Baltic Sea

International Man of Mystery, Peter the Painter / Article


With the lockdown, the health system in crisis and skyrocketing bills, Latvians are going through a difficult time. But the current problems are a breeze compared to what previous generations had to deal with.

The Latvian phrase “it’s as crazy as 1905” suggests some of these headaches. It is indicative of a year of strikes, protests and violent repression that swept across the country as part of a wider revolution in the Russian Empire.

The turbulence of that time spread far over the coasts of the Baltic Sea. After the revolution, some Latvians who fled brutal reprisals by the tsarist authorities found a safe haven in Britain. But instead of leading a quiet life there, they turned to crime to fund their cause.

On December 16, 1910, police broke into a break-in at a jewelry store in Houndsditch, London. The robbers shot three unarmed bobbies and left two injured, causing panic over foreign terrorists in the UK.

A few weeks later, some suspects were cornered in a house on Sidney Street in London’s East End. The then Home Secretary Winston Churchill found the outlaws so dangerous that he ordered army units and broke tradition by giving firearms to the police.

After several hours of shooting, one of the first ever movie news items, the house caught fire. While the remains of two men were found in the ruins, it was believed that their leader somehow escaped the inferno.

This mysterious figure called “Peter the Painter” became a legend. Books and films are dedicated to him, and there has been speculation about his true identity for decades.

Up in your arms

In the late 1980s when glasnost Having eased tensions between East and West, the British historian Philip Ruff came to Riga to solve the mystery. As an avowed “retired anarchist†who dealt with urban guerrilla movements in the 1970s, he clearly has a weakness for troublemakers.

“All of the English writers on the Siege of Sydney Street agreed that they were Latvians,” he says. “But no one had ever thought of going to Latvia to do research or at least consult Latvian sources.”

One of Philip’s first stops was a place that few people voluntarily visited – the KGB headquarters in Riga. He explains this step with a classic one-liner: “I interviewed you – mostly it’s the other way around.†But that was just the beginning of years of research.

Historian Philip Ruff in Riga, 2021

Photo: Philip Birzulis

Philip’s breakthrough came when he found an original photo in the Latvian War Museum of a man who was the likeness of famous “search posters†for Peter the painter. And on the back of the photo there was a name – JÄnis ŽÄklis.

The story of ŽÄklis ​​was so fascinating that Philip eventually wrote a book about him called “A towering flame: the life and times of the elusive Latvian anarchist Peter the painter“, Which was published in English and Latvian. It is the story of an extraordinary character in a dramatic time and place.

The 1905 revolution began in Latvia on January 13, 1905 when Cossacks attacked a peaceful demonstration on the Daugava River in Riga, killing dozens of people. Subsequently, the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, which despite its illegality was one of the largest political organizations in the Russian Empire, founded an armed unit to defend against state violence. JÄnis ŽÄklis ​​was named its leader.

ŽÄklis, who grew up on a farm in Kurzeme, had an exciting year in 1905, to say the least. He led attacks on the central prison and the headquarters of the secret police in Riga in order to free imprisoned comrades. He and his men prevented attempts by right-wing extremist groups from Russia to carry out a pogrom in Riga’s Jewish quarter. And he went on trips to the countryside to help the rebels in the provinces.

At the end of 1905, Latvian revolutionaries were so successful that the country was ruled by two rulers. But it did not last, because in 1906 the Tsar sent thousands of troops to brutally suppress the uprising. ŽÄklis ​​and many others had to flee their homeland.

Most of the 1905 revolutionaries who stayed at home chose to work in the limited democracy the Tsar allowed after the turmoil subsided. But ŽÄklis ​​and other exiles felt that the armed struggle had to continue and began to identify as anarchists. It is known that ŽÄklis ​​led a clandestine existence in Finland, the United States, and Great Britain, but whether he was actually on Sidney Street on that fateful day in 1911 will never be known.

JÄnis klis

Photo: Philip Ruff

But Philip believes that ŽÄklis ​​eventually made a great personal escape. Like most of his comrades, he avoided execution or prison and emigrated to Australia, where he spent his life in the dark.

Villain or hero?

Philips’ relationship with Latvia has deepened over the years. Eventually he married his research translator IrÄ“na. He is currently writing a historical novel based on events in Latvia during World War II and revolutionary groups in Germany in the 1970s.

And he wants Latvians to rediscover their own past wrapped in the fog of Soviet-era propaganda. After the revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks liquidated many anarchists and claimed a role for themselves in movements in which they had little involvement.

According to Philip, the Latvians were rarely as united as they were in 1905 when they fought against aristocratic German landowners and the tsarist autocracy. And the emerging Latvian middle class was heavily involved in the cause, with former arsonists becoming respectable citizens of the independent republic in the interwar period.

“Almost every Latvian family has an ancestor who was involved in the events of 1905,” says Philip. “But they weren’t the stereotypical peasants with straws led by heroic Russian Bolsheviks – they were educated people too. ŽÄklis ​​spoke six languages ​​and his father was a relatively wealthy man. “

Another common view that Philip rejected is that the revolutionaries were criminals.

“The real terrorists were Russian state actors who ordered and carried out massacres,” he says. “Whatever violence was perpetrated by the fighting groups, armed resistance was also this state terror.”

Many of the events of 1905 described in Philip’s book, including bomb explosions, shootings, and mass demonstrations, took place in the GrÄ«ziņkalns district of Riga. This working-class neighborhood is the setting for the Latvian novel and film “VÄrnu ielas republika” about children who grow up during the revolution, as well as the last Latvian film “1906” about the last desperate days of the uprising. In the picture accompanying this story, Philip poses in front of a monument in GrÄ«ziņkalns dedicated to the masons, chimney sweeps and other craftsmen who built the area.

You can also learn more about JÄnis ŽÄklis, and maybe even contribute to his story yourself, at an exhibition currently on in Talsi (at least if we have ended the lockdown).