August 18, 2012
The infamous “Siege of Sidney Street” of January 1911, in which a pair of armed Latvian anarchists held off British police and soldiers until they perished in a fire, left an enduring mystery: Who was Peter the Painter?
Anarchist historian Philip Ruff (Filips Rufs) has finally answered that question in the new book, Pa stāvu liesmu debesīs, published this week by Rīga-based Dienas Grāmata.
Peter the Painter was assumed to be the leader of a Latvian anarchist cell operating in London’s East End, but questions about his identity and whereabouts dogged British authorities and authors for decades, leading to both fiction and non-fiction accounts of his exploits. But as Ruff tells it, he was the first one to travel to Latvia to seek a definitive answer.
Peter the Painter was in fact Jānis Žākle, a well-known anarchist leader in Rīga who fled the city with his compatriots after a number of terroristic attacks in 1906 made them the focus of Czarist authorities.
In London, he was in charge of a small band of Latvians who in December 1910 attempted to break into a jewelry shop. Their effort failed when police were alerted to loud noises coming from the building next door. Rather than surrendering, the Latvians opened fire and killed three officers. One of their own also was fatally wounded.
The manhunt that ensued led to the Jan. 3, 1911, siege of 100 Sidney Street, where two of the gang were holed up. The gunfight lasted several hours until the house caught fire and the two men died. Among those on the scene was Winston Churchill, who at the time was Britain’s home secretary.
However, Peter the Painter remained at large. Ruff’s research into Žākle’s true identity as well as the social history of the Latvian anarchists began in the 1980s. It has taken him to various sources in Britain and Latvia. Ruff even learned the Latvian language so that he could perform his research, but his Latvian-born wife, Irēne Huls, has helped, too.
Ruff wrote the book in English. It was translated to Latvian by Lauris Gundars. The 288-page book is illustrated with photographs from British, Latvian and personal archives.
Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000-2012 he was editor of the website.