The First U.K. Hit-Job
In 1978, the KGB helped to murder a famous writer with a poison umbrella
On July 8, 2018, 44-year-old English woman Dawn Sturgess died at Salisbury District Hospital in the United Kingdom following her exposure to a Novichok nerve agent. Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley had sprayed themselves with the agent of what appeared to be a bottle of brand-name perfume they had found in their hometown.
Novichok, which means “newbie” in Russian, is a binary nerve agent the Soviet Union developed late in the Cold War in order to overcome protective gear. It’s between five to eight times more lethal than VX is.
U.K. authorities believe the bottle Sturgess found may have been discarded by Russian operatives in March 2018 after they applied poison to the door handle of the Salisbury home of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. The earlier attacked sickened Sergei, his visiting adult daughter Yulia and a responding policeman.
Spy agencies don’t resort to assassination on foreign soil as often as The Americans would have you think. Doing so leaves evidence behind under control of foreign police agencies, risks sabotaging diplomatic ties, and can draw scrutiny and reprisal directed at other useful intelligence-gathering activities taking place abroad. The United Kingdom expelled 23 alleged Russian intelligence agents following the Skripal poisonings.
Nonetheless, Russian and Soviet agents are suspected of involvement in more than a dozen suspicious deaths on British soil, including those of multiple exiled oligarchs and whistleblowers who were critical of the Kremlin plus their lawyers and journalists investigating their cases.
For Moscow, the very public and obvious nature of Russian involvement in the poisonings may be a feature rather than a bug — a means to scare potential future defectors and critics.
Aside from the fatal poisoning by uranium-laced tea of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, possibly the most infamous assassination on British soil involved a deadly umbrella.
Around 2:30 P.M. on July 7, 1978, Georgi Markov bumped into a stranger carrying an umbrella near Waterloo Bridge in London. The Bulgarian exile felt a brief sting on the back of his right thigh. The offending stranger hastily muttered an apology, picked up his dropped umbrella and hurried away in a taxi.
Markov thought little of it and went on to begin his afternoon shift at the BBC World Service’s Bush House headquarters.
Markov was one of the most celebrated Bulgarian writers of the 1960s. However, as his stories increasingly alluded to the corruption and cynicism of Bulgaria’s dictatorial government, the bohemian ran afoul of the authorities, who banned several of his satires. He defected in 1969 and later marred an Englishwoman Annabel Dilke.
Taking up jobs with the BBC, Radio Free Europe and the German Deutsche Welle, Markov became an sharp and relentless critic of Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov, whom Markov had known personally. He even began working on plans to publish an opposition newspaper of sorts for Bulgarian expatriates — this despite frequent death threats.
As he arrived at work that afternoon in 1978, Markov felt the sting in his thigh worsen. Inspection of his leg revealed a red boil where he had been in contact with the umbrella. The dissident mentioned the incident to a colleague and made his way back home. That night he developed a strong fever. He was rushed to St. James Hospital. At 7:45 A.M. on July 11, 1978, Markov died from kidney and heart failure.
At top — a monument to Markov in Sofia. Above — Litvinenko. Photos via Wikipedia
Suspecting foul play, British doctors conducted an autopsy and discovered a tiny pellet in his thigh that was barely two millimeters in diameter — smaller than the head of a pin. The pellet was made of platinum and iridium and featured two, tiny .35-millimeter holes coated with sugar. The sugar had melted on contact with Markov’s body, releasing 200 micrograms of ricin into the writer’s blood stream.
A poison extracted from castor bean seeds, ricin prevents the body from assembling amino acids into proteins. It takes only five to 22 micrograms, less than a grain of a salt, to kill a person. This and other ricin-related incidents compelled the U.K. biological weapons defense complex at Porton Down to develop an antidote in 2009, but no cure existed at the time of Markov’s murder.
In fact, 10 days before Markov’s fatal encounter, a similar ricin pellet had been injected into a Bulgarian dissident journalist named Vladimir Kostov when he bumped into a man holding a briefcase in a Paris metro station. This time, the sugar in the pellet failed to break down properly, and the limited dose only caused Kostov to develop a small fever.
Defecting KGB agents would later confirm that the Soviet spy agency had been consulted on the murder and provided technical assistance to Bulgarian state security. The killing had been ordered by Zhivkov himself, and the assassination carried out on the dictator’s birthday.
A stack of 10 poison-dispensing umbrellas, which included a compressed-gas mechanism, were found in the secret service headquarters after the fall of Zhivkov’s dictatorship in 1989. Documents revealed that the KGB had provided the fast-acting ricin poison and the delivery mechanism.
Despite the case remaining open for decades, nobody has been charged with Markov’s killing. Bulgaria’s ex-security chief Vladimir Todorov destroyed 10 volumes of internal records pertaining to the assassination, a crime for which he was imprisoned. Gen. Stoyan Savov, the deputy interior minister who ordered the hit job, committed suicide prior to his trial for the coverup. An operative tied to the killing, Vasil Kotsev, died in a mysterious car accident.
In his 2008 book The Double Life of Agent Piccadilly, Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristic claimed the culprit was likely a Danish-Italian antiquarian named Francesco Gullini. Security-service records show that Gullini was twice arrested for drug and currency smuggling in Bulgaria and made to choose between imprisonment or becoming a spy.
Posing as an art dealer, Gullini came to London as part of an Austrian trade delegation a few days prior to the umbrella stabbing, and departed the day after to meet with his handler in Rome. He would receive two medals from the security service and continues to trade antiquities today in Austria. He’s willing to admit to his service as a spy, but demurs on questions related Markovic’s killing.
Sympathizers of the Zhivkov regime continue to cast doubt that the poisoning occurred at all, claiming that definitive evidence is lacking and that Markov died of a normal illness.
The sensational nature of the umbrella device led to it featuring in movies and T.V. shows and also inspired real life imitators. In the 1980s, a South African assassination unit called the Civic Cooperation Bureau planned to murder two African National Congress ministers in London with an umbrella that discharged poisoned darts.
However, the agent delivering the umbrella to killer Trevor Floyd accidentally exposed himself, albeit without lethal effect. Then Floyd found out that his targets had moved. He scrubbed the planned killings.
In Hannover, Germany in 2011 someone stabbed a 40-year old man in the butt with an umbrella laced with mercury. The unfortunate victim went into a coma and died a year later in the hospital after appearing to have recovered. The victim’s identity, and possible motivations for his killing, remain a mystery.