Remembering the KGB’s Murderous History
The unveiling of a sinister statue in Moscow on the anniversary of one of the most mysterious Chekist assassinations reminds the world what the Kremlin is made of
This week delivered an unmistakable sign of the times in Moscow. That was Monday’s unveiling in Moscow of a statue of Feliks Dzierżyński, the early Bolshevik leader, a Pole of noble heritage from what is today Belarus, who founded the Soviet secret police, the notorious Cheka, in late 1917. Dzierżyński, who headed the future KGB until his death in 1926, was the architect of the Red Terror, a man with the blood of millions of “class enemies” on his hands.
For his dedication to mass murder, “Iron Felix” was heralded by the Bolshevik regime as a sort of Red saint, faithfully committed to the Communist cause at any cost in mere human life. This twisted morality endured down to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with the KGB upholding Dzierżyński as a moral avatar for Chekists, as Red secret policemen called themselves.
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Vladimir Putin was one of them and his throwback regime, which has ruled Russia since 1999, has witnessed a stunning rehabilitation of Dzierżyński and his ilk. When protesters in 1991 toppled the dark, phallic statue of “Iron Felix” which had stood outside KGB headquarters in Moscow for decades, that was an indelible sign of regime change. Today, however, the Chekists run Russia again and Putin’s tenure has witnessed nostalgia for the KGB become state policy. A big tell was the restoration of December 20, the Cheka’s “birthday” in 1917, as a holiday, in Soviet fashion.
Now Dzierżyński’s statue is back in a place of honor. The placement of this new statue is revealing. It’s a slightly smaller replica of the statue torn down 32 years ago in front of the Lubyanka, but its new home is in Yasenovo, a southwestern suburb of the capital, at the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR. This is significant because the SVR and its predecessor, the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate (PGU in Russian), being responsible for collecting foreign intelligence abroad, always maintained that they were not involved in Chekist dirty work. Mass killings, deportations, genocides, GULAGs, those were the handiwork of the far larger internal side of the KGB, what’s today the Federal Security Service or FSB.
It’s therefore stunning to watch the SVR proudly claim Dzierżyński’s blood-soaked legacy, as it did publicly this week. The service’s head, Sergei Naryshkin explained to the crowd assembled to unveil the statue:
The image of the chairman of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission became one of the symbols of his time, a standard of crystal honesty, dedication, and fidelity to duty. His catchphrase that only a person with ‘a cool head, a warm heart and clean hands’ can become a Chekist became a significant moral guideline for several generations of security officials in our country.
Imagine the head of German foreign intelligence unveiling a statue of Heinrich Himmler in front of BND headquarters, while citing the SS boss as a virtuous moral example to follow, and that’s where Putin’s Russia is today.
Nevertheless, there is some terrible honesty in Naryshkin’s candor. The SVR and its PGU predecessor never possessed “clean hands.” They were always soaked with blood, from what Chekists call “wetwork.” Soviet foreign intelligence was deeply involved in mass repression and murder, particularly in Stalin’s time, when Moscow dispatched spy-assassins all over the world to abduct or assassinate the Kremlin’s enemies, wherever they were hiding.
To cite a few cases among many: White General Aleksandr Kutepov, kidnapped by the KGB* off the streets of Paris in 1930, then killed. Former Soviet spymaster Ignace Reiss, gunned down by a KGB hit team, Chicago mob style, with submachine guns, on a Swiss roadside in 1937. American Communist, and sometime KGB agent, Juliet Poyntz, abducted off the streets of Manhattan in 1937, never to be seen again. Yevhen Konovalets, the Ukrainian nationalist leader, blown up by a KGB bomb in Rotterdam in 1938. Most infamously, Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s great rival, butchered by a KGB assassin with an icepick to the skull in Mexico City in 1940.
KGB wetwork abroad tapered off after the Second World War but didn’t cease until 1959, when a public hit on the exiled Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera in Munich caused uproar. Bandera was killed by a burst of cyanide gas to his face, but his disenchanted KGB assassin defected to the West and spilled the beans, causing Moscow worldwide embarrassment. From that point, the KGB got out of the wetwork business abroad, it just wasn’t worth the blowback.
In the latter half of the Cold War, the KGB grew wary of foreign assassinations. To take a significant case, for decades Aleksander Orlov was a most wanted man in Chekist circles. As a senior KGB officer, Orlov was involved in wetwork too, in Spain during that country’s ugly civil war. The cagey Orlov defected to the West at the height of Stalin’s purges, when the Kremlin was liquidating most Old Bolsheviks like Orlov. He went public and wrote unflattering things about the USSR and its secret police, which upset his former comrades. Moscow wanted Orlov dead, but by the time the KGB finally tracked down their wily quarry, who had multiple aliases, it was 1969 and Orlov was an old man living in Ohio. Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB from 1967 to 1982 (before briefing serving as the Soviet leader) was no humanitarian, but he judged that assassinating Orlov, who was old and unwell, wasn’t worth the political cost. Andropov was right: Orlov died in Cleveland in 1973, a largely forgotten figure.
All the same, the KGB never entirely abandoned wetwork abroad, though it was careful about masking its involvement. This week represents the forty-fifth anniversary of one of the most infamous Chekist assassinations, the so-called “umbrella murder” of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London.
On September 7, 1978, the 49-year-old Markov was standing in line on Waterloo Bridge over the Thames, waiting for the bus that took him to his job with the BBC World Service. Since defecting in 1969 from his native Bulgaria, where had been a successful writer and intellectual, Markov had become a dissident and critic of the Communist regime in Sofiya. His pungent commentary on corrupt Red Bulgaria and its leader, Todor Zhivkov, made him a public enemy of the state, which sentenced him to several years in prison in absentia for his defection.
While waiting in line with several other commuters, Markov felt a sharp, sudden pain on the back of his right thigh. When he turned around, he saw a heavy-set man pick up an umbrella off the ground, mumbling “I’m sorry” in a foreign accent, then crossing the street and getting into a taxi, never to be seen again.
Upon his arrival at the BBC, Markov examined the tiny, inflamed wound on his thigh, which resembled a small pimple. As the day went by, he felt progressively sicker, suffering from a high fever, and by the evening he was in the hospital, never to emerge. Over the next four days, Markov’s condition deteriorated, with doctors perplexed by his illness. Markov succumbed to his mystery malady on September 11, leaving behind a wife and a two-year old daughter.
Suspicion immediately fell on Bulgaria’s Communist regime, whose hatred for the dead man was no secret. That the Waterloo Bridge incident occurred on Party boss Zhivkov’s birthday seemed like no coincidence. Moreover, investigation by British police and intelligence services revealed that a similar attack had transpired just ten days before Markov was assaulted. That target was Vladimir Kostov, a former Bulgarian intelligence officer who defected to France. He was shot with a pellet gun concealed in an umbrella as he rode an escalator in the Paris Métro. Kostov fell gravely ill but miraculously survived the attempted assassination.
Kostov was shot with a poison pellet the size of a pin-head which contained a very tiny amount of ricin, a highly lethal toxin for which there is no known antidote. He somehow survived the attack, perhaps because the umbrella assassin never got close enough to his target. Markov was less fortunate. A detailed autopsy revealed an identical tiny fatal pellet, with traces of ricin, embedded in his right thigh.
Western intelligence soon fingered Sofiya for both attacks, specifically its unpleasant KGB-clone State Security (Dŭrzhavna sigurnost or DS). Moscow’s hand was suspected too, since a complex weapon such as the ricin-laden umbrella used against Kostov and Markov seemed beyond Bulgaria’s technical acumen. It would take decades for the full story to emerge but, thanks to senior KGB officials who have supplied first-hand accounts, we now know the backstory to the umbrella assaults
In Sofiya, Todor Zhivkov seethed against Georgi Markov and his mocking revelations about Bulgaria’s corrupt Communist system. He pleaded for Moscow’s help with silencing the troublemaking dissident. It should be noted that Bulgaria enjoyed a closer relationship with the USSR than other East Bloc regimes; indeed, servile would not be too strong a word. Similarly, the DS was little more than a branch office of the KGB, with Soviet intelligence officers embedded in the DS as “advisors” at senior levels to ensure loyalty to Moscow. This was a greater degree of control than the KGB enjoyed over other East Bloc security services.
Therefore, Zhivkov’s request was difficult for Moscow to ignore, although KGB boss Andropov was leery about getting involved in any wetwork in the West. The compromise that was reached involved the KGB sharing their new top secret umbrella weapon with the DS and training Bulgarian comrades in its use, but no Soviet personnel were to get involved with the assassination operations themselves. The attack on Kostov appears to have been a trial run, while Markov’s murder was the major objective for Sofiya.
Tragically, there has never been any justice for Georgi Markov’s murder. Todor Zhivkov was fired when the Communists lost power at the end of 1989 but never faced criminal charges relating to the umbrella assassination, dying in bed in 1998 at age 86. Former DS higher-ups evaded charges relating to Cold War wetwork too, in part because relevant records were destroyed; hence post-Communist inquiries into the case never got very far. In 1992, General Vladimir Todorov, the head of DS foreign operations from 1986 to 1990, was sentenced to 14 months in prison for destroying files relating to the Markov hit. General Stoyan Savov, Bulgaria’s former deputy interior minister, killed himself in 1992 before facing questions in court about the Markov affair (Todorov claimed that Savov ordered him to destroy thousands of DS documents). General Vasil Kotsev, head of DS foreign operations from 1973 to 1986, who is assessed to have supervised the Waterloo Bridge operation, died in 1986 in a mysterious car accident.
Despite DS document destruction, the diligent Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov uncovered sufficient evidence in surviving spy files to name Markov’s probable killer in 2005. That was Francesco Gullino, born in Italy in 1945, who subsequently became a Danish citizen. Gullino got in trouble with Bulgarian authorities when he was arrested for smuggling. Offered the choice of prison or collaboration with the DS, Gullino chose the latter. As their agent codenamed PICCADILLY, the DS dispatched him to Copenhagen, where he set up shop as an antiques dealer (he was also a pornographer on the side). Operating under that cover, Gullino undertook clandestine work for the Bulgarian secret police across Europe. According to Bulgarian spy files, the DS paid him £30,000 between 1978 and Communism’s collapse in 1990.
Hristov’s investigation placed Gullino in London on the date of the umbrella attack on Markov, with the DS agent leaving for Rome the day after the lethal assault. We cannot be certain that Gullino was the man holding the umbrella – some have speculated that the killer was another, still unidentified DS agent codenamed WOODPECKER – but of PICCADILLY’s involvement in the murder plot, which involved several DS operatives on or near Waterloo Bridge, as many as a half-dozen, there is little doubt.
In 1993, Gullino was interrogated for 11 hours by Danish and British investigators regarding his involvement in the Markov hit, but he cagily maintained his innocence. After the radiation assassination of the Russian dissident Aleksandr Litvinenko by Kremlin goons in London in 2006, there was renewed interest in wrapping up past wetwork cases in Britain, with the Markov assassination ranking high on that list (full disclosure: this author provided assistance to British investigators in that effort). However, the lack of official records, Sofiya’s limited interest in resolving the case, plus Gullino’s refusal to admit his complicity ultimately sytmied efforts at justice for Markov’s killing.
Gullino settled down in the sleepy Upper Austrian city of Wels, a couple hours’ drive west of Vienna, and kept a low profile. Living on his Danish pension, Gullino avoided the media, although when once asked about that fateful day in London, he replied in imperfect English, “I’m sorry, I wish I could give you a straight answer but…but think for a moment: If I was, if I were the murderer, you think I should, I just say it?” That’s well short of a firm denial. It's academic now, since Gullino was found dead, aged 76, in his shabby Austrian apartment in 2021, with a local friend insisting the old boy, whose health had declined in the years before his death, was a peaceful fellow who certainly couldn’t have been a secret assassin.
Sergei Naryshkin unveiled the SVR’s new “Iron Felix” statue on September 11, which was the forty-fifth anniversary of Georgi Markov’s painful death at the hands of the KGB and its friends. Whether that’s a coincidence or a dark Chekist joke, only the Kremlin knows.
*The Soviet secret police was renamed the Committee for State Security or KGB in 1954, after a bewildering number of name-changes since 1917, retaining that title until its collapse in 1991. I am using KGB here as shorthand for all Soviet secret police agencies.
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