Facts against myths [Book review]

Philip Ruff’s book deconstructs all the myths (or rather, lies) about Anarchism in a quiet, convincing story, richly supported by historical facts.

Filips Rufs. Pa stāvu liesmu debesīs : Nenotveramā latviešu anarhista Pētera Māldera laiks un dzīve [Philip Ruff. On A Towering Flame to Heaven – The life and times of the elusive Latvian anarchist Peter the Painter]. Dienas Gramata, 2012, 320. pp.

Philip Ruff’s book about the Latvian anarchist Janis Zhaklis dispels some myths which have been intentionally created to cover up the factual smithereens, which for many dozens of years had been presented as the true history of the 1905 revolution. In Soviet times, school history text-books and other publications for readers interested in this period, studiously used phrases like “chaotic riots”, “disorganised peasant uprisings”, etc. These text-book texts were usually illustrated by dull drawings and picture reproductions – for the most part of peasants, armed with pitchforks and spades against the background of a burning castle; among them usually at least one woman with heaving breasts, whose task was to symbolise the chaotic, instinctive origin of the dramatic event. And, of course, the main force of the 1905 revolution – the illiterate, lost and confused Latvian peasants, whose CV in the best case could boast of a few years of winter primary school.

The purpose of such interpretations is clear – they were meant to show the Bolsheviks as the only true liberators of oppressed nations and workers against the background of the 1905 events.

Taking a few separate events from the revolution, like the “Bloody Sunday” of the 13th of January and various peasant uprisings and castle immolations – Soviet interpreters of history turned the 1905 revolution into a chain of chaotic events, skilfully concealing any trace of the logical interconnectedness of events, which could bear witness to the true organisation and leadership, or even – God forbid – any presence of ideological basis in those events.

Connecting the shattered fragments

First of all, Philip Ruff’s book removes the foggy veil from the dull, lacklustre reproductions in those text-books; it purposefully and methodically draws the connection between the seemingly disparate events and gives them a logical, fact-based and completely different content and interconnectedness.

Like a master of popular “puzzles”, in the course of many years the author found and identified the scattered and before now partly hidden fragments, and put them together in an easily comprehensible, unified picture, in which countless people and events are interconnected, and where everything acquires meaning. And the “attack on the Secret Police” stops being just a romanticised (which makes it hardly believable) story in various literary works and films – it is now clearly defined in time and place, it acquires the “realness” of a historical fact, its true dimensions and significance. Also the main character of the book Janis Zhaklis (Peter the Painter) and his comrades are not some kind of illiterate peasants or starving factory workers – Zhaklis freely speaks six languages, finds his way with fighting weapons, is a great planner and organiser, can see and utilise the weak points of the enemy – and most of his comrades are just as accomplished.

Zhaklis, Svars, Eliass and others do not in the least remind us of those confused, unmanageable, disorganised and driven by personal circumstance rebels of the 1905 revolution, who were in need of an ideologically strong and in every way objectively decided leader like the Bolshevik party with Lenin at the head, – whose struggle was not crowned by victory only because in 1905 they did not have such a leader. All these myths (or rather, lies) Philip Ruff’s book deconstructs in a quiet, convincing story, richly supported by historical facts.

Anarchism – from Greek anarchia, no government – is a political teaching about a social order when there is no coercive state power and relationships among people are determined by free agreement. Anarchism bans not only the state, but also any power of the majority over the minority as well.” (Latvian Conversation Dictionary, ed. by A. Gulbis, Vol. I, p.474).

Anarchism is a political viewpoint, that society needs no government, laws, police or any other coercive power, in which all members of society have to be free. But it does not mean that order would not be needed: the majority of anarchist theories are based on a very strict and symmetrical order; only these theories consider that this kind of order is achievable through cooperation.” (“The Dictionary of Ideas”, Zvaigzne ABC, 1995, p.15).

Anarchism – from Greek “no government” – is a petty-bourgeois political current, hostile to scientific socialism. The philosophical idea of Anarchism is based on individualism, subjectivism and voluntarism. Anarchists seek to abolish any kind of state power, they ban political parties of the working class, deny their political struggle and the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (“Political Encyclopaedia”, 1987, GER, p.24.)

Another myth deconstructed by Ruff’s book is the myth about anarchists – or, to be more exact, the hushing-up of all information about them. A notion is created – through the use of long indirect references, episodic snapshots and names deleted from history – of some restless, half-drunk nihilists abiding somewhere in Russia, who have those fuzzy inflammatory ideas, spit in the rivers and waver, who have nothing that is holy to them and whose inebriated brains are full of nascent hatred towards the Bolsheviks.

Before the publication of Ruff’s book, next to nothing or very little was known about what really lies at the basis of anarchist ideas – to say nothing about the 1905 revolution in Latvia being led by convinced anarchists. During interviews with Latvian journalists in connection with the publication of his book, Philip Ruff is completely open about the fact that his sympathies lie with the anarchist movement; in his book he mentions only facts and concrete persons, who show the way Latvian anarchists operated and at the same time allow us to note the difference between anarchism and terrorism, of which anarchists are often accused (Please see interview with the author Anarhistu pēddzinis [The Anarchists’ Pathfinder] in Kultūras Diena, No. 31, p.5).

When we compare all three encyclopaedia definitions which were published at different times, the difference in the explanation of the meaning of anarchism is unmistakable. The key words here are “a hostile to scientific socialism petty-bourgeois political current”.

Didn’t hatred of Bolsheviks and the dismissive attitude of Soviet ideologues also lurk in the attitude to the “national question”, promulgated by Latvian anarchists in their publications? “Although Latvian anarchists proudly called themselves “internationalists”, they were still convinced that for a small nation class struggle and the struggle for national liberation were indivisibly intertwined: “Waging a ceaseless war on exploitation – its foundation Private Property, and its citadel – the State, we at the same time are fighting for the freedom and independence of our people. There is no other solution to the national question, and cannot be…” (P. Ruff, p.225).

Reading Ruff’s book, especially its last chapters about the fate of Peterss, Salnin’sh and other Bolsheviks and Chekists, about the probable turn the life of Zhaklis took after the events described in this book, a thought comes to mind: is there a thin borderline – does it exist at all – behind which the ideas and struggles for which we at some point consciously choose, take over and turn us into their instrument, leaving us with no choice or hope – and which obliterate, devour us in the end?

Indirectly, Ruff provides us with an answer: such a borderline does exist; it only depends on one’s sense of honour, conscience and understanding.

[Translated by Irene Huls]


Anna Galviņa interviews Philip Ruff, 3 August, 2012 (English language), Diena TV, 28 August, 2012. http://www.diena.lv/diena-tv/izklaide-makslas/britu-rakstnieks-filips-rufs-par-latviesu-anarhistu-peteri-malderu-13964757

Anarhistu pēddzinis (The Anarchists’ Pathfinder), first published (abridged), Kultūras Diena, No. 31 (277), 17 August, 2012. Full text KD online, 24 August, 2012

Andris Straumanis, Mystery of London’s Peter the Painter solved in British author’s book, Latvians Online, 18 August, 2012 http://latviansonline.com/blogs/article/8308/

Pauls Bankovskis, Anarhista atgriesanas (The Return of the Anarchist), Satori.LV, 8 August, 2012
English translation: http://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/2v6xs3

From: Kultûras Diena. Laikraksta Diena Pielikums NR. 34 (280) / A supplement to the newspaper Diena, Riga, 7 September, 2012. Translated by: Irene Huls.