things as they were. In Absentia Reports has the same significance for Bulgarians as The Gulag Archipelago has for Russians.”

After the initial post-communist burst of excitement and interest in Markov, his name strangely and inexplicably began to sink back into the mire of forgetfulness. Even though the first democratically elected president of the country, Zhelyu Zhelev, visited Markov’s grave in England in 1991, pledging to help unravel the mystery of his murder and bring the perpetrators to justice, the Bulgarian investigation quickly stalled. A major obstacle was that Markov’s files—a hefty sixteen volumes—had been illegally removed from the SSS archives in January 1990 and either stashed away or burned, part of a larger campaign by communist officials to erase all traces of the former regime’s crimes. In the first months after the regime change, 134,102 (or 40.3 percent) of the archival units at the Ministry of the Interior were systematically destroyed, loaded on trucks at night and taken for incineration at a metallurgical plant near Sofia. An additional 10,000 to 20,000 files from the First Chief Directorate of the SSS, the foreign counterintelligence unit that directed Markov’s assassination, also went missing.

The Bulgarian authorities soon opened an inquiry into the disappearance of the “Wanderer” archives. Charges were filed against Gen. Vladimir Todorov, the final head of the First Chief Directorate, and his colleague Gen. Stoyan Savov. But Savov committed suicide two days before the beginning of the trial. Todorov escaped briefly to the Soviet Union, where his friend Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, was still powerful—but after Kryuchkov’s failed putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, Todorov was compelled to return to Bulgaria. He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to ten months in prison, but he continued to deny any wrongdoing to the end, claiming that he had destroyed Markov’s files because they “contained nothing important.”

The investigation into Markov’s murder continued anyway. Although the main files were now missing, there was plenty of external circumstantial evidence, as well as information scattered throughout the SSS archives—in annual reports, memos and references—to show categorically that Markov had been killed on the orders of the Communist Party. In fact, two weeks before Markov’s assassination, the same method had been tested in Paris on Vladimir Kostov, another enemy of the Zhivkov regime, a correspondent for Bulgarian National Television and an SSS defector. Kostov ultimately survived, despite getting very sick; an identical 1.52-millimeter platinum-iridium pellet was later retrieved from his body. “In the course of our investigation of the archives we found facts, which gave us reason to conclude that Georgi Markov was killed by the First Chief Directorate of the SSS, implementing the instructions of the secretariat of the central committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party,” says Kosta Bogatzevsky, the former deputy investigator who worked on the case in the early 1990s. (The former head investigator, Bogdan Karayotov, has since died.) But there was not enough hard evidence to file charges against particular individuals, while the Bulgarian court did not have the authority to prosecute an entire political system.

Only one person stood out: Francesco Gullino, code-named “Piccadilly,” an Italian with a Danish passport who had been recruited as an agent by the SSS in 1971, after being caught smuggling drugs and hard currency into Bulgaria. Stationed undercover as an antiques dealer in Copenhagen, Gullino had visited England for reconnaissance missions several times in 1976 and 1977, and he was possibly in London in September 1978, when Markov was killed—much of the information about his activities in that final year has been cleansed from his SSS file. With the help of the Danish police and Scotland Yard, Gullino, who still resided in Denmark, was taken in for questioning in 1993, but could not be arrested because Bulgaria’s senior state prosecutor at the time, Ivan Tatarchev, refused to release the relevant documents from Gullino’s file, citing the “lack of [a] legal assistance agreement” with Denmark and “reasons of national security.” That marked the end of the international investigative efforts, though sporadic work by Scotland Yard (which had been working on the case since 1978) and the Bulgarian police continued for some years afterward. Gullino, meanwhile, went into hiding.

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