The Bulgarian novelist and playwright Georgi Markov was a Communist-era dissident best known outside Bulgaria for being assassinated with a ricin-poisoned device (believed to hidden at the tip of an umbrella). It happened in central London on September 7, 1978. He died four days later, age 49.
The murder was a textbook case of a KGB-style killing and was likely the work of the Bulgarian Communist regime’s secret police. One can read about it at The Forensic Library in books published by the Royal Society of Chemistry and on Wikipedia or watch movies about the case on YouTube here and here. It is known as the infamous “Umbrella Murder.”
To many of us in Bulgaria, Markov is a hero. His closest friend, Dimitar Bochev, aptly stated that it was his “talent” as a writer that got him killed. I’m proud to tell you why as part of this weekly series on FEE.org.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Markov emerged as a prolific author of novels, short stories, and plays, for which he received numerous awards. As he became increasingly and devastatingly critical of communism and socialism, the regime of Todor Zhivkov (long-time Communist dictator of Bulgaria) began keeping an eye on him. The country’s censors blocked the printing of some of his works and banned others altogether, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming a well-known and admired author in his native land.
George Orwell was Markov’s favorite author, and Orwellian themes showed up in much of his writing. Markov’s novel, The Roof, for example, focused on the collapse of the roof of the Lenin Steel Mill and the comical efforts of central planners to rebuild it. It was banned by the government.
“Not to Live by Lies” was Markov’s credo, as much as it was that of fellow writers Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Russia and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia.
A popular Bulgarian literary fashion of the 1960s involved a small group of extraordinary and original authors, relatively carefree and nonchalant fellows of which Markov was one. For the most part, they were not overt rebels, but they did resent the daily lies imposed upon the Bulgarian people by communism. The characters of their novels were normal humans with doubts and weaknesses, regular people dealing with the challenges of life. Under communism, those challenges were ubiquitous. These writers fostered a quest for normalcy which, twenty years later, helped mightily to topple the regime.
“Not to Live by Lies” was Markov’s credo, as much as it was that of fellow writers Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Russia and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. In an essay he wrote comparing communism with the years before 1944, he explained that the most important change was that people were forced to live in fear and lies. Bulgaria, like the other East bloc communist nations, was an Orwellian nightmare come to life.