Dispatch

Statue of Memory

Bulgaria commemorates a murdered dissident -- and takes a symbolic step toward reckoning with its communist past.

NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images
NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images

SOFIA, Bulgaria — It was perhaps the most emblematic crime of the Cold War: Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident living in London, was killed with a ricin-laced pellet as he crossed Waterloo Bridge on the way to his office at the BBC in 1978. Markov, then 49, told colleagues he felt a sharp pain in his leg as he turned to see a man say "sorry" and reach down to pick up an umbrella. The pellet of poison, measuring less than 2 millimeters, was believed to have been injected by a pen-like device; the umbrella was only a diversion. Markov died four days later. Today, after 36 years, the so-called "umbrella assassination" remains unsolved.

When Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev inaugurated a statue of Markov in a public square in Sofia on Tuesday, Nov. 11, it marked the first high-profile public recognition of the writer and journalist as a major cultural and political figure in his homeland. Twenty-five years after the start of democratic changes across Eastern Europe, the event was also part of Bulgaria’s first truly substantial celebration of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"With his sharp and powerful voice, Georgi Markov turned into the brightest example of the heavy choice between freedom and acquiescence," Plevneliev told the crowd gathered in a residential neighborhood near Sofia’s city center. "He didn’t hesitate to speak the truth about the anti-human policies of the communist regime and paid for it with his life."

The bronze statue of the bushy-haired writer, depicted casually holding a book under his arm with a hand in his pocket, stands above a black marble platform with an engraving in Bulgarian that reads, "The living close the eyes of the dead, the dead open the eyes of the living."

Although two previous Bulgarian presidents promised to bring Markov’s killer to justice and paid their respects to his work, Markov has never been honored in such a prominent way since his writing disappeared from Bulgarian bookshelves after he defected to the West in 1969. Newspapers have at times printed unsubstantiated rumors that Markov himself was an agent of the state. Politicians of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the former Communist Party, have largely ignored him.

The monument is seen by many as a signal that one of Eastern Europe’s most reluctant democracies may, at last, be making its first move toward a reckoning with its painful communist past. "This recognition of Markov has come way too late, but better late than never," said Javor Kostov, 60, watching the statue’s inauguration from a nearby bench. Describing himself as "an anti-communist," Kostov said it took so long to publicly remember Markov because Bulgarians are "ungrateful, simple-minded, and have capricious memories."

Bulgaria lacks an official national historical institution dedicated to hashing out the memory of its communist past; by contrast, Poland has the Institute of National Remembrance, the Czech Republic has the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, and Romania has the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile. Bulgaria also never thoroughly cleansed its state administration of former Communist Party officials, secret police agents, and informers. Analysts say the continuing influence of that elite has thwarted the formation of fully democratic institutions and exacerbated problems of corruption, nepotism, and distrust in government.

"We have to see whether we can talk about communism with the goal of reaching an overall moral assessment of the communist past," said Vessela Tcherneva, a political scientist leading the 25 Years Free Bulgaria initiative, which is organizing films, discussions, exhibitions, and conferences around the country this year. Tcherneva said that the national discussion about the past has been limited to weighing the living standards of then and now. "People are very tired, and it’s very hard to think of the [democratic] transition positively," Tcherneva said. "From a society with no optimism, nothing good can happen."

Bulgaria remains the poorest country in the European Union, and it grapples with political instability: There have been sporadic anti-government protests since early 2013, spurred by frustration with high energy prices and corruption. This has created a series of weak governments; most recently, in October, elections brought to power another minority administration considered doomed from the start — led by Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, now in his second turn in that post after protests pushed him to resign from an earlier term in February 2013.

Last month, 25 Years Free Bulgaria funded a national opinion survey that found that Bulgarians have a tendency to accentuate the positives of the communist era, and to see only the negatives of the present. Compared to a similar survey in 1991, for instance, the pollsters found that positive assessments of Todor Zhivkov, the former dictator and Bulgarian Communist Party leader, went from 16 percent that year to 55 percent in 2014. His negative ratings shrank from 76 percent to 25 percent. (The Bulgarian media gave a lot of coverage to another finding: 40 percent of Bulgarians between the ages of 16 and 30 did not know which falling wall catalyzed the collapse of communism — the Wall of China, Sofia, Moscow, or Berlin.)

Prominent investigative journalist Hristo Hristov lamented that Bulgaria has no real culture of memory. "If communism was so great, let’s bring it back for three days," he said, his voice rising with annoyance. "For three days, let’s force children to march in manifestations [demonstrations], take away their passports and all their property, send them out into a radioactive cloud without any warning, and give them bananas once a year. That was communism in 1986."

Yet the commemoration of Markov seems to be a step — if a small, symbolic one — in the direction of dealing with the complexities of the past, and possibly of the present. "The most important thing is for Georgi’s talent to be recognized, and this has now happened," said Lyuben Markov, a first cousin and the family member working most actively to preserve his memory. Among other things, Lyuben Markov supports a petition to introduce Georgi Markov’s book, In Absentia Reports (based on radio broadcasts he produced, and published in English as The Truth That Killed), as required reading in Bulgarian high schools. It was one of the first texts to examine the ugly realities of daily life in communist Bulgaria.

"No one had ever written such an amazing analysis before," said Atanas Kiriakov, a documentary filmmaker who worked with Markov in the 1960s. "I was shaking when I read it." He remembers spending two sleepless nights reading the book while abroad, because it wasn’t available in Bulgaria.

"Markov was a bon vivant, he loved women, he was a bohemian," Kiriakov said. "He played a double game. He managed to get under the skin of the [Communist] Party and gain their trust. And at the same time, he didn’t hide his true feelings about the system and those who ruled us. He was an exceptional man."

As far as justice for the murder goes, Lyuben Markov said he has no doubt who the killer was: Francesco Gullino, a Dane of Italian origin, arrested for drug trafficking in Bulgaria in the 1970s and given a choice between prison or becoming an agent. The operation to silence Markov was illustrated in rich detail by Hristo Hristov, who spent years examining the case. In his 2005 book, The Double Life of Agent Piccadilly — referencing the Bulgarian state security codename for Gullino — Hristov reported that Gullino worked under the cover of an antiques dealer. In a documentary film released last year, the German director Klaus Dexel interviewed Gullino in Wels, Austria, where he now lives; Gullino did not deny working as a spy, and with regard to Markov, he said, "If I were the murderer, do you think I should say it?"

The Bulgarian authorities closed Markov’s case last year, citing a 35-year statute of limitations. The investigation remains active at Scotland Yard. Lyuben Markov said the Bulgarian authorities have known about Gullino since 1993, but have never seriously pursued the case because there are former state security agents in the judicial system who could also be implicated in the crime.

Georgi Markov’s widow, Annabel, made a rare public appearance at the emotional ceremony for her late husband’s statue. She told the crowd that Markov said that while he never regretted defecting, he always felt connected to his home country. He sometimes indulged the fantasy of returning for only 24 hours — just enough time to elude authorities — to visit his parents and stop by a club where he and his writer friends used to go, where he would order his favorite dish: stuffed cabbage leaves.

"In a sense Georgi has now returned to Bulgaria," she said, "not for 24 hours but as a permanent part of the landscape of Sofia."

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