The Siege of Sidney Street


Press and articles on Phil Ruffs research on the Siege of Sidney Street


JAUNA GAITA, # 264, Spring 2011: Article on Latvian anarchists and the Siege of Sidney Street

Below is an article translated into English looking at the Latvian anarchists who took part in the siege. You can find a link to the original Latvian at the end of the text.

„Karogs” (July/August 2010) published an interview with Otto Ozols, a previously unknown Latvian writer, who has written a book called „Latvians Are Everywhere”. Some fragments from this book were published in „Karogs”, and the book itself has also been published (Riga, Atena 2010, 350 p.). As Berelis writes, this book „mixes together true facts and fiction without any regard for reality”. Still, it does make one start thinking about a thing or two. Some Finn told Ozols once: „You know, anyone can step into shit once in a while, but Latvians seem to do it all the time!”

Ozols said to Berelis in his interview: „So I started thinking about it, did a lot of reading and research about what situations Latvia and Latvians got themselves into in the XX century and concluded that the percentage of global tumult, scandal and attemts to change the course of history is unnaturally high” (in the Latvian case).

One example of this global scandal was the famous robbery by Latvian anarcho-communists, or as the anarchists themselves prefer to call it, an „expropriation” attempt in London exactly a 100 years ago, at the end of 1910-beginning of 1911. Already before this attempt this anarchist group was carrying out robberies. The leadership of the Latvian Social Democratic Party had also supported such robberies earlier, in the times of the 1905 revolution, in order to get funds for the purchase of guns, to sustain living abroad and to strengthen the revolutionary movement at home. One of the most well-known examples of such robbery was an armed attack on the Russian Bank in Helsingfors on the 13th of November, 1906, when people were killed. The famous Latvian painter Gederts Eliass the Museum in Jelgava is named after, took part in this and other attacks.

Latvian anarchists in London decided to rob a jeweller’s shop on the 16th of December 1910. This attempt failed, but the robbers shot dead 3 unarmed policemen and wounded several others. The robbers managed to escape together with a wounded comrade who had been shot by accident and whose body was found the next day in some flat belonging to a Jewish family, where Jekabs Peters lived together with his cousin Fricis Svars. (Peters later became Deputy Chairman of Lenin’s Cheka, assistant of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Chairman of the Revolutionary Tribunal, and in 1938 Peters was shot by the executioners of the Soviet Secret Police which he himself had headed for many years).

It was clear from the documents, found by the police, that these anarchists were members of a Latvian anarcho-communist group „Liesma”, whose leader, or chief (as mentioned in the 1st volume of the monumental Memorial Book published in Moscow in 1933) was Janis Zhaklis, or Zhakle. In 1905 he was Head of the Fighting Organisation of the Riga Federative Committee of  Social-Democratic organisations, and a mamber of the Central Committee of the Latvian Social-Democratic party. The Federative Committee included members of the Latvian Social Democracy and the Jewish Bund. During the 1905 revolution Zhaklis personally took part in the shooting of Baltic barons hostages and other enemies of the revolution. He also led the successful attack on the Riga Central Prison in the night from the 6th to the 7th of September 1905.

Police managed to find out where the escaped anarchists were hiding, and seeing that this kind of murder of policemen in London had never happened before, the British government and police were determined to do everything in their power to catch these terrorists. On the 3rd of January, 1911, the block of houses where the anarchists were hiding, was surrounded by a large number of police and Scotts Guards – some sources quote their number as high as 750 soldiers. This siege, which became known as the Siege of Sidney Street, was personally overseen by Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), the British Home Secretary at the time. Churchill described this event in his book „Thoughts and Adventure: Amid These Storms” (1932). This is what he wrote about Janis Zhaklis, or Peter the Painter, as he became known in England:  „He was one of those wild beasts, who in later years, amid the convulsions of the Great War, were to devour and ravage the Russian State and people..”

The Siege ended with the house burning down and the death of two anarchists. There is little and contradictory information on the further fate of the group’s leader Zhaklis, who managed to escape with two other anarchists. The most plausible theory is that he escaped to Australia, where up till today some of his descendants live.

Initially, Zhaklis was a member of the Latvian Social-Democratic party, but after the bloody repression of the 1905 revolution, he became the leader of the Latvian Anarcho-Communist group, or party. It should be mentioned, that Latvian anarchists also published a whole range of periodic publications. Today the following are known: Briviba (1908-1913, which at first was published in New York, in 1909 in Paris, and after that again in New York); Melnais Karogs (1911-1914, published intermittently in both New York and Paris); Melnie Smiekl’i (1907, Riga), Naids (Hatred) (1908 – edited in Manchester, England, and published in Paris).

The story of the Siege of Sidney Street for many years inspired the interest of writers specialising in British criminal history, but who didn’t know much about Latvian anarchists and Latvian history. The following publications should be mentioned: J.P. Eddy. The Mystery of Peter the Painter. The Story of the Houndsditch Murders, the Siege of Sidney Street (1946); Donald Rumbelow. The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street. (1973); Colin Rogers. The Battle of Stepney. The Sidney Street Siege (1981). Even several films were made, for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew too Much (1934) and Jimmy Sangster’s Siege of Sidney Steet (1960).

A more serious investigation into the activities of Latvian anarchists in England and the role of their leader Janis Zhaklis in those events was started many years ago by Phil Ruff, an English historian with an anarchist slant (tendency to anarchism). He sought information about these events and the people involved in the Riga Archives, he also met Pauls Bankovskis, the author of the novel „Mr. Latvia” (2002), which contains references and fantasies about the Latvian anarchists  in London. Newspaper SestDiena (2003.11.X) published Bankovski’s article „Melnais Pēteris” about this anarchist leader. An English translation of this article can be found on the Internet:  Peter the Painter (Janis Zhaklis) and the Siege of Sidney Street. Judging by Phil Ruff’s articles, he has finished his book The Siege of Sidney Street. A Towering Flame. The Life & Times of Peter the Painter. Taking into account the 100th anniversary of the Siege of Sidney Street, it is quite possible that the book will be published shortly. The short introduction (summary) to the book Phil Ruff ends, partly exculpating the deeds of Latvian anarchists, with the words of the well-known poem by Vizma Belshevica „Indriķa Latvieša piezīmes uz Livonijas hronikas malām”:

I want to burn...
To climb towards heaven on a towering flame
And scream out the injustice by which my
With fiery iron was beset and slaughtered.
The original Latvian version from Vizmas Belševica’s poem:

Es gribu sadegt....
Pa stāvu liesmu uzkāpt debesīs
Un izkliegt netaisnību, kurā mana tauta
Ar dzelzi kvēlojošu nīdēta un kauta.
Belshevica does not write „I want to burn things down”, she writes „I want to burn myself down” ... Whatever its poetic value and significance in the times when this poem was written, from the point of view of historical facts, this poem is nonsensical. The Latvian people or nation did not exist in the 13th century, as is presumed in the English translation. It came into existence only when the various Baltic and Liv tribes merged together over many centuries later. According to the Indrik’is Livonian Chronicles, Latvians, or Latgalls, initially were the main supporters and assistants of the crusaders in their conquest and inclusion of the territory, presently occupied by Latvia and Estonia, in the European political, social and religious structures. It should also be mentioned that the author of "Livonian Chronicles" Indrik'is was not a Latvian. The quote from Vizma Belshevica, used by Phil Ruff when writing about the 20-th century Latvian anarchists, is misplaced. But Otto Ozols, the author of the book "Latvians Are Everywhere", is right -- in the 20th century Latvians did get involved in more than their fair share of global scandals and hullaboola.
Janis Kreslin'sh, Sr. writes for Jauna Gaita and at the end of last year was awarded an ALA (American Latvian Association) Honourary Certificate for his contribution to social work.

Original Latvian article

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