The Murder Bureau

The truth surfaces about the Bulgarian communist assassination squad during the Cold War.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Alexenia Dimitrova, a writer with a 25 year-long career in journalism. She has worked for one of Bulgaria's biggest dailies, 24 Hours Daily, for the last 15 years. She is the author of 4 documentary books based on her intensive research in the Bulgarian and American secret service archives from the Cold War era. Since 2002 she has her own column in 24 Hours Daily about finding and reuniting long-lost family members and relatives all over the World. For this series, which is extremely popular in Bulgaria, she received in 2004 the most prestigious award for Journalism in Bulgarian named Tchernorizets Hrabar. The is the author of the new book, The Murder Bureau, a book describing a total of ten cases of covert foreign operations of the Bulgarian Communist-era secret services against dissident émigrés. She can be contacted at: [email protected].

FP: Alexenia Dimitrova, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Tell us what inspired you to write The Murder Bureau and what it is about.

Dimitrova: Thanks Jamie.

Let me begin by defining the meaning of SMERSH for your readers: it is a Russian abbreviation and it means “Smert Shpionom” -- Death to Spies. This was the name given to a counter-intelligence unit that was responsible for the neutralization of Soviet spies that existed within the Soviet Army in the early 40's.

The inspiration to write my book came from the suspicions and rumors circulating many years in Bulgaria that a similar SMERSH unit also existed within the Bulgarian Intelligence Services during the Cold War.

For many years I tried to determine whether these rumors were true or not. I have been digging into the Bulgarian and American secret archives from the Cold War era for more than 20 years. But only 2-3 years ago I had the chance for the first time to read some of the inventory lists of the Bulgarian Intelligence from the Cold War. Many of them were and still are not open to the public. The first time when a tiny portion was opened I went to read these inventory lists. After long hours digging and looking steadily at them I saw 3-4 abbreviations - OM, SM, AM, DM, which attracted my attention. It turned out that these abbreviations mean sharp measures, special measures, active measures and disinformation measures. When I ordered the documents I saw that a unit responsible for sharp measures existed since 1963. The name of the unit was Service 7. Under sharp measures the officers meant kidnapping, poisoning, neutralization, liquidation of Bulgaria émigrés.

FP: Tell us about the killers and the victims.

Dimitrova: First let me be clear that not all of the cases ended as assassinations -- though they may have been prepared for such. So it is more precise to ask who are the performers and the answer is: Bulgarian officers and agents from Service 7.  The targets between 1963 and 1974 were 10 Bulgarian emigrants in UK, Germany, France, Italy, Ethiopia, Turkey, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland.

All the cases are very interesting. The first operation prepared was against the Bulgarian Blago Slavenov, who escaped to Italy in the late 40’s. The operation was under code name Libretto. Slavenov had to be kidnapped and violently returned to Bulgaria from a ship accosted in Trieste. The means needed for the operation were prepared with the aid of the Hospital of the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior in Sofia. In the operation, according to the documents, there was the participation of 3 collaborators and 2 officers of the Bulgarian intelligence.

Slavenov became the target of the super-secret department because he was one of the leading members of the Bulgarian National committee – a prominent émigré organization abroad.

According to the documents, the operation failed but the officers discussed it in the reports as the first and very useful experience. They continued working on it in the next years. Among the ideas was for a woman-collaborator to attract Slavenov to travel to Vienna. According to the reports this attempt failed too.

I tried to find Slavenov in Italy. Unfortunately it turned out that he died in 1996. But I found his daughter Elza. I understood from her that her father somehow knew about the actions prepared against him and he was very cautious. He applied different techniques to escape from the people who followed him. One day he has left his home at 6:30 pm, on the next day at 9 pm, one day he returned at 6 pm, on the other after 11 pm. He also changed several times the home latch-lock and he shifted his daily routes.

The daughter also told me in detail how her father had escaped from the plan to kidnap him on the ship. An Italian friend of his called him to ask to be a translator helping Bulgarian ship crew accosted to Trieste to resolve a mechanical problem with the vessel. Slavenov doubted this story and refused to get on the ship. He was sure that it was a well prepared trap.

Slavenov returned to Bulgaria only after the fall of Berlin fall in 1989. Despite all the actions against him and all his fears throughout the years, he very much loved his country. He wanted to die here. In 1996 he was buried in his native village not far from Plovdiv, South Bulgaria.

FP: How about another case?

Dimitrova: Another target of the Murder Bureau was Traycho Belopopski, an ex-officer from the First Directorate of the Bulgarian Intelligence who escaped to the UK in the early 60’s and was sentenced to death in 1964.

I found him alive in New York in 2006. The documents stated that he was also a target of the secret Service 7. My interest was provoked by his court cases, which I read in the archives.

In 2006 Belopopsky was afraid to talk. However, in a private correspondence he mentioned that years ago his father had visited him in London and brought him a piece of salami. Knowing the methods of his former colleagues he was suspicious of the food and tossed it to a street dog. It immediately died in agony.

Asked about the case, one of the high ranking ex officers of the Bulgarian Intelligence Col. Dimo Stankov denied that the institution has planed any operation against Belopopsky. He also denied knowing that the emigrant got a death sentence.

“We tried having him come back by sending his father and his brother on law to persuade him to return, but when he failed, we gave up,” claimed Stankov.

The recently discovered reports of the secret Department refuted these claims. Just the opposite - they confirmed that Belopopsky was one of the planed victims of Service 7 under 2 code names “The Black” and “Mavrov”. Obviously he was able to survive, escaping from UK to the USA where he married for 3rd time. Belopopsky’s first wife and daughter, who left in Bulgaria after his emigration, never saw him again.

There are 8 more cases of émigrés-targets of the Bulgarian SMERSH between 1963 and 1974 described in Murder Bureau. The book contains nearly 100 document facsimiles, which reveal all the details about the secret operations and its targets.

FP: What is the significance of these findings?

Dimitrova: For first time I found documentary evidences of the existence of special unit responsible for so-called sharp measures. Untill now we all knew the notorious case of the so-called Bulgarian Umbrella - the killing of the Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in London in September 1978. Obviously long before this assassination, strategies and people were prepared to perpetrate such assignments.

FP: Alexenia Dimitrova, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.