The return of the Anarchist

According to his schedule, Philip Ruff flew into Riga. On a warm August afternoon he was sitting at a summer café terrace with his wife Irene and could not decide what to order – just plain water or maybe also a cup of mint tea? In front of him on the table lay a copy of “Ir” magazine, with the portrait of a fashion designer Tereze Gruntmane in a little circle on its cover. Smiling, Ruff pointed out that it was a good example of how everything and everybody was interconnected in Latvia. It turned out, that Tereze’s husband Ugis Gruntmanis is a great-grandson of Peter the Painter’s (real name Janis Zhaklis) elder sister Anna Sakne and the owner of Svites Farm.

According to information found in old church books, it was in Lutrinu Pagasts at Svites Farm that Janis [son of Janis] Schahkle was born at 6 am on the 19th of July 1883. He was the third of six children – apart from him, there were his elder brother Karlis and sister Anna, as well as his younger sisters Charlotte-Maria, Katrina and Milda.

It is interesting that the Svites Farm belonged directly to his mother Margarita, because at the time of land redistribution in that area she had bought “Svites” from the Baron and maintained its ownership until 1913, when the property was sold to one of her sons-in-law.

Although Ruff has been coming to Latvia since the 80s of the last century and for quite a while his visits are connected with his research of the biography of one of the possibly best known anarchists of Latvian descent Peter the Painter, this time his visit is special. In the middle of August the publishing house “Dienas Gramata” is releasing the result of his 9-year research – the book Pa stâvu liesmu debesîs. Nenotveramâ latvieðu anarhista Pçtera Mâldera laiks un dzîve (On a Towering Flame to the Skies: The Life and Times of the Elusive Latvian Anarchist Peter the Painter).

The name of Peter the Painter in Great Britain first came up in connection with the so-called Houndsditch Murders in 1910. That was a daring and unsuccessful attempt to burgle a jeweller’s shop in the East End of London, which ended in violence unheard of in those days – several policemen had been shot dead. An even more outrageous event happened soon after that, which became known as the Siege of Sidney Street. Several Latvian anarchists managed to stand up to an overwhelmingly greater force for hours in a besieged house in Sidney Street. The house was surrounded not only by police and even army units with cannons, but also by huge crowds of onlookers and even the Home Secretary of the time Winston Churchill turned up. No one surrendered alive, but Peter Piatkov, or Peter the Painter, who was widely regarded as the main culprit, managed to escape.

These events invited dramatization, and Alfred Hitchcock in 1934 made a film called “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, and Monty Berman and Jimmy Sangster in 1960 made a film called “The Siege of Sidney Street”. Many books were written on the subject, but the real identity of Peter the Painter still remained veiled in mystery. At a certain point it was even erroneously suggested that it could have been Gederts Eliass, a well-known artist and painter. I have also taken the liberty to give a fictionalised interpretation of the story in my novel Mr. Latvia, which also became one of the reasons to get acquainted with Philip Ruff, even though at that time I did not even imagine that he would be the discoverer of Peter the Painter’s mystery.

Ruff’s book will come out for the first time in a Latvian translation – it has not been published in English yet, and Lauris Gundars, who according to Ruff dedicated about a year to its translation, has not only translated it from one language to another, but also turned out to be a careful editor. Some chapters, for example the one on Jekabs Peterss – had grown so disproportionately long, that they became like separate books in the book, and Lauris has helped to cut them down to size. This week the last corrections were still being made, and already in a week’s time “the first legal publication dedicated to anarchism in the Latvian language” will be printed and bound.

Ruff’s statement most probably is not an exaggeration, because even though the ideas of anarchism did inspire a lot of people at the beginning of the 20th Century, there were very few legal (not underground, printed without the restraints of censorship) publications in Latvian, dedicated to anarchism – most probably, the only one being the collection of anarchist articles Liesma which was published by Janis Zhaklis himself.

His regular visits to Latvia and the end of his 9-year-long research work in the archives, museums and other sources, moved Ruff to speak lingeringly about his first recollections and impressions of Latvia. “Those were long queues”, he said. There was a 3-litre jar of marinated tomatoes in the shop window, and it was not clear what the people were queuing up for. Everything has changed drastically since then – especially the price of books. “Books here are again getting more expensive,” he says. “Even when compared with a couple of years ago…” In the course of years Ruff has learned to read in Latvian, and he does not have to rely on the translations and interpretations of others any more.

The interest of the British author in the activities of Latvian revolutionaries and anarchists has, so to say, an ideological basis. Now that educator Roberts Kilis has had to hush up his passion for anarchist ideas in order to carry out his duties as Minister of Education, it is possible that during his brief stay in Latvia Philip Ruff is the only anarchist here. In the 70s and 80s of the 20 Century he worked for the “Anarchist Black Cross” organisation; and as editor, designer, cartoonist, journalist and reviewer collaborated with such publications as Black Flag, Z-Revue, the Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, Anarchy Magazine, as well as taking part in radio and TV productions dedicated to the history of anarchism. The interest in the “loud” events in which Latvian anarchists were involved was therefore only a matter of time.

The completion and publication of the book does not at all mean that Ruff’s interest in Peter the Painter and other revolutionaries of 1905 has been exhausted. He is full of determination to find a publisher also in Great Britain, and he is still not satisfied that he has found out everything to the end.

8 August, 2012

From: Translated by: Irene Huls.