Georgi Markov: The Truth That Killed; Ticknor & Fields; New York.

Claire Sterling: The Time of the Assassins: Anatomy of an Investigation; Holt, Reinhart & Winston; New York.  

In 1962 a  one-time engineer, Georgi Markov, rose meteroically to the upper reaches of the Bulgarian literary elite upon the publication of a novel entitled Men, which brought him the privilege of membership in the Writer’s Union. In 1964 he was one of the first literary intellectuals to receive the personal attentions of the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Todor Zhikov, when he commenced a shrewd campaign to defuse potential discontent. In 1969, for the 25th anniversary of the Bulgarian Communist Party’s seizure of power, he was commissioned to write a play entitled Communists depicting the legendary heroes of of the resistence movement  during World War II in his country. But the authorities banned his play because it was intellectually too honest, and late that same year he left his homeland forever. 

Settling in London, Markov achieved remarkable successm continuing his writing career in Bulgarian and English. But he also felt a powerful need to describe and analyze his life in the land he loved so deeply, and so about 1975 he began the memoirs of which he this book is a condensed version. He then broadcast that record of life back to Bulgaria through Radio Free Europe, apparently to a large listening audience. In time he received death threats and harassing calls. He did not allow them to deter him (although any Bulgarian knows such threats can be very real) and in September 1978 fell victim to a lethal poison contained in a pellet shot into his lef by a device possibly concealed in a very English umbrella. He was just a little short of his 50th year. Markov’s wife, Annabel, an intelligent Englishwoman worthy of her husband’s mettle, made sure that the monumnet on his grave tells all who see it that he died “in the cause of freedom.” Now she has arranged for the publication of this even more important monument to him and to that freedom for which he gave his life. 

The book’s dust jacket calls him “Bulgaria’s Solzhenitsyn,” and Markov does display something of the Russian writer’s intllectual honesty and literary ability. However, Markov describes not the horrors of the Gulag and its victims firghting for sheer survival, but rather ordinary Bulgarians in what might be called “normal” situations of a communist society, but still situations which can frequently pose excruciating moral dilemmas. It is those dilemmas which Markov explores as he seeks to understand the deeper motivations of those who established and still sustain the communist regime which marks its 40th anniversary in 1984. 

The Bulgarian communist movement before 1944 could draw idealists who were truly willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a “better future,” but who were also very human, as Markov discovered when he obtained access to the police files of the old regime while working on Communists. For example, the files recorded that the last words of one of the genuine heroes of the resistence were: “Another glass of water, please!” These people were not the stuff of the exaggerated myths which the regime wanted at the time, but human enough to go mad as did one partisan when offered a brutal choice by the police: if he betrayed his comrades, he would not have to serve his sentence and false documents would be planted to make him seem innocent of any betrayal; but if he refused to provide information, he would not only be executed, but “they would also leave ‘proof’ that he had betrayed his friends, so thgat everybody would forever look on him as a traitor and spit on his grave.” 

But if the communist movement did attract the idealistic, including especially the young, once in power a communist regime is absolutely insensitive “to moral beauty, to any show of nobility”: “their response to the gesture of the knight who throws down his gauntlet,” Markov writes, “is to…hit him with a stone in the back of the neck.” A communist regime deliberately creates a system based upon envy and hatred which, unfortunately, channels the natural inclinations of many individuals in any society. As Markov points out, only fools and incompetents can be effectively united as a political force; truly creative people are too independent to follow a party line. 

For all the terror of the revolutionary period, there were those who stood against the regime even under Bulgarian Stalinism. One of them was an anonymous “comrade M” (in fact, Markov himself) arrested for participating in an opposition group which had planned to publish an illegal bulletin. Many of its members were cruelly tortured in prison, but not M, whose interrogator sought to convert him through persuasion. Then on September 9, the regime’s anniversary, he was permitted to go home for two days, sent out into the festive streets with their banners, bouquets, and laughing faces chanting “STALIN–CHERVENKOV” with energetic enthusiasm. As his interrogator had surmised, the experience cured him of his ambition to liberate people who seemed so content in their servitude, and so oblivious of those suffering on their behalf. He resolved to make his peace with the regime. “This was his justification,” Markov says of comrade M. “I am not sure, however, that it satisfied him. Because he knew that he was one of those who conveniently justify their own sins by the sins of others.” 

As a leading writer in a small country, Markov had the chance to observe certain famous Bulgarian communist leaders at close hand. He offers two brief but repulsive vignettes of Georgi Dimitrov, the “hero” of the Reichstag Fire Trial and the first prime minister of communist Bulgaria. He provides a more human portrait of Vulko Chervenkov, the leader the festive crowds cheered that September 9. Much later, after he had fallen from power, he wandered alone into a dance hall at a seaside resort filled with semi–dissident intellectuals who had suffered under his regime, and who drove him into the night by singing the pro-communist national anthem as a sign of contempt. The most interesting portion of Markov’s book, though, describes his personal acquaintance with Todor Zhivkov, first secretary of the Bulgarian Communist party since 1954, and faithful servant of his Soviet masters. 

Zhivkov launched his campaign to cultivate potential dissidents in the arts a short time before Khrushchev fell from power. Markov found much to admire on the personal level in Zhivkov, but he also realized how much damage Zhivkov inflicted upon Bulgarian literature and culture by reigning in “Bulgarian potential Solzhenitsyns,” in Markov’s words. Sometimes Zhivkov could blunt the power of dissident criticism simply by doing small favors. And he knew how to employ the rod as well. 

Marxists preach the theoretical supremacy of economic forces and politics of the world, but in practice they perceive the importance of individual example and leadership. Although he bent for a time–and Markov is usually quite honest about his own rationalizations–in the end he resolved to set a moral example by exchanging all the privileges he enjoyed in Bulgaria for the uncertain future in the West, and to speak the truth even in the face of death. By his death he affirmed the ultimate superficiality of economic interests and politics, and thereby denied the foundation stone of communist doctrine. After a successful life he died a successful death, in a matter of speaking: it appropriately completed the example he had provided in life, despite communist expertise at moral assassinations as well (one of them wrote of him after he left Bulgaria: “We hope that in the West they know how to bury dogs”). Though the communists may be blind to moral nobility, they harbor a lurking fear that a moment may come when the festive crowds in the Sofia streets chanting their well-worn slogans will be transformed into a cleansing force moved by moral indignation and understanding, as happened however briefly in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Poland in 1980-81. The ways of mass national psychology are mysterious, but there are moments when the power of moral ex­ample alone can move an entire people–not forlong, perhaps, but long enough.

The communist recognition of the force of leadership, including moral leadership, almost surely lies behind the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate John Paul II in May of 1981. The men in the Kremlin had seen the Pope’s “divisions” when he visited Poland; they knew he was intimately involved with the rise of the Solidarity movement, which threat­ ened the foundations of communist rule in Poland and perhaps elsewhere in Eastern Europe; and they realized that he was restoring the Church in the Free World as well. Under the circumstances (since they see themselves as engaged in a war with the Free World in any case) they had no objection in principle to an attempt on the Pope’s life. Their only concern was that they should not seem to bear responsibility for it. In The Time of the Assassins Claire Sterling traces Mehmet Ali Agca’s career through many thickets, including his involvement with mostly rightist Turk­ish terrorist groups; his connections with a Bulgarian firm which apparently specializes in smuggling drugs to the West and arms into Turkey to all factions in order to destabilize that society as much as possible; his evidently well­ financed wanderings through Europe; his links with Bulgarian officials in Italy, some  of whom abruptly returned to Bulgaria once a genuine investigation began. Only very recently, three full years after the event, have indictments been handed down by the careful Italian authorities against certain individuals, including Bulgarians, alleged to have been involved in the conspiracy.

A tenacious investigative journalist, Sterling has shaped a great amount of material into a case which anyone who reads the record objectively can scarcely refute, although in such an extensive investigation there are inevit­ably errors of detail, and the book could assuredly have profited from the efforts of a good editor in organization and the elimination of repetitions which some­times become irritating. But it is clear that the Soviets had a strong interest in eliminating the Pope, and that the Bulgarian intelligence service–which the Soviet Union wholly controls in such matters and which had extensive contacts with the Turkish Mafia–painstak­ingly prepared Agca as a hired assassin whom it might, in fact, have decided to use against Lech Walesa. Instead it directed him against the Pope, evidently calculating on eliminating the assassin after the assassination. But the plot did not succeed, and after an interval of about a year Agca realized what had happened to him and provided his inter­rogators with specific information about it. More interesting than the conspiracy itself, and certainly of more importance for world affairs, is the West’s reaction to the very notion that the Soviets might have organized a scheme to murder the Pope. The first inclination of Western officials–as in the case of the Kennedy assassination–was to deny that there had been any plot at all, to assert that it was all the doing of a single “known crazy.” When the Italian investigator, Judge Martella, began methodically gathering the evidence of an extensive conspiracy, Western intelligence or­ ganizations not only would not assist him, they even suggested that he was the victim of “disinformation” designed to establish a Bulgarian connection where in fact there was none (although it is very unclear who might wish to manufacture such disinformation). And if it should in the future be proven juridically that a plot extended at least as far as Bulgaria, Western agencies, including especially the ClA, will seek to act as though the whole matter were of no concern. Sterling understands why Western governments have so strenuously de­nied the obvious, although at one point she weakens sufficiently to suggest that the explanation is purely bureaucratic. Western officials who believe they hold the fate of the world in their hands find it impossible to contemplate the possibility that they are dealing with regimes which think it quite permissible to assassinate prominent opponents; which operate by conspiracy and deceit, and with which, therefore, one can reach no meaningful agreements; with regimes, in short, which are unswervingly dedicated to the West’s destruc­tion. A responsible official in a Western government who truly came to see this would face the prospect of taking strong action to avert mortal peril when he is surrounded by well-intentioned individuals who simply cannot believe that the situation is in fact so grim. And yet the historical record is horribly clear: We have, to take the most recent exam­ples, the slaughter of millions of ordinary people in Cambodia and Afghanistan, the assassination of Georgi Markov and the attempt on the Pope’s life, and the murder of 269 people on KAL flight 007. The resulting schizophrenia among the statesmen of the Free World is strikingly illustrated in President Reagan’s nation­ ally televised speech of September 1983 on the subject of the Korean airliner. In one breath he spoke of the Soviet Union as a “society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life,” but then virtually with the next he called upon it to apologize and “join the rest of the world in working out as ystem to protect against this ever happening again.” No apology was tendered, of course. And this spring, at a Moscow  “Day of Anti-Aircraft Defenses,” a Soviet aviation marshal extolled the act which Reagan had rightly termed one of “inhu­man brutality,” and the man who appar­ently committed that act received an award for heroism.

Until this split in the Western mind is resolved in favor of a clear understand­ing of the nature of our enemy, and until action comes to be based upon that understanding, the Free World will continue inevitably to lose ground. Solzhenitsyn, Georgi Markov, Claire Sterling, and countless others have told us the truth. If we refuse to listen, we shall learn the truth through bitter experience.