See how Latvians BURN when they catch fire!

At times we Latvians are proud of our history, can defend our positions and stand our ground. Like, for example, in the question about recognising the fact of occupation. At times we choose not to mention certain facts, or speak very little about them. Like in the question about Latvian anarchists. We sort of know who “strel’k’i” were and what they did in Titel’ swamps and on the Death Island, we know that Red Riflemen guarded Lenin and made the revolution. Some of us maybe remember the Krustin’son sisters and the tiny little memorial flats where “Cin’a” had been kept. [1]

If we are not historians, our knowledge for the most part ends here. Well, maybe some of us have seen the “Strelnieku Zvaigznais”, a film made by the famous Juris Podnieks. But there are still white and greyish spots in our history which are hardly filled with colour, and one of them is Latvian anarchists and their activities. Already in the coming summer a voluminous work written by an English researcher Philip Ruff — “The Life and Times of Peter the Painter” – is expected to come out, which at the moment is being prepared for publication by “Dienas Gramata” in the translation of dramatist Lauris Gundars.

The crazy stormy century – nineteenth.

This was the time when in the whole world, and also in the Russian empire, industry developed and flourished. Coupled with the abolition of serfdom, this led to 1) the flooding of cities with masses of people from the countryside, 2) growth in the level of education of the workers, 3) a growing dissatisfaction with the existing social order, when a few had everything while the rest had only their bare lives.

Probably, the educators of workers in those days – Karl Marx with his “Capital” and the spiritual fathers of the new anarchist movement William Godwin and Peter Kropotkin, did not have an inkling what a storm their works would produce. At the end of the XIX century workers, and even peasants, especially the younger generation, were no longer content to live their lives like obedient sheep. Their minds were taken over by ideas which only a century before turned Paris and the whole of France into a flaming sea of fire, which smothered the young republic in its own blood. But the idea of freedom, brotherhood and equality survived. This especially concerns those provinces of tsarist Russia, where the wielders of power had long been stamping the ethnic and human dignity into the ground. At the turn of the XIX and XX centuries in many corners of the Russian empire, among them in Latvia and in Riga, various revolutionary-minded groups were active. Their nucleus was made up by the educated – teachers, students, graduates of gymnasia [high schools].

Without going too deeply into the situation in general, I will tell you about some anarchists, whose footprints had almost disappeared from the annals of history – until that moment when a British anarchist researcher Philip Ruff became interested in their lives (fates).

At first they were not anarchists at all, and they did not even call themselves as such – they were active members of the LSDSP [Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party] and Bund [the Jewish workers Bund (affiliated to the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party as an autonomous organisation for Jewish socialists)]. Both these organisations in the period of 1905-1906 were fighting shoulder to shoulder. And Philip Ruff in his book “The Life and Times of Peter the Painter” closely examines (follows) the bitter and sometimes excessively bloody road, chosen by Latvian and other revolutionaries in their struggle for what they believed in.

Looks like Peter the Painter!

The English grandmother of little Philip used to say about foreign, suspicious types: “Look, what a nasty guy, he looks exactly like that Peter the Painter!” And the boy already from childhood became intrigued: who could this mysterious Painter be – some robber or a folk hero? Later, as he grew, he learned that his childhood bogey man had been a real person – one of those men, who at the end of 1910 tried to rob a jeweller’s shop in Houndsditch in London, and when their plans fell through, shot several unarmed policemen and one of their own – Hartmanis, who died the same night from an accidental, but deadly gunshot wound in the back.

Of course, such actions could not go unpunished, and the search for the fugitives was extremely intensive; a few days later a conscientious citizen (who, by the way, was an acquaintance of the persons involved!) for a little but honestly earned reward informed the police that the robbers were hiding in some house in Sidney Street.

Considerable police forces were immediately dispatched to the scene, the whole street was besieged and, to the great delight and excitement of curious Londoners, the hunt for the bandits followed by smoking them out, was opened.

At first it was decided to let the criminals surrender, but because they did not enter into any negotiations and were shooting with great precision and threatened the besiegers, the house in which they were hiding was set on fire. According to the informer’s information, there were at least 3 men hiding in the building – as the smoke from the fire increased, the men were expected to surrender at any moment. But nothing of the sort…

When the house in Sidney Street was finally taken, the body of Fricis Svars, who had been overcome by smoke, was found on the ground floor – as well as the body of Josef Sokolov, who had been shot in the head.

Thus ended the Siege of Sidney Street, and the indictment proceedings in the Houndsditch murders case started. The prosecution was trying to prove that the following people took part in the bloody robbery attempt: Jekabs Peters (witnesses affirmed that he was one of the shooters), Juris Laivin’sh, Janis Celin’sh, Alfred Dzirkalis, Osip Fedorov, Sara Trasjonska, N’ina Vasil’jeva and L’uba Milstein (the girlfriend of the fallen Fricis Svars, who later gave birth to his son).

The events in Sidney Street helped in justifying the defendants in the Houndsditch murders trial a great deal – the death of Svars and Sokolov, as well as the escape abroad of the suspects Max Smoller and Peter Piatkov – Peter the Painter, or Janis Zhaklis, — created difficulties for the court in the reconstruction of true events, because it was not clear how many people at all took part in the Houndsditch events. The prosecution pointed out that 4 men and 1 woman were involved there – but then it turned out that if all the defendants were found guilty, one of the victims in Sidney Street would have been innocent, which would have a damaging effect on the Home Secretary’s Winston Churchill’s reputation and further career.

That is why all defendants were set free without excessive publicity, but Peter the Painter remained on the wanted list, and his real story was enveloped in mystery until very recent times, when Philip Ruff, who had been researching anarchist activities in recent history all his life, after long searches, it seems, has managed to find and put together the tiny pieces of this historical puzzle, and convincingly identify him.

Mission Impossible

A photograph preserved in the archives of the Occupation Museum [Actually the Museum of the Revolution – now the Latvian War Museum - PR ] has led to the story of Peter the Painter’s life from the time when he was born into a fascinating family in Jaunlutrini until the last moment when his footsteps were lost on the endless roads of the wide world.

But the beginning was like this: a restless, well-educated and hot-headed youth got involved in the revolutionary movement, became one of the main organisers of the LSDSP in Latvia and later also in other parts of the world. Just for a taster, here are a couple of shortened accounts of events described in the coming book.

Before Janis Zhaklis left Latvia for good, he managed to pull off such “jobs” which later (at least, in the schools of Soviet Latvia) were widely spoken about with pride: how revolutionaries in the distant year of 1905 were so strong and heroic, that they even attacked the Riga Central Prison to free some of their comrades. To say the truth, the names of the participants (of this action) did not remain in my memory, but now with the help of Philip Ruff I learned that the daring organiser was Mernieks himself – or, in other words, Janis Zhaklis, or Peter the Painter. This story borders on nothing short of a wonder for two reasons: firstly, the Central Prison was very heavily guarded; and secondly, the organisation of such action was a great risk because the number of participants was very big and in the event of capture and torture, any of the fighters could disclose information and the plan would fall through. Still, Janis Zhaklis risked it. It needs to be remembered, that in the distant 1905 the Riga Central Prison was the most modern prison in the whole of tsarist Russia – it even had… central heating! In the course of 2 years (1906-1907) at least 200 revolutionaries were executed there.

And it was in this Central Prison that two workers and revolutionaries – Julijs Shlesers and Janis Lacis were imprisoned and condemned to sure death. This operation proves what a daring and at the same time great organiser Janis Zhaklis was, and the coming book describes it in the following way: “On the night of Sept.7th 1905, 52 armed fighters of the Federative Committee – members of the LSDSP as well as the Bund — gathered together at the Matisa Cemetery next to the Prison. Their commander was Janis Zhaklis –”fearless comrade with a great fighting experience”, remembers one of the fighters by name of Eduards Medne. Zhaklis divided the fighters into 4 groups.

In order to prevent the prison guards and the cavalry soldiers from leaving the administrative block, the biggest group of fighters was located by the wooden fence next to the gate leading to this block. So that other military units could not come to the help of the prison guards, a second group of fighters blocked the main road leading to the prison. The third group consisted of only 5 men – they cut all the telephone cables in the prison. And finally the 4th group, among whom was also Medne, who knew the layout of the prison from the inside, received the task to get inside the prison.

Nobody ever did this before

And so they managed to get inside this heavily guarded prison. Despite a few unexpected slipups, they found the two comrades and, like in a real cowboy film, they shot the locks off their cells and freed them. The noise of shooting of course made the liberation of other prisoners impossible, for all the guards came running. Still, they could not even hope for such a brilliant outcome – Shlesers and Lacis escaped from prison and the claws of death, but of the 52 fighters who took part in the operation, there safely returned… all of them! Good luck? Organisational talent? It is not possible to check this out, because even up to this day no one has ever attempted to break in to the Central Prison again.

But this was not all! A few months later, in January 1906, the LSDSP was shaken by a severe blow – within a couple of days the Okhranka managed to arrest several leading comrades: Janis Luters-Bobis, Theodore Kalnin’sh, Martin Grundbergs and a close friend of Janis Zhaklis, Peteris Lapsa. At the same time, 14 less important fighters who had not been taking part in the planning and coordination of actions, but their comrades were not indifferent to their fate either. When the news of mass arrests reached the revolutionaries outside, they decided to free their comrades.

Also this plan bordered on madness – the captured fighters were locked up in the cells of the Okhranka’s Main Police Directorate. What other place is safer from attack than this, all the time swarming with agents and soldiers, where on the upper floors of the building 160 armed soldiers were housed, while a whole division of Cossacks and dragoons were put up in the hotel across the road…

This time the attack was led by Jekabs Dubelshteins, but Janis Zhaklis and painter Gederts Eliass (who later briefly was wrongly thought to be Peter the Painter) also took part. And also this time they were lucky! Well, not as brilliantly as in the attack on the Central Prison, but of the 18 prisoners they managed to free 6: J.Lutrers-Bobis, Th.Kalnin’sh, M. Grundbergs, Fricis Svars, Janis Paegle and Peteris Krastin’sh. Peteris Lapsa and other prisoners who didn’t manage to escape were shot a couple of days later during transportation to the Central Prison in a faked-up attempt to escape.

No staying on in Latvia!

Of course, staying in Latvia after such events threatened the most active participants with death – most probably, slow and painful. That is why Zhaklis and others went to St. Petersburg, where they got involved in the revolutionary movement of the Russian workers. And received their next fighting task from Lenin himself – to expropriate, or putting it simply, to rob the Helsinki Branch of the Russian State Bank.

Thus, 30 revolutionaries – among them also our hero (character) Zhaklis, set off for Finland. A story about bank robberies is seldom nice and beautiful – and without victims.

After the robbery, which brought £17,000 to the Party budget, the participating fighters scattered.[2] Zhaklis’ road took him to Germany on a gun-buying mission for further struggle.

Under such circumstances the relationship between the LSDSP and Janis Zhaklis and his closest comrades was defined (crystallized) – it seems, that the men, who almost every day looked death into the eyes and had experienced the death of so many of their friends and comrades, were sick and tired of the policy of appeasement (moderation) pursued by the party’s leadership. Janis Zhaklis becomes more and more sympathetic to the anarchist ideas and on his return to Latvia becomes the main ideologist of anarchism and founder of the Latvian anarchist movement.

But his return to Latvia was not for long — police and Okhranka followed him on his footsteps. Janis goes to Pskov, and from there via America (yes, exactly so – via America – in 1909 a beautiful photograph was made in Philadelphia, the same photograph which appeared on the wanted poster which later decorated all the street corners in London in the search for Peter the Painter!), Switzerland and Marseille – to London.

The American period in the life of Latvian terrorists is also a big story, in which many of the boys mentioned in Philip Ruff’s book played a major part. In this story they also made many expropriation attempts. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but our terrorists became notorious in Germany as well as in the New World. Sometimes they killed, sometimes managed without victims – but the bloodletting did not constitute an obstacle to these fanatical fighters for justice on their way to their goal.

London. Liesma. The End and the Beginning.

On arrival in London, which was swarming with numerous revolutionary refugees from tsarist Russia of various nationalities and allegiances — social-democrats as well as anarchists, Janis Zhaklis founded an anarchist group “Liesma”. They were busy with procurement of funds to support revolutionaries in Latvia, to buy arms, publish illegal literature and transport it to Latvia. Money procurement was at the basis of everything. Many successful robberies were carried out, newspapers were printed and a bright future was planned… Love couples were formed (there is a large number of pages in the book “The life and times of Peter the Painter” devoted to them – reading those, it seems that “Romeo and Juliet” is not at all the saddest tale ever told, as Shakespeare claimed…)

Everything changed on a grey day in December 1910. Janis Zhaklis, Hartmanis, Fricis Svars and Jekabs Peterss rented a house in Houndsditch, next to a jeweller’s shop and were preparing to rob it, breaking through the wall. [The writer is mistaken here – Peters had no part in the Houndsditch robbery - PR]. The noise caused by these activities, attracted the attention of several policemen, and they turned up to ask what was going on. One of the men lost his nerve and he opened fire. As a result of the shoot-out 4 unarmed policemen were killed, as well as one of the robbers. This was followed by the already mentioned Siege of Sidney Street and the trial, after which the high tide of Latvian terrorists was gone (the blooming time had passed).

Most of them had perished. Some emigrated to the USA. Jekabs Peterss came to his end in Soviet Russia, having been in time to spill the blood of thousands of people before then. But what about Janis Zhaklis? Maybe someone among you knows the answer?

As Philip Ruff tells us, he has several believable versions of further events in the life of Janis Zhaklis – but those will be made known in the book.


1 [“Strelnieki” (Strelnieks, literally is Shooter/Shootist) were the Latvian Riflemen, originally raised in 1915. After the October revolution, the Latvian riflemen (who could not return to German-occupied Latvia after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk) were the main military force the Bolsheviks relied on. Titel’ swamps and on the Death Island were famous battles in WWI. “Cina” (Struggle) was the illegally printed LSDSP newspaper.]

2 [The proceeds of the February 1906 bank job in Helsinki amounted to 170,000 roubles (the equivalent then of £17,000 - a fantastic sum for the time). Some of the money was recovered by the police but the Latvians got away with 150,000 roubles (which they used to buy arms in Europe ) - 10,000 roubles of this money went to Lenin.]

The Life and Times of Peter the Painter” is out in Riga early August 2012, published by Dienas Gramata.

From: Sestdiena, the Saturday colour supplement of Diena (main daily newspaper in Latvia), Saturday 10 March 2012. Translated by: Irene Huls.