A Captivating Mind
Luben Markov lives in a house of memory. The coffee table in the upstairs living room is strewn with letters, newspaper clippings, typewritten manuscripts and court decisions; video and audio recordings are stashed in the cabinets of an antique sideboard; bulky ring binders, organized by year, line one of the walls in the room next door; along a staircase, several wall-mounted shelves buckle under the weight of books on communism, totalitarianism and Soviet-era intelligence services.
A tall, 70-year-old retiree with grizzled hair and large spectacles, Luben lives alone with a shaggy shepherd dog on the old family property in Knyazhevo, a rural suburb of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. It was here, at the foot of Vitosha Mountain, that his cousin, the writer Georgi Markov, grew up—and where, in 1969, Georgi came to bid goodbye to his relatives before driving across the border to Yugoslavia. “He took out some money from his pocket and said, ‘Luben, go have a drink with your friends. Drink to my health. I’m going abroad for a while.’ And that was it. He got into his car and drove off.”
Nine years later, Georgi was dead. A dissident writer and radio journalist living in London whose weekly broadcast, In Absentia: Reports About Bulgaria, had gained a dedicated following in his native land, Markov was assassinated in broad daylight, shot in the thigh with a miniature poisonous pellet by an agent of the Bulgarian State Security Service (SSS). At the time, it was assumed that the murder weapon had been a modified umbrella gun, and the case became known worldwide as “the Bulgarian Umbrella.” It was one of the most lurid and mysterious assassinations of the Cold War era.
In the last photograph taken of Markov, an enlarged copy of which hangs in the hallway of Luben’s house, the writer looks directly into the camera from behind horn-rimmed glasses. Even though his legs are casually crossed, his eyes seem worried, fearful, almost pleading. Absent are the smile and sparkle that grace other photographs of him. He holds a pocket notebook and is nervously thumbing through it.
Since 1989, when the communist regime in Bulgaria collapsed in a palace coup, Luben has made it his sole objective to assist the investigation of his cousin’s murder, as well as to promote his literary legacy. He has facilitated the publication, and reprinting, of Markov’s essays, novels and plays; organized annual memorial events and readings; compiled a collection of Markov’s personal letters and documents; and put investigators in touch with key witnesses. So crammed is his mind with Markovia that occasionally he has difficulty processing it, stumbling from one topic to the next. In a sense, Luben has become his cousin’s double. “I’ve adopted many of Georgi’s thoughts and attitudes as my own laws,” he says. “I want the truth. That’s what I want. As Georgi writes in one essay, it’s the issue of our time, of all times—truth!”
But truth has been hard to come by. Markov’s name—once expunged from all public records—has been restored to Bulgaria’s official history. Yet last year, thirty-five years after his assassination, with no suspect arrested and no admission of guilt or expression of remorse from the Bulgarian state, the statute of limitations expired and the Bulgarian prosecutor ordered the investigation closed.
Sitting on an old sofa across from me, Luben Markov begins reading aloud from a manuscript of one of his cousin’s essays. The text has the ring of biblical prophecy: “After five, ten, fifty, a hundred years an invisible computer will come into existence, which will sift through the whole past and will bring all to light: a consolation to some and a threat to others.”
* * *
When Georgi Markov left Bulgaria in 1969, at the age of 40, he was one of the country’s most lionized writers, the darling of readers and, until that point, party officials. By all accounts, his success was astounding. He was a chemical engineer by education and worked in various factories in his youth, writing only in his spare time; yet his second novel, Men, was named novel of the year by the Bulgarian Writers’ Union in 1962. Markov was immediately granted full membership in the organization, an unprecedented honor at that time.
The award flung open all of the important doors. Men was quickly adapted into a movie, a play and a radio drama, and translations of the novel appeared throughout the Eastern bloc. Markov’s subsequent books were also praised by critics and his plays staged in major theaters in Sofia and across the country. He was appointed to a cushy editorial position at Narodna Mladezh, one of the most prestigious Bulgarian publishing houses. And that, in turn, brought him more rewards and privileges.
Something of a bon vivant, Markov—or Gerry, as his friends called him—wore sporty polo-neck sweaters and drove a BMW at a time when even Soviet-made cars were a rarity in Sofia. He frequented the city’s most fashionable cafes with his friends and enjoyed listening to Louis Armstrong and Charles Aznavour on his reel-to-reel tape deck, a precious commodity. He attended glamorous parties with the Bulgarian nomenklatura and knew a number of ministers and SSS officers. Eventually, he met Todor Zhivkov, first secretary of the Communist Party and the country’s dictator, who invited him on nature hikes and to extravagant dinners. Ever since Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule in the late nineteenth century, literature had been intimately entangled with Bulgarian politics and the forging of a national consciousness, and the communist regime simply reinforced the trend. Writers were not just artists but, as Stalin had put it, “engineers of the human soul.” If Bulgaria had a celebrity writer-engineer in the 1960s, his name was Georgi Markov.
Beneath the patina of public success and official recognition, Markov always maintained a critical stance. The thread running through much of his early fiction, including Men, is the moral conflict between the idealistic, conscientious person—“the true communist”—and the indifferent, inefficient, corrupt system, which tries to mask its flaws behind the cant of communist ideology. But the system itself is never at fault; rather, failure is presented as an aberration, the product of wayward individual irresponsibility and petty—often still bourgeois—personal ambition overriding the public interest. In Men, Ivan, a skilled engineer and committed communist, tries to reform his institute by standing up to its incompetent management: “I believe in our time, with all of its faults,” he declares. It was an attitude prevalent among many of the progressive writers in the Soviet bloc—most notably, the East German novelist Christa Wolf, an exact contemporary of Markov’s, whose heroes and heroines staunchly persevere in their socialist beliefs in spite of all.
Markov’s nascent rebellion remained formulaic and halfhearted, and it also hewed closely to the Bulgarian Communist Party’s new line. Following the path of the Soviet mothership, the BCP initiated a process of de-Stalinization and cultural liberalization after 1956. In more ways than one, Markov was the poster child of the Thaw and the readiness of the BCP to ascribe all past deficiencies of the system—including its worst degeneracies—to individual foibles. At the beginning of the 1960s, the regime not only tolerated but also encouraged works of fiction such as Markov’s, which provided the leadership with a clean slate for its policies. It made a special effort to co-opt artists for its ideological purposes, but especially those who were talented, who still possessed some critical faculties and a modicum of independence. Years later, writing in exile, Markov would admit that “our anti-establishment thought is, in essence, directed by the establishment.” As Lyubomir Levchev, one of Markov’s close friends in the 1960s, once said: “Gerry’s thought danced on the edge of the permissible, but he was never falling into the abyss. Overall, his books were exceedingly life-affirming, that is, politically sanctioned.”
It was a delicate balancing act involving a lot of compromise. Officially, there was no censorship in Bulgaria, no single bureau or bureaucrat responsible for enforcing the party line—yet writers had to tread lightly and engage in subtle forms of self-censorship. In Markov’s early fiction, though his prose is never careless or clichéd, the plots often seem contrived, and the characters rarely rise above their socialist-realist types. As Markov wrote several years after leaving Bulgaria: “We had to, figuratively speaking, mutilate our characters—the receptacles of our ideas—by pulling their teeth out, clipping their nails, cutting their hair, poking out their eyes, and all too often removing their brains as well, so that they could begin resembling creatures acceptable to the Party.” The socialist hero was “a clinical idiot…the rejection of everything human.” Despite Markov’s best efforts, the ideological demands of the regime were gradually corrupting his literary ambitions.
The conflict between the freedom of the artist and the iron grip of ideology was hardly novel, but it was especially acute in the countries of the Soviet bloc. In his seminal book of essays The Captive Mind (1953), Czeslaw Milosz, explaining how some artists handled the conflict, invoked the ancient Persian concept of “Ketman”: the psychological ability to profess earnestly one identity in public while maintaining—or at least believing one maintained—another in private. For much of his early career, Markov was “a captive mind.” The BCP was especially adept at showering artists with privilege—generous salaries, automobiles, apartments, vacation homes, permission to travel abroad—and very few had the courage to say no. Reluctance to speak one’s mind came down not to the fear of labor camps or death—which were, at least in principle at the time, nightmares of the Stalinist past—but to the fear of being stripped of the prestige and luxuries bestowed by the regime, as well as permission to publish. “That was precisely the purpose behind the sweet life offered us—to stop us writing,” Markov would later explain.
* * *
Markov’s public estrangement from the corruption and absurdities of Bulgaria’s communist regime was a slow and painful process, but its beginning can be traced to his masterful “The Portrait of My Double,” from 1966. A semi-autobiographical work with atmospheric affinity to the writings of Henry Miller, the novella describes a late-night game of poker, a favorite though technically illegal diversion among Sofia’s bohemians (gambling was forbidden at the time). The book’s disillusioned narrator is a prominent journalist, and he and his partner are planning a complex scheme to cheat their two opponents out of their money. It is a strategy, the journalist bluntly reveals, no different than writing glowing profiles of socialist workers. Both are just a game, a product of deceit, played without moral scruples and with the goal of winning at any price. “I felt exhilarated by the process of falsification,” the journalist says, and then offers his personal credo: “the freedom to accept those truths, which I find convenient.” The ending, however, is filled with bitter irony: the narrator loses the game and a great deal of money because his partner has been secretly colluding with the other players at the table.
Despite its decadent theme and cynical frankness, “The Portrait of My Double” was not banned in Bulgaria, and it found a large audience. Markov was increasingly testing the limits of the permissible, yet he did not shy away from working for the establishment and its propaganda machine. He signed a contract to write a novel about “the activities of the Ministry of Interior in fighting crime” and a play focusing on “the struggle of the State Security Service with the enemies of the motherland” (neither of them was realized). Along with a few other high-profile authors, he also received a commission to write the script of what was to become the most popular TV drama series of the period, At Every Kilometer, which glorified the communist partisan movement in Bulgaria during World War II.
All the while, Markov’s time as a sanctioned writer was running out. His novels continued to sell and were not criticized directly, but his plays were a different matter. The public character of theater—its visual immediacy and space for textual ambiguity in performance—drew unwanted attention from the authorities. His enormous success was also the cause of envy among certain powerful members of the intelligentsia, who began to use every opportunity to sow doubts and rumors about Markov’s political bona fides. In 1967, his play To Wriggle Under the Rainbow, about the patients of a tuberculosis sanatorium waiting for their end (as a young man, Markov had spent much time as a patient in such places), was closed down after its thirteenth performance at the People’s Army Theater in Sofia. Its director and five of the actors were forbidden from working in the capital and banished to the town of Burgas, on the Black Sea. A year later, a report of the Writers’ Union labeled the play “ideologically unsound,” and the secretary of the BCP’s central committee, Venelin Kotsev, declared: “There is no doubt that such plays cannot assist in the correct education of our people.” The front against Georgi Markov had been opened.
But Markov’s fall from grace owed as much to historical events and the changing ideological climate as to his growing artistic independence. The reactionary, conservative politics of Leonid Brezhnev, who had replaced Nikita Khrushchev as leader of the Soviet Union in 1964, gradually trickled down to Bulgaria, the Kremlin’s closest satellite. Ideological control of the intelligentsia all across the Soviet bloc began to tighten, and many of the liberal policies of the past were reversed. And with Brezhnev’s crushing of the Prague Spring in August 1968 came the end of tolerance toward anything resembling criticism behind the Iron Curtain. In Czechoslovakia, it was writers like Vaclav Havel, Pavel Kohout and Ludvik Vaculik who had fomented talk of reforming the socialist system (“the socialist program,” Vaculik wrote in his famous 1968 manifesto “The Two Thousand Words,” “fell into the hands of the wrong people”). The Bulgarian regime, like those in Poland, East Germany and Hungary, was willing to do everything in its power to prevent such revisionism from taking root on its own territory.
Markov continued to write, each new work more accomplished than the last, but he also faced ever greater political obstacles. His 1969 documentary play Communists, commissioned in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the installation of a communist government in Bulgaria, was never officially allowed to be staged after being criticized for its portrayal of the all-too-human partisans. In the course of his research, Markov had been allowed limited access to SSS archives, and he put his findings to good use: facing execution, one partisan requested a glass of water; another confessed that he had joined the party out of loneliness. Communists, in effect, demythologized the heroic rhetoric of official party history. Another of Markov’s plays, I Was He, a comedy of errors in the vein of Gogol’s The Inspector-General, was based on the real story of a factory worker who quickly rose through the ranks after being mistaken for a relative by a visiting minister. It was temporarily stopped—and never revived—after the dress rehearsal. During the intermission, an SSS officer approached the playwright and asked him, “What sort of Czech play have you written?” Markov was moving closer to the precipice.
* * *
“I had to get away, come to my senses, look into myself and decide what to do, since life goes on and I still have the illusion that I have to produce that real, deeply subjective, but honest picture of the times in which I lived,” Markov wrote to a close friend in September 1969, five months after his departure from Bulgaria. “I had to ask myself categorically why I write and what I should write. In essence this was the fundamental question of my life.”
Markov had decided to leave after the dress rehearsal of I Was He, but he made no firm plans to settle abroad permanently. He initially stayed in Italy at the home of his brother, a philatelist who had defected six years before, trying to decide on his next move. A few months earlier, he had received a letter from Petar Uvaliev, a prominent Bulgarian émigré and film producer also known as Pierre Rouve, who had offered to help him turn his latest novella, “The Women of Warsaw,” into a movie. Uvaliev, a great admirer of Markov’s writing, had worked with Carlo Ponti and Michelangelo Antonioni on Blow Up and had all the necessary contacts. Markov managed to meet with Italian directors, including Federico Fellini, but the industry was in a temporary crisis and money was tight. In the summer of 1970, on Uvaliev’s advice, Markov moved to London, but his hopes for a movie did not fare much better there. Penniless and without many future prospects, he began contributing to the Bulgarian section of the BBC, covering cultural events first as a freelancer and later as a staff correspondent.
Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, the campaign against him was in full swing. Although he was still traveling on a valid passport and had not made any compromising political statements against the government, Markov’s plays were banned from the stage one by one, and he was dismissed from his editorial position at Narodna Mladezh. In effect, he did not choose exile so much as he was forced into it. By 1971, when it was already clear that he would not be returning, he was purged from the Writers’ Union; his books were confiscated from all libraries and bookstores; and his name was expunged from all public records and movie credits. The last person to mention his name in print, the literary critic Rozalia Likova—who hailed him as “the greatest writer of belle-lettres in our country”—was duly expelled from the Writers’ Union and sacked from her teaching position at Sofia University. As a Prague bookseller told one of Markov’s friends, who was looking for works by Pavel Kohout after the end of the Prague Spring, “There was one such [person], but he is no more and has never been.”
Yet Markov refused to disappear. He quickly learned English and established himself as a powerful presence at the BBC. By the end of 1971, he had also become a regular contributor to the Bulgarian section of Deutsche Welle, the West German international broadcaster. His radio essays were becoming increasingly political in tone and content. Markov sensed his double, the auto-censor, melting away and his literary talents—his sharp eye, phenomenal memory and lucid prose—stirring back to life. He quickly made a name for himself with his fifteen-minute Deutsche Welle reports about Bulgarian culture and politics. He became so popular that the Bulgarian authorities, in spite of themselves, could no longer afford to ignore him and promptly sentenced him in absentia to six years and six months in prison for “his hostile attitude towards the established order in our country.”
“I am indeed happy with the path I have chosen, however costly it may be,” Markov wrote to his Bulgarian ex-wife, Zdravka Lekova, from London. “I have not regretted my actions 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 again 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.”
Markov also continued writing for the stage. Archangel Michael, a wonderful absurdist play about a doctor and a policeman lost in the forest, comparable in its best moments to the work of Beckett and Ionesco, was awarded one of three first prizes at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1974. The next year, Markov married a BBC colleague, Annabel Dilke, and they soon had a daughter. Some time later, Markov would start work with his friend David Phillips, a British writer, on a novel in English, The Right Honourable Chimpanzee, which satirized British political life. It was his series of essays for Radio Free Europe, however (collected later in book form as In Absentia Reports), that put him on the road to literary immortality—and physical annihilation.
* * *
In Absentia ran weekly from November 1975 to June 1978, for a total of 137 installments. Markov developed a direct, clear, uncompromising style that discarded the dissident masks of timorous allegory and circumlocution and related “that life, as it is,” openly acknowledging his own former role in the system. This breathtaking honesty was the most valuable quality of his program. Through vivid human portraits and everyday stories from his past, Markov achieved a complex philosophical vision that demystified socialist Bulgaria and exposed the underbelly of its totalitarian existence. He described the grandiose—and ultimately unsuccessful—construction of a shipping channel in mountainous Sofia; the difficulty of obtaining a passport for foreign travel; the paranoia (“enemy mania”) that justified the regime’s existence; the invisible lives of prostitutes; and the petty, comfortable lives of the Bulgarian intelligentsia.
In his recent History of Bulgarian Literature, the literary critic Svetlozar Igov has called In Absentia Reports “up to now the most important narrative nonfiction document of Bulgarian totalitarian reality.” If Alexander Solzhenitsyn had dissected the Soviet regime from below, as a victim of Stalin’s horrific labor camps, Markov managed a comparable feat from above, as someone who had hiked and dined with the Bulgarian party elite. His work had close parallels with that of Milovan Djilas, who exposed the privileged lives of the Yugoslav political bureaucrats in his 1957 book The New Class, and went to prison for it.
The totalitarian era that Markov chronicled was different from Solzhenitsyn’s. Although Markov dedicated several essays to the ferocious Stalinist period in Bulgaria from 1944 to 1956 (which he’d witnessed as a teenager and university student), with its forced collectivization, mass executions, arbitrary violence and attendant fear, his main focus fell on the subsequent period of liberalized politics from 1956 to 1968, when the regime’s power and very existence no longer relied on unrestrained physical terror, but instead functioned much more subtly through a widespread, ubiquitous form of social and material corruption. Bulgaria’s was a humdrum, pedestrian totalitarianism that was never disrupted by great traumatic events or upheavals: there was no social disorder comparable to that in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Poland in 1968 and 1980. If anything, the absence of upheavals and organized dissident movements was itself a symptom of the social corrosion.
The corruption and nepotism that plagued all spheres of life, the attempt to control intellectuals and the populace through a feudal system of privileges based on ideological subservience or personal connections—one where individual worth and talent had little to do with social advancement—created what was perhaps the regime’s gravest crime: the manufacture of mediocrity. It was a recurring theme of In Absentia Reports: “The most distinctive feature of the socialist careerist, no matter whether in industry, culture, or administration, is his mediocrity.” Elsewhere, Markov talked about Communist Party functionaries as “fat men with lumbering brains and bad manners, who live the lives of Gogolian governors in an obscure Russian province.” Bulgaria’s leader, Todor Zhivkov, was the quintessential functionary: “a not too intelligent young dictator…with the aesthetic faculties of a sergeant major.” Though acerbic at times, Markov’s portrait of Zhivkov is stunningly objective. He recognized Zhivkov’s strong qualities, his “undoubted natural intelligence, quick wit and a magnificent memory,” but ultimately saw in him a middling person, no different than “the local postmaster, or the teacher in the preparatory school, or perhaps one of the council clerks or the local agricultural expert” who had mistakenly been given the leadership of an entire country.
But mediocrity was not a characteristic merely of party bureaucrats. Faced with arbitrary conditions, artificial norms of production demanded by the Soviet-style command economy, comprehensive low pay, and the negative example of an incompetent party elite openly skimming off the state, ordinary Bulgarians were only too quick to learn the proper lessons. “The corruption of labor was a consequence of the moral corruption fostered by the highest leadership,” Markov concluded. Doing work was generally considered drudgery, a sign of low status, where quality and efficiency had little place. One result was that graft became widespread, as public property was seen as nobody’s property, and nearly everyone—from the highest official to the lowest menial worker—attempted to extract private benefits from their respective stations, often using ideology as a cover. Talk of socialism aside, Bulgaria’s was a profoundly materialistic society, one in which consumption and the cult of the commodity—especially the scarce, Western-produced commodity—took precedence over everything else. “I don’t know of another society with better pronounced petty-bourgeois character than that of the ruling Communist Party,” Markov wrote.
In his radio essays on RFE, Markov also dedicated substantial space to Bulgaria’s cultural life, a topic he knew intimately. Writers were “the officially sanctioned fabricators of the regime,” who dressed totalitarianism in a cloak of respectability. As a result, art was replaced by pseudo-art, work by pseudo-work, as with every other sphere of human endeavor in Bulgaria. It was a world of appearances, where meaningless, ritualized language overlay the most ordinary phenomena—a lie people often recognized as such, but which they accepted nonetheless. The construction of totalitarian reality, in a sense, was the national stagecraft, a willing suspension of disbelief. In an essay about official parades in Sofia, Markov described how, among the banners and portraits of communist leaders, a group of leather workers shouted the ludicrous slogan “More and mo-re skins for the Pa-a-rty!” Like Vaclav Havel’s famous depiction (in “The Power of the Powerless”) of a greengrocer who hangs a sign in his shop window proclaiming “Workers of the World Unite!” for no other reason than to demonstrate his outward loyalty to the system, the Bulgarian leather workers—and everyone else, including writers—took care to affirm their Marxist credentials without investing in the underlying ideology. As Havel observed: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did…. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”
Although Markov had always prided himself on being a critic of the regime, and for a time had naïvely believed that he could contribute to its reformation, he recognized that in the end, he had to choose between the artist and his evil double, the propagandist, for he could not be both at the same time. “If you ever had an idea about the person you were, if you thought one thing, while you discovered that slowly and inexorably you were turning into something quite different, there probably comes a time, when you wish to break either the mirror or your own head,” he wrote at the end of In Absentia Reports, describing his reasons for leaving Bulgaria. “I cannot claim that mine was a case of political courage or integrity; it was merely a matter of my own sense of the unbearable.”
* * *
“Why do the members of the Politburo not go to meetings on Thursdays?” ran one Bulgarian joke in the late 1970s. “Because they listen to Georgi Markov on Radio Free Europe.”
Radio Free Europe was the most important US-sponsored broadcaster in Europe during the Cold War, and although it had been initially funded—covertly—by the CIA for the purposes of American propaganda, evidence of the association was made public and the relationship ended in 1972. Through greater transparency in its operations, RFE gradually turned itself into the best alternative source of uncensored news and commentary for those behind the Iron Curtain, broadcasting in several languages, including Bulgarian. Sensing a threat to their monopoly on information, many socialist governments attempted to jam RFE’s frequencies or physically disable radio receivers from operating on short wavelengths, but these efforts proved futile. Millions of people across the Soviet bloc found ingenious ways to tune in to Western broadcasts, and RFE was a particular favorite.
It is hard to overestimate the impact on the Bulgarian community, at home and abroad, of Markov’s In Absentia Reports on RFE. “He created high-quality literature of European dimensions. Georgi was like a comet, which lit up the dark sky,” remembers Dimitar Bochev, one of Markov’s closest friends and the host of the RFE’s Contacts, which featured Markov’s essays. “I was so inspired by his In Absentia Reports that I didn’t even dare to correct the spelling mistakes.” According to one study carried out at the time, it helped boost RFE’s Bulgarian audience by as much as 60 percent.
As early as 1971, the SSS had opened a file on Markov code-named “Wanderer,” but as time passed and his writing became more seditious, the regime in Sofia turned more aggressive. By the mid-1970s, he was working for three Western radio stations: the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe, all of which the regime considered conduits of “ideological sabotage”—perhaps the worst possible crime in a communist state. A secret SSS report in 1976 labeled him “the ‘heavy artillery’ of the ideological sabotage conducted through radio propaganda.” Because Markov had often insisted that reformation and the eventual change of the Bulgarian regime could only originate with the ruling elite, the SSS was concerned that his broadcasts could lay the critical groundwork for dissidence within the Bulgarian intelligentsia. Critics of the regime gained some protections in 1975 when many Soviet satellites—Bulgaria among them—signed the Helsinki Accords, which besides guaranteeing the territorial integrity of states also included safeguards of basic human rights and freedom of thought. The accords were not a treaty and therefore not binding on the signatories, but their language about human rights and freedom of conscience was embraced by East European dissidents fighting their oppressive governments, which reacted with ever more devious ways of crushing resistance.
The Soviet Union had decided to rid itself of recalcitrant writers like Joseph Brodsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn by expelling them from the country (in 1972 and 1974, respectively). Bulgaria had no such option: Markov was already abroad, out of reach and out of control, and could neither be bought nor imprisoned. For a small state like Bulgaria, he was becoming an enormous political liability.
* * *
In 1973, a secret memo of the Politburo of the Bulgarian Communist Party authorized the SSS “to plan, prepare and carry out on the territory of the capitalist and developing countries serious agent and active operations against enemy targets and persons who are involved in active hostile activities or have committed crimes against the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.” “Serious operations,” also known as “sharp operations,” was a euphemism in the Bulgarian intelligence community for kidnappings and assassinations. Just a year earlier, the SSS had signed a mutual-assistance agreement with the KGB, which had promised to supply its Bulgarian counterpart with various assassination devices, including radio-controlled explosive mines, instruments for “the quiet, mechanical discharge of special needles,” and “powerful…fast-acting poisons.” In 1971, the KGB made an attempt on Solzhenitsyn’s life by secretly smearing poisonous gel on his body; although the writer became extremely ill, he survived.
It is unlikely that the SSS had been planning Markov’s murder at the time, but other Bulgarians had already been condemned. Surviving in the SSS secret archives are detailed plans for the assassination of Boris Arsov, a Bulgarian defector who had settled in Denmark, where he published bulletins critical of the Zhivkov regime. He was a minor figure in the émigré community, but the authorities in Sofia felt threatened enough to order his liquidation. Several murder weapons were considered, including knives, hard objects and poisons. Though the assassination attempts failed, Arsov was eventually kidnapped by SSS agents in 1974, brought to stand trial in Bulgaria, and found hanged in his cell a few months later.
The SSS had plans to “compromise and neutralize” Markov as early as 1975, but the decision to murder him was most probably taken in 1977, as it became increasingly clear that he was not going to stop his broadcasts on Radio Free Europe, the most recent of which had ventured into very dangerous territory: the person of Zhivkov. In his book The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West (1994), Oleg Kalugin, the former head of foreign counterintelligence in the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, gives a detailed, firsthand account of the plans for Markov’s assassination. According to Kalugin, in early 1978 the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior, on Zhivkov’s orders, sent a request to the Soviets asking them “to help…in the physical removal of Markov.” (In his 1990 book KGB: The Inside Story, Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB’s resident-designate and London bureau chief in the late 1970s, also confirms the agency’s assistance in the Markov case.) Although Yuri Andropov—then the head of the KGB, and the future leader of the Soviet Union—balked at first out of his distaste for political assassinations, the agency eventually agreed to offer technical assistance, provided that it not be involved in the actual murder. The Soviets gave the Bulgarians three options for eliminating Markov: a poisonous gel that, when applied to the skin, would lead to a heart attack; a poison to be mixed with food or drink; and a miniature poison pellet that could be shot directly into the body.
Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador to Sofia to protest Markov’s broadcasts and his criticism of Zhivkov, cautioning that if the British would not stop them, “our country will be obliged to take the necessary steps.”
Markov was not unaware of the danger. Through an acquaintance of his brother’s in Germany, he had received a warning that the SSS might make an attempt on his life. At first, he was incredulous, thinking that the Bulgarians would not risk an international scandal—but as time passed and the signals became more ominous, he grew increasingly paranoid. He would eat only at home and avoided drinking in public places; he kept his travel plans secret and was always on his guard. But all of these precautions were in vain. At around 6:30 pm on September 7, 1978, while working at the BBC’s Bush House in London, Markov stepped out to park his car in a better location. It happened to be Zhivkov’s birthday. By the bus stop on Waterloo Bridge, a stranger bumped into him, and Markov felt a slight sting in the back of his right thigh. When he turned around, he saw the stranger leaning down to pick up his umbrella. He didn’t know it yet, but he had just been shot with a 1.52-millimeter platinum-iridium pellet containing a minuscule quantity of poison, most probably ricin, a highly toxic vegetative glycoprotein made from castor beans. It is believed that the umbrella was just a diversion and that the pellet was released from a pen-like device. Four days later, despite the best attempts of British doctors to save him, Georgi Markov was pronounced dead. He was 49.
* * *
“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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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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“There is no single memory of communism, and there is no national consensus about the past,” says Ivaylo Znepolski, a Bulgarian philosopher and director of the Institute for Studies of the Recent Past, one of the very few organizations to actively delve into the history of communism in the country. “The memory of communism in Bulgaria is a vast, unsolved problem, and this is evident in the politics of the state in the past twenty-five years, regardless of the governments in power.”
While a national consensus about the communist past may be difficult to achieve—history is a multifaceted realm, made up of millions of unique personal experiences that are often at odds with one another and can not be easily reconciled—Bulgaria’s post-communist governments have been guilty of actively suppressing the memory and examination of the crimes of the past. The current government still refuses to officially acknowledge Bulgaria’s role in Markov’s murder; when the state prosecutor decided last year to close the investigation, he not only cited the statute of limitations but also cast doubt on the finding that Markov was murdered by the SSS. As in many other countries across the former Soviet bloc, the political changes in Bulgaria in 1989 were initiated on the inside, by members of the Communist Party and the SSS, who often used their positions to derive the best personal advantage for themselves, their relatives and their friends. Political rule in the name of the people was simply transformed into private economic power, as public property was quickly—and most often criminally—privatized by the elite. In effect, the new political and economic class today is mostly composed of people who have direct or indirect links to the old communist regime. And controlling the present, as Orwell knew so well, means controlling the past and, more importantly, the future.
“In Bulgaria, there was no real decommunization, no lustration, and the SSS secret files were opened very late so as to achieve this controlled transition to democracy,” says Hristo Hristov. “But in the final run, society is still manipulated by the same mechanism, in which former members of the SSS are always present—in politics, in the economy, in the media. It is the reason why we don’t have a memory of Georgi Markov. And the memory of Markov is missing because there is no memory of the victims of communism as a whole.”
Last year, a sociological study spearheaded by the Hannah Arendt Center in Sofia examined young Bulgarians’ knowledge of totalitarianism in Europe and at home. The respondents were between the ages of 15 and 35, and the results were striking: 79 percent hadn’t heard of the Gulag; 67 percent hadn’t heard of the Iron Curtain; 51 percent didn’t know the reason for Markov’s death; and 89 percent had no knowledge of the book In Absentia Reports.
The Bulgarian crisis of historical memory is hardly peculiar to young people, especially when it comes to Markov’s literary works. Most adults are familiar with his name today, but only in the context of his murder. Few have read his essays or novels, and only the biggest bookstores in Sofia stock a book or two of his by chance. It is much easier to find a copy of Todor Zhivkov’s memoirs than, for example, Markov’s excellent novellas “The Portrait of My Double” and “The Women of Warsaw.” His work is not taught in schools, and he does not even have a monument in Sofia—just a small slab of a memorial, usually covered by leaves, on Journalist Square. The Bulgarian who should have taken the same position in his nation’s literature and political history as Brodsky in Russia, Havel in the Czech Republic and Milosz in Poland has been relegated to the dustbin of memory. After his murder abroad, Markov was killed a second time, this time in his home country.
Only in 2000 did the then-president of Bulgaria, Petar Stoyanov, award to Markov the highest state honor, the Order of Stara Planina, “for his memorable contribution to Bulgarian literature, drama, and journalism, and for his exceptional civic position and resistance to the communist totalitarian regime.” It was one of the very few gestures of official recognition he ever received in the post-communist era.
Markov’s fate outside Bulgaria has not been much different. Some foreigners still recognize references to “the umbrella murder,” but his writing is virtually unknown. A heavily abridged version of In Absentia Reports came out in Britain in 1983 and then a year later in the United States under the title The Truth That Killed, but the book has long been out of print. Reviewing it for the Los Angeles Times, the social historian Arthur Weinberg wrote: “What George Orwell imagined in ‘1984’ about a totalitarian society, Markov makes real in his memoirs of life in Bulgaria under Bolshevik rule: terror, tension, oppression.” The occasional superlative in the press aside, The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945 does not even mention his name.
“I have done several attempts to publish works by Markov, but almost all of them failed. I couldn’t understand why nothing by Markov was being published,” says Stefan Tsanev, Markov’s very close friend in the 1960s and today one of Bulgaria’s most popular playwrights and historians. In 2001, Tsanev wrote the introduction to Markov’s collected plays, but the volume had a limited 800-copy run and is impossible to find in Sofia today, even among rare book collectors. “The communists are really good at erasing the past,” Tsanev adds.
There have been no theater productions, either. Playhouses in Sofia, which once vied to stage Markov’s work, do not offer any of his plays in their repertoire. Only last year did the Ivan Vazov National Theater finally put on a chamber production of To Wriggle Under the Rainbow, directed by Asen Shopov, the very same person who directed the play in 1967, when the government shut it down and exiled Shopov to Burgas. With a bushy white beard and resolute blue eyes, his face furrowed with wrinkles, the director still exudes an air of rebellion. “Markov continues to be pushed to the side, and lots of forces are trying to prevent his popularization, his public acceptance,” he says. “What I can tell you, though, is that his play is living a second life.”
Indeed, the house is often sold out. In a dilapidated TB sanatorium at the close of World War II, right before the Soviets take over, several men—a doctor, a philosopher, a painter and a landowner, among others—are waiting for their end, engaged in listless conversation and cynical jokes. “The hope for some kind of change is false and your noble instincts are illusory,” the philosopher tells the doctor. “Everything will be exactly the same as it has always been…same people, same time, only the set will change.” But everything changes when, during the night, a wounded woman—a partisan—is brought in, her lungs riddled with bullets. The men are transformed as they put on their best clothes and start taking care of her, touched by her sacrifice. The mood does not last long: at the end of the play, it is revealed that each of the men has sent a letter in secret to the local police chief denouncing the woman’s presence.
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The past year in Sofia has been marked by daily anti-government protests against a coalition led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (proud heir of the BCP), initially sparked by the controversial nomination of a 33-year-old media mogul with a shady past as head of the State Agency for National Security. Amid the protests, Markov’s work has been experiencing something of a revival. Newspapers often reprint his essays; social media networks are full of links to his work; and on September 7, 2013—the thirty-fifth anniversary of his murder—several hundred protesters marched in downtown Sofia, a few of them holding umbrellas in the air, before kneeling for a minute of silence in front of the Bulgarian Parliament. Some compared the importance of Markov’s work to that of Edward Snowden. As Manol Peykov, one of the biggest Bulgarian book publishers, recently wrote on his Facebook wall: “Georgi Markov’s In Absentia Reports is the most profound and comprehensive documentary book of the communist period in Bulgaria. It needs to be read by everyone who wishes to understand why we’re living the life we’re living.”
Last year also marked the official broadcast on Bulgarian National Television of Silenced: The Writer Georgi Markov and the Umbrella Murder, a feature-length documentary by the German director Klaus Dexel. The film rehashes many of the known facts and theories about Markov, but its primary focus is not the writer himself so much as the hunt for his supposed assassin, Francesco Gullino, code-named “Piccadilly.” Amazingly, after a pan-European investigation, Dexel tracks Gullino down in a small town in Austria, where he still works as an antiques dealer. In a tiny apartment full of old paintings and statuettes, the director sits down on a couch to interview him. Wearing a flat black leather cap, grown old and pudgy, Gullino answers questions in broken German and English, nervously laughing all the time and petting his lap dog. The conversation is something of a farce, as if taken directly from one of Markov’s absurdist plays:
Dexel: Were you in London at the time Georgi Markov was killed?
Gullino: It’s possible.
Dexel: Are you sorry Georgi Markov was assassinated?
Gullino: What can I do?
Dexel: But you know the truth.
Gullino: Why should I tell the truth? You give your truth, what you think about others, but the actual truth you keep for yourself, don’t you?… Why in general should one say the truth? What for? You live so well with lies.
Dexel: Were you the murderer of Georgi Markov or not?
Gullino: I’ve got nothing to do with this story… I’m sorry… I wish I could give you a straight answer…but… think for a moment… if I were the murderer, do you think I should say it? You know my theory about the truth…. The little I know of this Makarov [sic] is… that it was nothing important…. Of course I read many versions. Some try to put him as a new Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn, or something like that. He wasn’t.