Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Noxious History of Soviet Hitmen and Dead Dissidents; TV WATCH

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Noxious History of Soviet Hitmen and Dead Dissidents; TV WATCH

Article excerpt

Byline: VICTOR LEWIS-SMITH

The Umbrella Assassin Discovery

HAVING long considered Christmas as a time when you can be thoroughly homesick without even leaving home, I always try to flee to pagan lands shortly before 25 December, to avoid the wall-to-wall carols, mistletoe and Baby Jesus on TV.

Back in the days when I worked for the BBC, I even considered flying to Japan (where the official religion is Shinto) in a bid to escape the Christian festivities, so I rang a Japanese acquaintance at the World Service in Bush House, to ask her what Yuletide would be like in Tokyo.

As it happens, she'd been back there the previous December, and was pleased to see that her local department store had made a plucky effort to appeal to Westerners, getting into the Christmas spirit by dressing a mannequin in a red frock and hat, with a bushy white beard beneath. It was a passable tribute to the Christian tradition, she reported, except in one respect, because unfortunately they'd misunderstood the finer points of the ritual, and spoiled the overall effect by nailing Santa Claus to a cross.

I thought of that long-forgotten colleague on Friday night as I watched The Umbrella Assassin, because she used to work alongside Georgi Markov in the BBC World Service. As the programme reminded us, Markov was a Bulgarian dissident who died in mysterious circumstances in September 1978, stabbed with a poisoned brolly by a Soviet hitman while standing at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge, in what has frequently been described since as a "James Bond-style murder."

When Channel Five showed this programme back in May, it attracted little attention, but this month's strange poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in the Itsu sushi bar (and the storm of newspaper speculation it has unleashed) made this a remarkably serendipitous and relevant piece of scheduling for the Discovery Channel. Because both journalists were vehement critics of Eastern European rulers, both deaths involved rare poisons administered in bizarre ways in London, and the trail of suspicion in both murders leads inexorably back to the Kremlin, and to the Russian secret services, whose former initials should also serve as a warning: KGB (pronounced "cagey be").

Given that the previous best-known wielders of deadly brollies were John Steed in The Avengers and Batman's archenemy the Penguin, it was inevitable that the odd manner of Markov's death should capture the public imagination.

During the 1970s, we were told, half of Bulgaria was secretly listening to the Londonbased dissident as he denounced the Communist regime of Todor Zhivkov on Radio Free Europe and the BBC, and the Soviet authorities wanted him eliminated, planning the assassination of this "enemy of the state" to coincide with the president's birthday. …

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