A story about a Latvian Anarchist [Book review]

We can sigh a sigh of relief – in the hands of a fanatical and meticulous researcher, the traps and riddles set by the Past in front of historians have been resolved so far as to strengthen our suspicion that Latvians really are EVERYWHERE! It was like this over a hundred years ago, when thousands of starving victims of political persecution poured onto the foreign roads and acquired new trade skills.

In his latest book, an English citizen and researcher of the anarchist movement Philip Ruff turned his attention to one of the most unbending masters of the trade – anarchist Peter the Painter: a hero of the 1905 revolution, and sadly notorious in England.

As is often the case when solving problematic questions, old stumbling blocks are usually the first to come up to the surface, when widespread popular and well-established views need to be overturned.

Two incidents – the attempted robbery of Harris’ jewellery shop in Houndsditch (1910) and the Siege of Sidney Street in London [1911] – reinforced Peter the Painter’s reputation as an elusive and wanted man. On both occasions Peter the Painter (alias Piatkov), who was described as the most dangerous of the perpetrators, managed to escape from bullets and the detectives’ attention. [Peter the Painter was not present at Houndsditch or Sidney Street.]

Most probably, after the bad luck he had experienced, Peter the Painter emigrated far away from the epicentre of events – to Australia. The early, as well as later, investigators, writers and film directors helped in the creation of the myth and its various modifications. To tell the truth, Philip Ruff himself once happened to spread false information – in 1988 he announced sensational news that Peter the Painter was actually the Latvian painter Gederts Eliass. But after a short while Philip Ruff through personal contacts and information from the Latvian archives managed to find enough documentary evidence to prove that Peter the Painter was Janis Zhaklis, born on the 19th of July 1883 in Svite, Lutrin’u parish.

The writer stresses the fact that researchers (of Peter the Painter’s legend) were themselves to blame for the persistence of the myth about the elusiveness of anarchist Peter the Painter, because they never thought of going to Latvia in search of the answers.

Ruff’s historical research is written in the best traditions of academic writing. It has a logical division into chapters, an analysis of sources and literature, a prologue and appendices. Looking through the footnotes and photos, one cannot help understanding why these particular parts of a book by general agreement constitute the favourite reading matter for historians.

Together with the adventurous nature of the main characters and their sinful deeds, the fast-moving and compact way of story-telling, which is more characteristic of the detective genre, seems to be effortlessly natural. Having quite successfully completed the description of the historical background of the first years of Painter’s life, the author swiftly and skilfully juggles the known and unexplained, mysterious facts and links, building a contrasting and veiled in mystery life curve of Peter the Painter.

Peter the Painter learned the basics of the revolutionary school first by observing the terrible injustices of life in the Latvian countryside, the wanton rule of the barons and the lack of basic rights for the peasants.

A revolutionary rebels, as Albert Camus wrote in his essay “The Rebel”, “because he categorically refuses to submit to conditions which he considers intolerable, and also because he is confusedly convinced that his position is justified – or rather, because in his own mind he thinks that he “has the right to…” (Albert Camus, “The Rebel”, Riga 2003, p.23). In further account of Painter’s personality, an almost identical and arch-typical chronology of the Rebel’s thought and action can be observed.

The “road to Calvary” of the revolutionary started with a few innocent proclamations, followed by armed action in cities and in the countryside. The culmination of his activities in Latvia was the 1905 revolution and the successful struggle against the Black Hundreds in the Jewish and workers’ quarters of Riga. [The “culmination” of Zhaklis’ activities in Latvia was NOT the fight against the Black Hundreds (October 1905), but the armed campaign waged by “Pats, vards un darbs” (summer 1906).] The tyranny of Orlov’s punitive expeditions in the Latvian countryside and the failure of the revolutionaries to defend themselves, caused a split in the Latvian Social Democracy, and even though Painter and other break-away revolutionaries never joined Lenin’s Bolsheviks, his and his comrades’ further course was determined by the vision of world revolution, professed by the Bolsheviks. Armed with a fervent belief in the victory of the revolution in Latvia, Painter and his group “Pats – Vards un Darbs!” carried out the expropriation of the Russian State Bank in Helsinki, acquired arms and printed papers with that money, which were then illegally transported to the Baltics. [Zhaklis was still a member of LSDSP when he robbed the Russian state bank at Helsinki (Feb. 1906). “Pats, vards un darbs” was only set up afterwards, when he returned to Riga( April 1906.)]

For the greater part, most Latvian anarchists who escaped abroad to the Old and the New World had chosen to follow this road of exporting the revolution.

In the next five years, a number of very loud and bloody burglaries committed by Latvian anarchists came to the attention of the wider public, which nonetheless did not bring the desired results. [The “burglaries” of the Latvians in UK included armed robberies (Motherwell & Tottenham).] Therefore via a Latvian community centre in London the above-mentioned expropriation in Houndsditch was organised, during which one of the anarchists – Hartmanis – got killed. Hiding from the police in some building in Sidney Street, Fricis Svars and Sokolovs were shot during the ensuing siege. After the siege, where a tragic-comical role had been played by the Home Office Minister at the time Winston Churchill, an even more unfortunate epilogue followed – a trial, during which almost nobody was found guilty, and which “later created an unprecedented number of breaches of law – a few years later Jekabs Peterss became one of the chief perpetrators of Red Terror in Russia, in the new Soviet Union” (p.202). The unfortunate course of events led to the destruction of the Latvian anarchist movement in the world. The remaining anarchists and activists, especially Jekabs Peterss and Kristaps Salnin’sh, came to develop dizzying careers in Russia, where Lenin was glad to surround himself with Latvian fighters who were old comrades-in-arms. [Peters and Salnin’sh were never anarchists.]

Thanks to his consistent anarchist views and unwillingness to join any political party, Peter the Painter escaped the sad fate which caught up with them in Stalin’s meat-mincer. However paradoxical it might seem, in the views of exactly this kind of fearless man, “class struggle and national liberation were an indivisible process for a small nation” (p. 224-225).

God knows whether in the oasis of peace which Peter the Painter might have found in some faraway Australian desert, he achieved the feeling of freedom which he desired, when he got the news of Latvian state independence. One of us (i.e. a Latvian) should take care that this wonderful story gets a sequel.

From: Latvju Teksti Nr.9. (Riga, September 2012). Translated by: Irene Huls.