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A Captivating Mind | The Nation

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A Captivating Mind

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Where the investigation failed in its objectives, one journalist has broken ground. For more than twenty years, Hristo Hristov has been relentlessly working on excavating Bulgaria’s totalitarian past and its numerous crimes. The author of seven books, including a critical biography of Todor Zhivkov, a history of Bulgaria’s concentration camps and an examination of the Communist Party’s disastrous economic policies, Hristov has also dedicated a substantial part of his career to researching the Markov case. His authoritative documentary study Kill the Wanderer, which was published to great fanfare in Bulgaria in 2005 and has just appeared in an abridged version in English, remains the major source of information today on Markov’s life and death. Sifting tirelessly through the available SSS archives, interviewing a wide circle of people, and filing information requests (or lawsuits whenever those were not honored), Hristov has managed to diligently reconstruct, piece by piece, the mysterious puzzle of Markov’s case. In the course of his work, he received anonymous threats and his apartment was rifled three times, but he refused to be intimidated in his dogged pursuit, trying to fill what he calls “the vacuum of memory.”

One of the greatest challenges has been the sustained campaign of misinformation and vitriol around Markov’s name. Rumors that Markov had been acting as an undercover SSS agent in London or even as a double agent for the CIA or MI6 were in circulation even before 1989—a common strategy against detractors of the regime, intended to discredit them in the eyes of their admirers and enemies alike—but after the political changes in Bulgaria, the smear campaign against Markov continued. Books like The Umbrella Murder (1994), by Vladimir Bereanu and Kalin Todorov, and Kill Georgi Markov’s Cat (2006), by Angelina Petrova, advance the notion—based on little more than allegations and gossip—that Markov had been working for the SSS. Bereanu and Petrova have since been revealed as former SSS agents. Petrova’s book in particular, an ad hominem attack on Markov, paints him as a selfish, dishonest person, a womanizer, whose work has no literary value whatsoever. She proposes that the CIA could have killed Markov, or that his death was not a murder: he might have died from sepsis due to a cat scratch or even the bubonic plague.

Hristov categorically rejects such conspiracy theories, as does Kosta Bogatzevsky, who in the course of the criminal investigation has interviewed dozens of former SSS employees under oath. “There are no documents and absolutely no evidence to show that Georgi Markov was an agent of SSS,” Bogatzevsky says. “All these allegations are false and aim to deflect attention from the criminal act that was committed.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence, hard and circumstantial, that has come to light about the Markov assassination, speculation about his role as a political dissident and artist continue to proliferate in Bulgarian public spaces and Internet discussions. Opinions are sharply split, and not always along political lines, with one side accusing Markov of being a traitor or a suave servant of the regime, and the other lauding him as a national hero and a defender of the values of truth and freedom. Markov’s two lives—first as a member of the official intelligentsia, and later as its vociferous critic in exile—naturally fuel such divisions, but they also point to the complexity of human psychology and the nature of the regime, as well as the variegated roads of one’s existence and personal development, which can never be reduced to polarities. Markov’s biography stands witness to a system that artfully blurred the lines between ideological demands and individual desire, making self-deception appear as a natural choice. Perhaps Markov’s greatest feat was to expose the difference between the two.

Most important, however, the contentious debate surrounding his legacy reveals the ambiguous national attitude toward the historical legacy of Bulgaria’s totalitarian regime as a whole. As Tony Judt perceptively writes in Postwar: “the Cold War fault-line fell not so much between East and West as within Eastern and Western Europe alike…. Between those for whom Communism brought practical social advantage in one form or another, and those for whom it meant discrimination, disappointment and repression.” The ultimate insider as well as the ultimate outsider, Markov showed that the division ran right through him.

Certainly, as he so often observed in In Absentia Reports, a substantial stratum of the Bulgarian population received material benefits and social privileges from the communist system, provided they were willing to dispense with their basic rights and abstain from open criticism. For the average citizen of Bulgaria, life was, if not satisfactory, then calm and uneventful, a dutiful trudge along prescribed lines. For many others, though, it was the exact opposite: full of physical and psychological violence, persecution and daily cruelties.

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