Late last year, we looked at some of the claims around the famous attack on Waterloo Bridge, London in 1978 which led to the death of Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov. Every time there is a suspicious spy death in the UK, Markov comes back into focus. The reason I believe that so many remember the attack is that it is always claimed that a mundane umbrella was the murder weapon. Does it matter that it wasn’t?
There is one fact that is beyond doubt. Georgi Markov did turn after he felt a pain in his leg, and saw a man picking up an umbrella that he had dropped. This is confirmed by Markov’s widow, Annabel, in her introduction to the English edition of his memoirs. Sadly for spy fans, his autobiography stops in 1969, and was not published in English until 1983. Nobody doubts this version of events, and I have found absolutely nothing to suggest Markov was mistaken or doubted his recollection. He told a fellow Bulgarian about the umbrella a little while after it happened, and then promptly put it out of his mind. However it is important that he attributed no importance either to the pain in his leg or the umbrella until he started to feel unwell the following day.
The attack on Markov is correctly linked to an attempt on the life of a fellow dissident, Vladimir Kostov, who was attacked in Paris ten days earlier. Kostov’s wound was in his back, but there are no accounts that I can find referencing an umbrella in the Kostov case. Yet the pellet containing the ricin was similar to both men. If the ricin and the pellets were the same, surely the mechanism used to deliver the pellet would have been the same too? Yet as far as anyone knows, no umbrella was seen by Kostov and no witnesses have ever mentioned one.
As every tourist knows, an umbrella in London in September is not a remarkable sight. The only reason Markov mentioned it is that the dropped umbrella coincided with him feeling a pain in his leg. There is no other connection, and nothing in this coincidence to suggest cause. Some think the umbrella was dropped as a distraction, but by far the majority of news articles, and other online sources, all leap to the conclusion that the umbrella therefore delivered the fatal dose of ricin. It is simply incredible. I cannot imagine for a second that a professional assassin would accept the risks associated with a metre-long umbrella. It is unwieldy, difficult to aim, hard to generate pressure. To be clear, nobody is suggesting that the umbrella was a gun as such. It would have forced the pellet out, but not at the speed of a bullet. The end of the umbrella would have had to be held against the victim’s body with sufficient force to allow the pellet to be injected under the skin. The most likely and logical outcome is that the victim felt the umbrella, and turned towards the attacker before the mechanism could deploy. Markov had no such warning, no sense of pressure before the pellet entered his leg. The umbrella murder is nothing but a lazy myth.
The question asked at the beginning was: does it matter? The answer is yes.
The only reason that spy fans and even members of the wider public remember this story is because of the implausible murder weapon. Georgi Markov was not known in Britain, and it is a shame. He was one of the most talented and famous writers in Bulgaria before he fled the country. His life, and his sad demise deserve to be remembered. It matters about the umbrella precisely because it is the only reason we still remember it. Even if the memory is a false one, reinforced by lazy journalists on the hunt for a catchy headline.
What is clear is that this case continues to pop up in the news every few years, from the New York Times to The Daily Telegraph in London. I believe the forty years of intense interest lie solely in the umbrella. Equally, I am convinced the umbrella was not the murder weapon. The Berlin spy museum agrees.