Everybody in Bulgaria has heard of Georgi Markov’s death and the so-called “umbrella murder”—it is one of those things that Bulgaria is “famous” for, like yogurt and rose oil—but even in his home country few have actually read his work. It is a rather odd situation: Markov was a leading dissident in the 1970s, a writer of enormous talent, whose contributions to the political and literary discourse of the Cold War are comparable to Havel’s and Solzhenitsyn’s, though he never achieved their fame. His incisive political essays on Radio Free Europe (RFE) enraged the Bulgarian authorities so much that they ordered his assassination. But instead of becoming a national—and international—icon, a martyr of free speech, today Markov is just a curious historical footnote of the era. In a way, his murder was double, for it killed not only the author, but the work as well.
Markov should not be forgotten. His radio essays for RFE, posthumously collected in book form as In Absentia Reports about Bulgaria, constitute the most comprehensive and incisive portrait of life under the communist regime in Bulgaria. What makes these essays particularly interesting and readable, even today, is that they are a work of memoir rather than political philosophy. Before he left Bulgaria, Markov was one of the country’s leading writers, who knew every person of note. His path, from poor boy to factory worker to literary celebrity, led him through a wide range of experiences, which later became the basis of his memoir. It was through vivid human portraits and everyday stories that Markov wrote history.
“The First Lieutenant and the Night” is a story that took place in 1964, when Markov and his second wife moved to live in a villa in Dragalevtsy, on the outskirts of Sofia, at the foot of the majestic Vitosha Mountain. It is a true story but stranger than fiction: a terrifying, almost gothic tale of violence and memory. Today, the villa still stands, though modified, not far from my own house, and every time I pass by, a tiny shiver goes through my whole body.
My wife and I moved into an old nationalized villa above Dragalevtzy, not far from the chairlift station. The villa was surrounded by tall poplars and seemed curiously secluded. From its terraces and balconies you could see Sofia and its environs spread out. An unfamiliar family of four lived on the first floor and we occupied the second. A man in his mid-thirties came out to help us with our bags. He was of medium build, with a large torso and strong, sinewy hands. A thick, black beard covered his face. Back then, in the summer of 1964, beards were not yet fashionable in Bulgaria. But what made me shudder slightly were his eyes: dark, agape, with a robust, unnatural brilliance, which gave all his expressions a fanatic tinge. I thought that he was either an alcoholic or some mentally disturbed soul, existing in a state of constant agitation. In contrast to his face, his voice was soft and gentle. This was my new neighbor, the first-floor tenant, a father of two: a girl of around ten and a boy of six. His wife was a teacher in the local middle-school, and the children seemed polite and well-behaved.
On the first day I had no idea of my neighbor’s past. I could only sense that some sort of poignant, memorable experience still haunted him.
“Don’t you think he’s a bit strange?” my wife asked, faintly worried. A little later, though, she met the children and their mother, whose friendly manner visibly dissipated her misgivings. That evening, exhausted by moving in, we went to bed early. But around midnight my wife stirred me awake.
“Listen,” she said.
Amidst the soft rustling of the poplars, we could make out someone’s measured steps and a voice that now and then uttered unintelligible words. The moon was nearly full and it was fairly bright out. I got up and went to the window. Downstairs, on the large, off-white terrace, I saw a scene that swiftly dispelled all traces of sleep. An empty wooden chair stood in the middle of the terrace, while my new neighbor paced rhythmically to and fro, his head turned toward the chair, as if somebody were sitting there. His hands were crossed behind his back and his body was bent slightly forward to indicate that the person supposed to occupy the seat had his full attention. It struck me that what I was witnessing resembled a scene from the interrogation rooms of State Security. In that exact same manner the suspect would always sit or stand in the middle, while the interrogator would pace around in that same rhythm, waiting for him to speak. This was a classic scene, which usually took place at midnight, and which so many people in our country were privy to. My neighbor’s movements around the empty chair were a ghostly echo of the sinister nights of the Stalinist period, of the barbarian triumph of the “goons” over their bound victim.
“Silence isn’t always golden!” he addressed the chair in a clear voice, which only confirmed our suspicions.
My wife and I watched this performance dumbstruck, unaware that many more such nights awaited us, when the former first lieutenant of State Security, under the influence of drink, would recreate the interrogation scene with mad consistency: a scene which transformed him from a deranged alcoholic into a God, a King, and a Judge, whose unlimited power decided the fate of the person in the chair. We didn’t know yet that this episode on the terrace marked just the beginning of the midnight interrogator’s drunken bouts.
It appeared that at a certain point he would become conscious of the chair’s vacancy and would need someone of flesh and blood to sit there. He’d barge into the family bedroom, wake his wife and kids up (if they hadn’t made their escape already) and with a barrage of the worst obscenities and curses he’d dare them to resist. His voice would thunder hysterically, then turn quietly menacing, then burst into horrible laugher. It was usually his daughter who stood up to him. She’d face him directly and yell, “You are the worst, the vilest, awfullest man in the world! You know it, but you take it out on us. If you’ve got a guilty conscience, why don’t you shoot yourself instead of beating us?”
He would grin like a joyous villain, step toward her and begin pummeling her with slow but powerful slaps, as if he intended to beat her for hours. The mother would desperately throw herself in front to rescue her child. Many nights the villa would be torn up by shrieks, neighbors would arrive, and we would run downstairs to try holding him back. But he was so powerful that sometimes, when we’d call the police, three cops couldn’t handle him.
That first dreadful night his victim was his six-year-old son. We heard a racket in the room below us, the slamming of doors and quick steps. We later found out that the mother and her daughter had managed to run away. But the boy was left behind. My neighbor carried him outside, placed him backwards on the chair, pulled up his shirt, and began whipping him with a belt. The child did not let out a squeak. He was an unusual kid. We rushed down the stairs, but when we reached the terrace we came upon an entirely different and unexpected scene: my neighbor had thrown aside the belt and, kneeling by the child in the chair, was kissing his back and repeating in a distraught, sick, and quivering voice, “Forgive me, sweetie! Do you hear, please forgive me! You’re not hurt, right? Would you forgive me… may my hands wither if one more time… Forgive me…” His whole body was shaking in distress and it seemed as though nothing had been left of the imposing, fearsome figure of the midnight interrogator. The little boy raised himself up and we overheard his child-like rebuke, “I told you not to drink, daddy!”
“Not a drop ever again! Not a drop! Ever!” his father shouted with the most disconcerting earnestness.
He lifted the child in his hands, the way he had brought him out, and took him back inside.
My wife and I didn’t know what to make of this incident. It seemed to us like a bizarre, almost ghoulish nightmare, very different from the typical booze-inspired rowdiness, because at the center of it all stood an empty chair. In the morning, the mother and daughter came back. A curtain of silence dropped, as if nothing had ever happened.
On the next day, I watched my neighbor as he worked in the garden. The little boy was with him. The two of them bantered around and seemed in the best of moods. He was talking to his son about the lives of ants and I remember very well how he said, “Watch where you step, so you don’t crush an ant. Look carefully around and only then proceed. The ant has a soul too, just like you and me.”
Later that day and in the days that followed, I was surprised to find that my new neighbor was one of the most obliging people I had ever met. He stuck around me, helped me move in, and gave me a full and detailed account of my new landlords. His mind was a little slow, his intelligence apparently dulled, and his whole process of thinking and articulation seemed littered with hurdles. I got the impression of a rather confused split personality, occasionally torn by blinding flashes of fanaticism.
He told me in an offhand way that he didn’t want to hold a permanent job or follow a normal career path because that would have clashed with his desire to live “differently.” He tried to earn a bit on the side with metalwork. It turned out that he had a small workshop by the river, where he made candlesticks, sanctuary lamps, chandeliers, and various other items, all of them wrought out of iron. I asked him why he had decided to take up that particular craft. He laughed and answered in a rather peculiar voice, “I don’t know… It seems I have a knack for striking, and striking the iron calms me down….” Then he added in a friendly manner, “When I ask you to lend me money, don’t do it. I’d only get drunk and when I’m drunk things get out of control!”
His wife told me once that when he was sober she knew no better man and husband, but when he boozed up, he was like someone possessed by demons.
Again, one evening in those early days, passing by his workshop I overheard my neighbor mouthing words which took me back to my religion classes in school. Like in some implausible, poorly written story, he was reading from the Bible. He had opened the book on his work table and intoned the words slowly and solemnly, as if he enjoyed listening to his own voice. I later learned that several years prior he had become a devout Adventist and venerated the Sabbath. This strange embrace of religion astonished me. Afterwards, I’d see him pray for hours, his eyes lit up by unnatural brilliance, staring somewhere in the space in front. Truly, everything about him – his prayers, his laughter, his conversation, his metalwork – everything was peculiar, brought to an extreme, as if his character knew no intermediate or moderate state.
But just a few days later we experienced the second of our dreadful nights. He came back drunk from the local pub, placed the chair on the terrace and seized his wife before she could run away. Both children began wailing for their mother and we had to run to hold back the unruly former first lieutenant, who was shouting at the top of his voice, “I know all of you hate me! But I hate you too! I can see you think I’m a scumbag. I know I’m a scumbag. But you’re scumbags too, a thousand times worse than I, but you won’t admit it! Get out of my house!” And he threw himself forward to strike.
Another night, when the half-dozen policemen we had called on the phone managed to restrain him and drag him to the patrol car, he began screaming, “You, pigs, are all scumbags. You’re valets, slaves, pieces of trash! You’ve got chicken brains! I’m a saint next to you! I’m first lieutenant B.! I’m the only first lieutenant who’s a saint because…,” and here he raised his voice even more, “I’m paying for other people’s sins.”
The policemen chuckled at his tirade. They drove him to the police department, and he returned the next morning to apologize to his wife, whose face was all black and blue. Then he leaned over his Bible again and read aloud for a long time.
As time went by, those dreadful nights became more and more common. He would get trashed every other day and would turn violent anywhere. In the second year after our arrival, his wife couldn’t stand it anymore. One day she took the children, packed a few things, and went to live somewhere downtown, filing for divorce. This pushed my neighbor even closer to the edge. When he had nobody to put in that chair, he’d rush to the village and get into brawls. The locals often beat him up, but he was hellishly strong. In spite of his disorderly conduct, the authorities displayed an inexplicably tolerant attitude. At least a dozen complaints to the Ministry of Internal Affairs went nowhere. The prosecutor often summoned him, but it seemed to me that someone somewhere was secretly protecting him.
All that time I was trying to figure out what had happened to that man and what had brought about his deranged split between the interrogation chair and the Bible. One evening, when I was driving back home, I found him lying drunk in the middle of the village square. I lifted him up and took him back to the villa. While I was helping him to bed, he released a feverish stream of disconnected words, which one might take for some kind of confession.
“Nobody’s here… They ran away, everyone left… Both my wife and my children, they’re all scoundrels… Ah, Markov, what do you know? What have you seen?” And then he suddenly began shouting. “I didn’t want to! Honest to God, I didn’t… He hands me the gun, but I push it away and say… I don’t want to… But he puts the gun in my hand again and says… Shoot… this is the Party’s order… But I didn’t want to… would you believe me that I didn’t? Markov, have you ever shot a bound person point blank? Really point blank… You don’t know a thing… Look at me now! But he is still up there, in Politburo! Nothing can touch him! While look at me!... Do you believe me… I didn’t want to shoot!”
I never found out the name of the person who had handed him the gun or the name of his victim.
Years before, my neighbor had been a regular peasant boy from somewhere around Popovo. He was probably a good-natured kid, but at the same time nursed an ambition to get ahead in life. A member of the Workers’ Youth Union, he was recruited by State Security. As a junior officer, he was uncommonly compliant, joined the Party and embraced its ideology as holy writ. Enjoying the authorities’ complete trust, he was transferred to the investigative unit of the Ministry of the Interior and during the Stalinist period took part in several trials. Owing to his remarkable physical strength, he was assigned to beat and torture detainees. People who knew him back then have told me that he used to be one of the most fearsome “goons.” It seemed that the murder that he later whimpered about had been committed during that period. Like many of his colleagues, the first lieutenant probably justified his own crimes by telling himself he had done it all for the good of the Party. That’s why one could imagine his shock when, in 1956, without explanation, the same Party removed him from his position and retired him on disability. Subsequently, his pension was taken away from him. I was told that among his victims had been one of the new ministers, who, as soon as he had come into office, made sure to get back at his former torturer.
God only knows what horrifying, ghastly inquisitions and even killings our first lieutenant’s midnight operations had given birth to. Who knows how many people he had disabled for life, so that striking could become a physical habit. And who knows what dreadful memories stalked his sick mind later on, after the person who had handed him the gun got away scot-free and cast all the blame on him. The Party, which had turned the harmless peasant boy into a cruel bully and beast, into a vulgar butcher, had deviously washed its hands of him and had denied him the only excuse for his crimes. Perhaps it was exactly his loss of justification in the Party that had pushed him to seek deliverance from his own nightmares in the fervent pursuit of religion.
I’m not one to believe in the human capacity for self-reflection and guilt. But I do think that was the case with my neighbor because he had once been an innocent village boy, whose character was far removed from the pitiless, criminal mind, the cold-blooded hypocrisy and corrupt ideas of the political puppeteers who had made use of him. He had fanatically served a power that had transformed him from a man into an animal, that had in reality taken everything away from him and set him in the chair of his victims without any chance of escape. And that’s why, desperately and instinctively, he sought salvation in God.
The loss of his family devastated him completely. One day the police came and took him to the insane asylum in Karlukovo. He’d send me from there long poems written on packing paper and ask me to get them published somewhere. These were far from any real poetry, but they were all linked together by deranged declarations of love for life, nature, flowers, and light. Almost every poem began with the assertion that he was now a new person, that he was reborn and embarking on a new life… As if this wretch was trying to banish the demonic darkness of his mind with promises of a brand new beginning.
After six months, they let him go. But nothing in him had changed.
He continued to drag along his unhappy and miserable being like a living monument to the ideals of a bygone era.