Thursday, 27 March 2008

Secrets of the Dead - Bulgarian Umbrella Assassin

Secrets of the Dead - Umbrella Assassin
53 min 8 sec - Mar 16, 2008

Terrorists with roadside bombs have the world's attention at the moment, but once upon a time a different breed of killer stalked the earth.

It wasn't so long ago, and for those who remember the strange death of the Bulgarian writer Georgi Ivanov Markov in 1978, revisiting of the case on "Secrets of the Dead" series will tickle some brain cells.

For those new to the tale, the episode, titled "Umbrella Assassin," will be even more compelling. It turns out that those James Bond movies were not fiction after all. Mr. Markov wrote novels and plays that displeased the hard-line Communist president of Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov, and in 1969 he defected to the West, eventually ending up in England doing commentary for the BBC and Radio Free Europe.

The Bulgarian Communist machine, it appears, had a long memory and a long reach to go with it: while waiting for a bus on a London bridge in September 1978, Mr. Markov felt a sting on his thigh. He guessed what had happened — he had been injected with a poison pellet — but had trouble convincing doctors that the illness he quickly developed was not a mere flu.

"No one was taking him seriously," Bernard Riley, a doctor who saw him, recalls on the program. "In fact, I remember the look in his eyes. He was desperate for someone to listen to him and believe him." Within days Mr. Markov was dead, and a lethal umbrella was believed to be the cause. "Poison Brolly Riddle," one newspaper headline read.

No arrest was ever made. The details of the case are vividly recalled by numerous people involved, not just doctors and investigators, but Vladimir Kostov, another Bulgarian dissident who had been similarly attacked in Paris two weeks earlier but lived.

The program analyzes the crime "CSI" style, and from Bulgarian and Soviet files picks out some likely culprits. It eventually runs out of cinematic material, resorting to images of a dripping needle and file folders far too often, but it's fascinating nonetheless. And against today's headlines, the tale feels like something from, well, a century ago.

It may indeed feel like a century ago - nevertheless, history likes to repeat itself. The intricate nature of this affair is as disturbing as it is educational.

When you know thy enemy, how many enemies would that repel?