What do Europeans think when they think of Bulgaria? Until last year’s fuss about immigrant workers, the typical response would probably have been a scratch of the head and a reference to the Black Sea coast. A minute’s more thought by older respondents might produce a reference to the poisoned umbrella which killed a Bulgarian dissident in London in the 1970s.
Georgi Markov was a famous writer assassinated on a London street by the Bulgarian secret services – although the precise details are still not known.
A well-known sculptor, Spartak Dermedjiev, is someone who has tried to keep Markov’s memory alive – initially with an exhibition and, earlier this month, by marking Markov’s birthday with a small monument in a square in central Sofia. Coincidentally The Nation journal published a piece about the man -
When Georgi Markov left Bulgaria in 1969, at the age of 40, he was one of the country’s most lionized writers, the darling of readers and, until that point, party officials.
By all accounts, his success was astounding. He was a chemical engineer by education and worked in various factories in his youth, writing only in his spare time; yet his second novel, “Men”, was named novel of the year by the Bulgarian Writers’ Union in 1962.
Markov was immediately granted full membership in the organization, an unprecedented honor at that time.The award flung open all of the important doors. “Men” was quickly adapted into a movie, a play and a radio drama, and translations of the novel appeared throughout the Eastern bloc. Markov’s subsequent books were also praised by critics and his plays staged in major theaters in Sofia and across the country. He was appointed to a cushy editorial position at Narodna Mladezh, one of the most prestigious Bulgarian publishing houses. And that, in turn, brought him more rewards and privileges.
He became increasingly critical of the regime and eventually failed to return from a foreign visit – landing up in London where he broadcast for the BBC and Radio Free Europe. His broadcasts (often about aspects of Bulgaria) were collected in a book called In Absentia which (sadly) I cannot find online. The article recounts what is known about the role of the Russian KGB and its Bulgarian equivalent in the eventual assassination of the writer in 1978 – but also makes some comments about the lack of proper recognition today of the man.
Last year, a sociological study spearheaded by the Hannah Arendt Center in Sofia examined young Bulgarians’ knowledge of totalitarianism in Europe and at home. The respondents were between the ages of 15 and 35, and the results were striking: 79 percent hadn’t heard of the Gulag; 67 percent hadn’t heard of the Iron Curtain; 51 percent didn’t know the reason for Markov’s death; and 89 percent had no knowledge of the book In Absentia Reports.
The Bulgarian crisis of historical memory is hardly peculiar to young people, especially when it comes to Markov’s literary works. Most adults are familiar with his name today, but only in the context of his murder. Few have read his essays or novels, and only the biggest bookstores in Sofia stock a book or two of his by chance. It is much easier to find a copy of the memoirs of the dictatorTodor Zhivkov than, for example, Markov’s excellent novellas “The Portrait of My Double” and “The Women of Warsaw.”
His work is not taught in schools….. The Bulgarian who should have taken the same position in his nation’s literature and political history as Brodsky in Russia, Havel in the Czech Republic and Milosz in Poland has been relegated to the dustbin of memory. After his murder abroad, Markov was killed a second time, this time in his home country.
Well at least there is one person, Spartak Dermedjiev, whose work keeps his memory alive!