SOFIA -- A Bulgarian historian has uncovered a document contradicting communist-era rumors that exiled dissident Georgi Markov worked as an agent abroad for Bulgarian foreign intelligence before his 1978 assassination.
Markov was a celebrated Bulgarian novelist and playwright who defected to become one of that country's most famous dissidents for his stinging criticism of communist society and its leaders.
He was poisoned in London in the infamous "umbrella murder," ascribed to an agent or operative of the Bulgarian communist regime's repressive secret police, the Committee for State Security (also known as State Security, or DS).
Rumors that Markov was a State Security agent or informer, or even a double agent, have persisted, fueled mostly by communist-era reports after his defection in 1969 and interviews and books about him by secret-service veterans.
"We concluded that the writer Georgi Markov did not belong to the [Bulgarian foreign] service's undercover apparatus and there were no contacts with him on an agent-operational or other basis," said the 1990 response to an internal State Security request for an investigation into whether Markov had worked with its First Main Directorate, responsible for foreign intelligence.
The Markov killing, in the heart of a Western capital, represented an audacious blow by a Cold War foe that resonated within Soviet-era dissident circles and still stings the Bulgarian national consciousness.
His killer has never been identified, and historians and journalists continue to pore over vast archives that could turn up new clues to that and other crimes.
Historian Valery Katsunov, a member of the state Commission for the Archives of the Communist Secret Police from 2007-18, provided the State Security letter to RFE/RL contributor Dimitar Kenarov.
Dated December 17, 1990 -- one year after the communist government fell -- it was a response from the First Main Directorate's successor, the National Intelligence Service, to questions about a possible inquiry.
It was signed by Dimitar Kendimenov, a former secret-service officer who was in Britain when Markov was killed; the head of the intelligence service's archive, Radko Todorov; and Major General Rumen Toshkov, the head of the reconstituted National Intelligence Service.
There were suggestions by Soviet-era security sources -- possibly aimed at discrediting Markov or shifting suspicion to Western intelligence agencies but mostly dismissed among serious scholars -- that the former chemical engineer and award-winning writer secretly worked for Bulgaria's State Security or its foreign directorate after fleeing the country in 1969.
As an émigré, Markov worked for the BBC and Deutsche Welle and contributed to RFE/RL, where he produced a series of satirical programs called Personal Meetings With Todor Zhivkov, that skewered Bulgaria's communist leadership.
Zhivkov led the Bulgarian Communist Party from 1954-89.
In 1978, Markov was on his way to the BBC offices on Zhivkov's birthday, September 7, when he felt a sting in his right leg while waiting for a bus on London's Waterloo Bridge. He turned around to find a man picking up an umbrella.
"I'm sorry," Markov, on his deathbed, recalled the man saying in a foreign accent. The man then hurriedly crossed the street and hailed a taxi.
Four days later, Markov was dead of what doctors said was poisoning by ricin, traces of which were found in a tiny pellet embedded in his leg.
Ten days before Markov was attacked, Bulgarian émigré journalist Vladimir Kostov had been struck as he rode an escalator on the Paris Metro by a ricin-filled pellet identical to the one that felled Markov. He survived that poisoning.
Bulgarian officials began an investigation into Markov's killing shortly after the 1989 fall of Tidor Zhivkov's communist government. It was closed in 2013 having failed to identify, charge, or arrest any suspects, and cited the destruction of many documents in Markov's file.
Former Soviet KGB officers Oleg Kalugin and Oleg Gordievsky claimed separately that the KGB was involved in the Markov killing, and even described how ricin-filled pellets were loaded into umbrellas used to carry out assassinations.
Multiple journalistic investigations have incriminated a Dane of Bulgarian origin, Francesco Gullino, code-named "Piccadilly," in Markov's assassination. Gullino, who acknowledges having worked as a Bulgarian foreign agent for many years, has denied the charge.
"I'm sorry. I wish I could give you a straight answer...but think for a moment: If I was, if I were the murderer, [do] you think I should, I [should] just say it?" he told an investigative reporter in Wels, Austria, in 2013.