Thirty-one years ago this week, on 7 September 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian émigré journalist who wrote for Radio Free Europe, BBC and Deutsche Welle, was assaulted in broad daylight on London’s Waterloo Bridge. Markov’s murder happened during the Cold War, but in more recent years the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and of numerous other journalists in Russia, as well as the assassination in London of former KGB and FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who became a vocal critic of Mr. Putin, have brought into focus the question of how safe it is in the post-Cold War world to criticize Russian leaders, especially for journalists living in Russia, but also for anybody living in the West who has ties to Russia.
As the Markov’s case illustrates, Russian spy and security services have a long history of recruting, intimidating and sometimes murdering journalists and others who have run afoul of the Kremlin. This concern was largely forgotten during the Yeltsin years when the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a mismanaged Federal US agency in charge of US government-funded international civilian broadcasting, placed Radio Liberty (Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty – RFE/RL) Russian language facilities and staff at a large news bureau in Moscow right under the nose of the FSB, the successor to the KGB.
Some of us who had worked in Russia at the time observed a marked increase in the intimidation and infiltration of the Russian media by the FSB right about the time Mr. Putin, a former KGB spy, consolidated his power. Seeing how FSB officers forced owners of private radio statios to stop using news programs from the Voice of America and Radio Liberty, we wondered what kind of threats they were making in confidential conversations with Radio Liberty reporters and other employees who are Russian citizens living in Russia. It was difficult to get more information about the extent of FSB media manipulation because Russian law prevented Russian citizens approached by the state security services from disclosing these contacts. Still, some of our Russian friends told us in confidence about being visited and threatened by the secret police.
During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was based in Munich, West Germany, and RFE/RL journalists were not allowed to travel to the Soviet Union as a measure of protection against arrest, intimidation and possible recruitment by the KGB. As the Cold War ended, the BBG moved RFE/RL headquarters to Prague, the Czech Republic, and decided it was safe to have a larger number of employees and news gathering operations based in Russia.
Whether this is still a safe option has been brought into question by a number of recent events in Russia, including murders of prominent anti-Kremlin journalists. Obviously a news organization like Radio Liberty can no longer operate without some presence in Russia if it wants to be an effective news source, but many of us have argued that the BBG should have taken strong measures to protect its Russian employees from intimidation by the FSB and to make sure that Radio Liberty programs are not subject to self-censorship.
That self-censorship brought on by intimidation and justifiable fear of the FSB has affected Radio Liberty’s Russian radio and web content seems obvious to many of us who are monitoring these programs and reports for the web originating by RFE/RL staff in Moscow and in Prague. The most recent example was Radio Liberty’s failure for a number of days to post on its Russian-language website any in-depth reports about the banning in Russia of Scott Anderson’s “GQ” magazine article, which was highly critical of Mr. Putin and accused the FSB of instigating terrorist attacks to help his rise to power.
Russian officials strongly deny the charges that FSB agents have been involved in any terrorist attacks, but the topic remain a taboo for journalists in Russia who want to keep their jobs and stay out of trouble with the authorities. This might explain why Conde Nast, the publisher of “GQ” kept Scott Anderson’s article out of the Russian edition and why it took days for Radio Liberty’s Russian editors to notice the story.
Anyone curious about the workings of the Soviet and now Russian secret police and the impact of fear on journalists should read a very well-documented book Cold War Radio: The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950-1989 by Richard H Cummings who for 15 years was the Director of Security for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty RFE/RL in Munich, Germany, and later was a security and safety consultant for RFE/RL in Prague until 1998. He has also published online an article about the murder of Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov in London in 1978.
Thirty-one years ago this week, on 7 September 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian émigré, who lived and worked in London, was assaulted in broad daylight on London’s Waterloo Bridge.
Georgi Markov had been a prolific and successful literary figure in Bulgaria before defecting to the West in 1969. He settled in England and became a broadcast journalist for Radio Free Europe, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), and the German international broadcast service Deutsche Welle.
Markov had a large listening audience in Bulgaria, who listened to his prime-time Sunday-night broadcasts over Radio Free Europe. He dared to tell his audience that Bulgarian President and Communist Party chief Todor Zhivkov wore no clothes.
In June 1977, Communist Party Chairman Zhivkov chaired a Politburo meeting, and stated he wanted the activities of Markov stopped. The Interior Minister reacted and requested KGB assistance in the killing of Markov. Though he wanted Markov killed, he wanted no trace to Bulgaria. The Chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, agreed to the assassination, as long as there would be no trace back to the Soviets. Thus, the Bulgarians and Soviets were operating under a double case of “plausible denial. “
A former KGB general has publicly admitted his role and the role of the KGB in supplying the Bulgarian intelligence service with both the weapon and the poison. Purportedly, the highly secret KGB laboratory known as the “Chamber” developed both the weapon, concealed in a US-manufactured umbrella, and biotoxin ricin impregnated in a wax-coated pellet the size of a pinhead.
Cold War Radio: The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950-1989 by Richard H Cummings
During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty broadcast uncensored news and commentary to people living in communist nations. As critical elements of the CIA’s early covert activities against communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the Munich-based stations drew a large audience despite efforts to jam the broadcasts and ban citizens from listening to them. This history of the stations in the Cold War era reveals the perils their staff faced from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Romania and other communist states. It recounts in detail the murder of writer Georgi Markov, the 1981 bombing of the stations by “Carlos the Jackal,” infiltration by KGB agent Oleg Tumanov and other events. Appendices include security reports, letters between Carlos the Jackal and German terrorist Johannes Weinrich and other documents, many of which have never been published.