Skip to main content Skip to footer site map
S5 Ep5: Umbrella Assassin

About This Episode

On September 11, 1978, Bulgarian emigre, writer and broadcast journalist Georgi Markov died. Three days before, while waiting for a bus, Markov felt a sudden sting in the back of his thigh. Markov was soon hospitalized. After his death, an investigation ruled Markov had been poisoned: a pellet containing ricin had been covertly shot into his leg. How had this political murder been executed?
Umbrella Assassin: About This Episode

CASE FILE: Umbrella Assassin
THE SCENE: London, England
LEAD DETECTIVE: Jack Hamilton, British journalist

On Monday, September 11, 1978, Bulgarian émigré, writer, and broadcast journalist Georgi Markov died in London at the age of 49. A political murder, his death remains one of the Cold War’s greatest mysteries.

Markov was an acclaimed literary figure in Bulgaria before he defected to the West in 1969. Later, he succeeded in getting official permission to leave Bulgaria. After arriving in England, he joined the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and became a freelance scriptwriter for Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Munich, Germany.

On June 8, 1975, he contributed his first freelance program to RFE, called “The Debts of Contemporary Bulgarian Literature.” For the next three years, he wrote more than 130 Sunday-evening programs for his series called IN ABSENTIA: REPORTS ABOUT BULGARIA. These programs not only covered cultural life in Bulgaria but also revealed the otherwise hidden lifestyles of leading regime figures, especially Communist Party leader Todor Zhivkov, who reportedly appealed to the KGB for help in silencing Markov.

Umbrella Assassin: About This Episode

Photo of Georgi Markov

Two failed attempts to poison Markov followed. But on September 7, 1978, while Markov was waiting for a bus, he felt a sudden stinging pain in the back of his thigh. He turned and saw a man bending to pick up a dropped umbrella. The man apologized and departed. By evening, Markov developed a high fever. He was taken to a hospital and treated for blood poisoning. But his condition worsened, and three days later he died.

In January 1979, a coroner’s inquest ruled Markov had been poisoned by ricin, a castor oil-seed derivative that is twice as deadly as cobra venom and has no antidote. A pellet containing the substance had been shot into his leg by the man with the umbrella. Purportedly, the pellet-gun umbrella had been developed at the highly secret KGB laboratory number 12, known as the “Chamber.”

Twenty-seven years later, the Markov murder case remains officially unsolved. It seems the truth of Bulgarian complicity in the murder of Georgi Markov will never be made public.

Production Credits

Mark Radice

Executive Producer for Windfall Films:
David Dugan

Liev Schreiber

Project Manager:
Julie Schapiro Thorman

Post Production Supervisor:
Tara Thomas

Production Assistant:
Stephanie Carter

Executive in Charge:
William R. Grant

Executive Producer:
Jared Lipworth

© 2006 Educational Broadcasting Corporation and Windfall Films. All Rights Reserved.



PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.