A Life to Remember (Georgi Markov: Firsthand Accounts)
AUBG’s Auditorium was filled with a flavor of memories on Tuesday night, Oct. 18. The former BBC journalist and manager, Peter Udell, and the Uzbek journalist and writer, Hamid Ismailov, met with AUBG students to present the story of Georgi Markov – the Bulgarian dissident, journalist, and writer who paid with his life for the freedom of speech. The event was part of the series of lectures “Georgi Markov: Firsthand accounts,” conducted by Sofia Platform, a Bulgarian organization promoting liberal values through the local experiences.
Georgi Markov might not be a name that quickly pops up in one’s mind as a famous writer and journalist. Regarding this matter, Ismailov, the founder of BBC’s Georgi Markov Prize for radio plays, stated that “most of the people know Georgi Markov for his murder rather than for his work.” He then appealed that people should remember Georgi Markov for being a writer and a social protagonist.
Georgi Markov was born in 1929 in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. His first literary attempts appeared while he was suffering from tuberculosis at the age of 19. His work then continued with the novels “The Night of Celcius” and “The Ajax Winners” published in the late 1950s. After his novel “Men” won the annual prize award of the Union of Bulgarian writers, Markov was officially recognized by the audience. This led to his plays being staged in major theaters throughout the country. The writer was praised not only by the Bulgarian audience but also by the communist party officials who invited him to glamorous parties. Even Todor Zhivkov, the first secretary of the Communist Party and the country’s authoritarian, invited him to dinners and hikes trying to co-opt him into serving the regime.
Getting to know many people of influence in Bulgaria, Georgi Markov was soon able to observe closely the corruption and the hunger for power and dominance in the Party’s administration.
“During the winter of 1948-9 the rest of us were already “comrades”. Our comradeship was expressed in silent submission, fear, servility, and participation in all manner of mass activities such as political agitation, labour days…..Our intellectual individuality was degraded to the extent that we began to resemble bleating sheep, trained to obey,” the writer explains in his later work “In Absentia”.
After seeing the absurdities of Bulgaria’s communist regime, Markov decided to take the risky and painful path of speaking the truth about it. His novel “The Portrait of My Double” was banned shortly after its publication due to its cynical frankness. The withdrawal of many of his other works from the libraries and bookshops soon followed. Markov was even sentenced to prison for six months for his defection. In 1969 the famous novelist and playwright left Bulgaria.
“I felt that I could no longer bear the atmosphere in which I lived, the work I did, the relationships in which I found myself ensnared,” Markov writes in “In Absentia.” ”I had a sense of the unbearable about the outside world as well as about myself.”
Markov settled in London and continued his career as a writer. He established himself as a powerful journalist in the Bulgarian section of BBC where he worked on his “In Absentia” reports from 1975 to 1978. The latter openly criticized the Bulgarian Communist government and set an objective portrait of Todor Zhivkov’s persona. Markov’s memoirs, broadcasted weekly on Radio Free Europe, were listened by more than 5 million Bulgarians. His actions resulted in the fatal accident in 1978 when Markov was murdered in London by an operative connected to the KGB and Zhivkov’s cabinet. A tiny pellet, containing a minuscule quantity of ricin, was shot from an umbrella’s tip to his right thigh. The writer, who had enough courage to speak the truth and to pursue the freedom of speech untill the very end, paid with his life but he surely didn’t regret that.
“I am indeed happy with the path I have chosen, however costly it may be,” Markov wrote to Zdravka Lekova, his second wife, after leaving Bulgaria. “I have not regretted my actions for a second and I do not miss the pseudo-literary life in Bulgaria…. the most important thing for me, is that I will write the works I want to write without taking anyone’s opinion into account.”
The AUBG event dedicated to Georgi Markov, showed students that he was a personality to remember not only for his death but also for his contribution to Bulgarian literature and journalism. Udell and Ismailov gave new insights on Markov’s life and the speculations about his death. They encouraged AUBG students to keep the memory of the brilliant writer and to use his example as an inspiration for future courageous achievements.
“Be otherwise thinkers and do not accept the past as the best way to go,” Udell urged the audience.
Students expressed their gratitude for the lecture and their hope that there will be similar events at AUBG in the future.
“I will always support such events. If we don’t invest in remembering and keeping the spirits of our history alive, we are causing a major setback for culture,” second-year student Nadezhda Yankulska said, “I am especially happy with Georgi Markov because he is one of those misfits, people who didn’t play by the rules, which makes him a great example for the younger generation”