Latvian Anarchism – The Story of the Peter the Painter

Peter the Piatkow or Jānis Žāklis wanted poster on January 30 1911

Peter the Piatkow or Jānis Žāklis wanted poster on January 30 1911

On January 3 1911 the fires of the Russian revolution reached the East End part of London. The British police was trying to arrest a group of politically motivated burglars with anarchist views from Russia. After many hours of erratic gunfight including artillery canons commanded by the Minister of the Interior Affairs Winston Churchill the two men of the gang were found dead, but the third one – supposed as the gang leader Peter the Painter or Peter Piatkow was nowhere to be found. The police started out a search, even placed wanted posters showing a photo of him. But, the notorious anarchist from Russia was nowhere to be found and his true identity was a mystery for many years. Various movies were made about him, many historians tried to find who really was this mysterious man. Yet, there is a reason why this blog post is dedicated to him. For the gang that caused so much trouble in London were not simply  anarchists from Russia. They were anarchists from modern-day Latvia, exiles of the revolution 0f 1905 – 1907. Anarchists were the pioneers of the modern-day terrorism long before Islamic radicals. And Latvians including the Peter the Painter were one of them. Thanks to historians such as Phillip Ruff the identity of the world-famous Peter the Painter became more clearer it was the Latvian artist and revolutionary known as Jānis Žāklis.

Jānis Žāklis was born in Saldus in 1883 a small town in the Courland province. According to Lutriņu parish church register book he was born on July 19. He had older brother Kārlis (1879) and older sister Anna (1880) and two younger sisters Šarlote Marija (1885) and Katrīna (1890). His possible cousin Kristaps Žāklis (1826-1889) was the illegitimate son of the German baron Heinrich von Mirbach and the maid Marija from the Neuhof mansion. She was forced to marry a Latvian called Ādams. A possible reason for the deep hatred of Germans within Jānis Žāklis. His father Jānis was a Latvian, but his mother Margrieta Tālberga according to official documents were a Lutheran Jew. A woman wealthy enough to buy a land from the baron, but disliked by the relatives of his husband because of her Jewish origins. Also a baptized Jew was usually excluded from her Jewish family circles.

Jānis Žāklis had a good education. First he went to Jaunmuiža school until the age of eleven. There he met teacher Gustavs Lācis later recognized as the participant of 1905 local uprisings. Jānis Žāklis then went to Kuldīga, had four years at the private school. At the age of sixteen he went to the German Classical gymnasium of Kuldīga. Money for education was provided by his father Jānis and uncle Juris Žāklis a colonel in the Russian engineer battalion located in Belarus.

A seemingly wealthy young student fluent in German, Russian, French and Yiddish was forced to quit his studies in 1901 and left Kuldīga. A reason was a poor health and not enough money. But, the good reading skills and intelligence lead to him to socialist ideas a common trend within Latvia brought from Germany. In 1901 he went to town of Talsi and met Jānis Linde the bookshop keeper. Together they founded the first illegal social democratic organization. Third man the 27-year-old Jūlijs Kažmers from Riga who made contacts with underground Baltic Latvian social democratic workers’ organization (BLSDWO). On 1902 Žāklis, Linde and Kažmers were leading the Talsi Committee of BLSDWO.

In 1903 the tsarist police caught a good friend of Žāklis Fricis Ratkalns. A 20-year-old student was spreading out leaflets of socialist slogans. He was reported by his schoolmate and arrested afterwards. Police made a search in and discovered his handwritten proclamations. He was tortured and forced to name Žāklis as the one who gave the proclamation text. Police tried to arrest Žāklis and searched him all across nearby areas. But, he was already in Belarus with his uncle in Babruysk. Belarus was no stranger to the revolutionary movement. In 1898 in Mensk the Russian Social Democratic workers party (RSDWP) was founded. Babruysk was a center of Jewish revolutionary party Bund activities. On 1903 Bund was already forming combat units to counter possible pogroms.

On May 1 1904 Babruysk workers made a general strike. The railway station was blocked, a crowd of 800 people with Jānis Žāklis along them. On May 28 he was arrested for spreading out illegal socialist literature. He was taken to local prison. His prison photograph perfectly resembles the man later seen in British police wanted posters. Žāklis wrote pleas of appeal to Courland provincial police. He was however accused together with Fricis Ratklans of anti-governmental activities. Ratkalns however managed to escape to Great Britain before the trial. The local Minsk authorities no longer needed him and set him free on April 27 after he paid the bailout sum of 300 rubles. Žāklis came to Valmiera in Vidzeme, but soon came to rural areas around Sabile in Courland. He was under police monitoring and made money as a house painter. Also to divert police attention he regularly wrote them about his poor health problems. Because he was far from giving up politics.

Jānis Žāklis in Belorussian prison

Jānis Žāklis in Belorussian prison

The Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party was founded in 1904 and had its Talsi-Tukums branch. Žāklis managed to sneak past his police monitoring and made in Riga at the end of 1904. As painter and artist he tried to enter the center of the Latvian political activities. The police finished the investigation, but failed to put him on trial since Ratkalns was gone. His case was closed so as the one in Belarus. On January 11 1905 police returned his personal documents. On January 13 a massive workers demonstration in Riga ended in bloodbath as the tzarist police fired at the crowd. The Revolution of 1905 in Latvia had begun.

Jānis Žāklis vanished from the police’s eyes and became a rogue. He was never again known by his real name, his undercover name was “surveyor”. A possible choice for such cover name was the famous Latvian novel by brothers Kaudzītes “The Times of Surveyors” where during the land reform a viscous bandit Grabovskis poses as surveyor and steals enourmos money and is failing to be caught causing many tragedies. Possibly inspired by the novel Žāklis chose such surname.

After the bloody events of January 13 where 64 people are known to be dead, Žāklis became an active member of Latvian Social Democrats. As the head of the Central Committee technical commission, that was responsible for making terrorist activities, Žāklis was assigned to gather weapons and money. A force of 200 men that robbed magazines and army patrols to gain weapons. In short time Žāklis was the commander of the revolutionary battle units. He was responsible for blowing up the Jelgava-Riga railroad and damaging the telegraph lines. On May 1 1905 a general strike was called. Despite social democrats refused to take an open part in it, fearing the armed tsarist patrols bombs killed police guards around the park of Grīziņkalns. The organizers were Žāklis and Pēteris Lapsa.  Since the official Marxist teachings forbidden the use of individual terror, that was most adjacent to anarchist moves of those times the Latvian Social Democrats on June 1905 decided to put an end to such activities.

Despite the LSDSWP calling not to start an open armed uprising, on the same time the Liepaja war sailors angered by the maggots in the meat begun an uprising, but were defeated. The armed actions were sporadic and caused tsarist authorities to strike back. On August 19 a state of emergency was called and many revolutionaries were arrested. Then on September Žāklis took the command of a rescue operation to release his comrades in the Riga Central Prison. Jūlijs Šleserrs and Jānis Lācis two senior fighters were sentenced to death. The large prison was assaulted on September 7 by 52 men from Latvian Social Democrats and the Jewish Bund. Žāklis was the commander. Four attack groups formed by him infiltrated the prison and managed to rescue Šlesers and Lācis. Under heavy gunfire the attackers made back to their safe houses achieving one of the most notable victories of the 1905 Revolution.

October – November of 1905 was a struglesome period. The general strike of October 13 and following Tzar Nicholas II manifesto promising open elections of the State Duma and the new constitution. The Riga was under the dual rule between the workers Federal Committee and the Tsarist authorities. Local Black Hundred was looking to start up pogroms against the Jews, on October 22 Žāklis with his comrades stopped the pogrom from taking place. Latvians social democrats managed to defeat the Black Hundred on the street battles on the next consequent days. Jews were rescued from the similar fate in Kiev, Kishinev and other cities across the Russian Empire.

A state of emergency was again called in December. Latvian countryside erupted in flames, mansions were burned, towns were taken over in gunfights. On November 24 Žāklis together with Lapsa arrived at Skrīveri from Riga and attacked the mansion of the Riga Regional General Governor August von Henning. The mansion was burned down and Henning was killed by the Žāklis orders. In following counter strike by the general Stern the revolutionaries crushed the tsarist forces. Only on December 1 reinforcements managed to crush the rebellion. But, Žāklis and Lapsa escaped killing the rest of senior tsarist officers. Bloody revenge made by the punitive expeditions killed thousands of Latvian peasants. But, Žāklis was gone was always.

Žāklis became more violent alienating his social democrat comrades not prone to such violence. On December 20 Žāklis organized a night raid on factory Provodnik that was occupied by raging Russian dragoons. To stop the constant abuse of the workers and even rapes, the revolutionaries surprised the sleeping dragoons murdering 17 and injuring 20 of them. All weapons and ammunition were taken away. However, the party leadership was not impressed and noted the anarchist tendencies within Žāklis. He was replaced by Mārtiņš Luters Bobis as commander.

On January 1906 large numbers of revolutionaries were arrested. On January 17 armed group of revolutionaries attacked the Riga Secret Police building releasing Mārtiņš Luters Bobis and Fricis Svars one of the killed gang members in the Sydney Street siege. Together with Žāklis he raided the Provodnik factory. He was arrested on December 31 and betrayed by one of his comrades Ziediņš. In following days police arrested more revolutionaries including Mārtiņs Luters Bobis. Žāklis was not one of them. A plan was devised and it succeeded attacking the main building of the secret police in the city center during broad daylight.

Žāklis with Luters and three other comrades made it to Petersburg. There they immediately started the armed revolutionary activities- attacking post offices, banks and shops. It was called expropriation by them to gather money for underground activities. Despite infiltrating two secret police agents within the Latvian group, tsarist police failed to stop them from attacking the Union bank in Helsingforss (Helsinki, Finland). Bank was robbed stealing 170 thousand rubles. Six Latvians were later arrested, but Žāklis was on his way to Germany…

As the revolution in Latvia and Russia was heading towards defeat, Žāklis was in Western Europe organizing arms contraband to Russia. Then trough Switzerland he went back to Latvia, no longer a social democrat but an anarchist. Rage addict Žāklis was impressed by the anarchist teachings of “invisible cycle of revolutionaries” and the “invisible dictatorship” that would instore order by using force not law and authority. Inspired by the ideas of Bakunin and Kropotkin Žāklis brought their home to Latvia and inspired many others.

In anarchist Latvian  newspaper “Freedom” Žāklis called anarchism a natural way of Latvian life not influenced by foreigners. Žāklis called his group of supporters “Myself – words and action”. Latvian Social Democrats were not sufficient in the views of Žāklis to start a massive revolution. Many who thought so too left the party and became radical anarchists. The party was in the shake-up started by Žāklis. On August 15 1906 a manifesto by the Žāklis group was issued. Žāklis rejected any use of organized orders, party ranks and commitees instead promoting independent action. The state was rejected instead calls for full break up of social society and resources were issued “Let’s go and take all by ourselves!”. Žāklis published his brochures in the summer of 1906. He was the main anarchist ideologue in Latvia.

The confiscated weapons and literature of the Latvian revolutionaries including the anarchist magazine "Flame" (Leesma)

The confiscated weapons and literature of the Latvian revolutionaries including the anarchist magazine “Flame” (Leesma)

The police had enough of Žāklis and his anarchists. 110 police officers were killed in the clashes with them. On August 14 1906 on night time; police surrounded the house in Stabu street 65. Two Žāklis comrades Kārlis Krieviņš and Anna Caune were reported of hiding there. Police approached the doors and demanded to open them. In return anarchists opened fire. In the desperate gunfight until four of clocks of August 15 the couple resisted until they were killed. Similar events later took place at the Sydney street. The code of law for the anarchists was never to surrender.

The crackdown on anarchists were long and painful. More gunfights erupted, some were shot on the place, others were arrested. But, Žāklis again escaped together with his mistress Lidija Švarce also known as Marija and Anna, “yours black girl”. He was reported to be in Pskov, on the end of  1906 he left Latvia completely. Posing as Peter Piatkow probably went to US. In 1909 he was reported to be in Philadelphia where the famous photo of him used in police posters was taken. Despite the fact that the president of US William McKinley was assassinated by the polish anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who was inspired by other Baltic anarchist leader Emma Goldman on 1901, US proved to be an easy hideout for anarchists from the Russian Empire.

In US Žāklis met Fricis Svars again, and five others involved in the the Houndsditch murders. There they published Latvian anarchist magazine “Freedom”. But, just writing anarchist ideas was not part of their struggle in the US. The expropriation was again used. On 1908 February 6 Žāklis, Svars and Hartmanis robbed two merchants in Woburn, Massachusetts. In police chase two policemen and one local were shot. The robbers escaped.

In the spring of 1908 Peter Piatkow returned to Europe still hoping to restart the anarchist fight in his homeland. But, the lack of money was the reason for more robberies. On April 10 three armed Latvians invaded the Scottish Royal bank in  in Lancashire  county. In resulting gunfight and chase, two were arrested. Posing as local poor Englishmen the robbers may have been connected with Žāklis. Žāklis in mean time was in Switzerland then in France to study medicine and chemics. In Marseille he was soon under French police watch, but again sneaked out. Posing as a builder and an arts student Žāklis enjoyed the seaside and plotted more anarchist activities.

Jānis Žāklis in the middle on board of the French ship in Marseilles. About 1908-1909

Jānis Žāklis in the middle on board of the French ship in Marseilles. About 1908-1909

Latvian anarchists were still acting in Latvia, where local police still tried to find the mystical “surveyor” who they thought still hides there. Meanwhile in Boston Latvian anarchists caused another gun fight by attacking local pub. One was killed, others escaped. The police investigation showed that the attack had connections with Fricis Svars– Žāklis close comrade.  Many other armed attempts of robberies took place across Europe.

But that was not enough. On July 18 1909 Russian police caught Jānis Lapiņš who was arrested for shooting at some Mr Štāl. While during interrogation he confessed to be sent to Latvia by orders of the Latvian and Russian anarchist rig. Lead by Russian narodnik Alexey Telpov the group summoned him to transport literature and weapons. Along with him four men under false names arrived in Latvia to start an anarchist armed struggle. They called themselves “The Baltic Federation Anarchist group “Avanger”. The group was arrested, but two of them Alfrēds Dzirkalis and Juris Laiviņš managed to escape, two who later were involved in the Houndsditch Murders. On October 1909 Fricis Svars in London was visited by his cousin Jēkabs (Yakov) Peters who was for a long time considered as the real Peter the Painter. A experienced revolutionary during the 1905 struggles, he was still true to the social democrat cause and was angered by the ideological shift of his cousin Svars. He left London after three months to become a famous Bolshevik, a member of Cheka during the Civil War in Russia. He perished in 1938 purges.

In London on 1909 a Latvian anarchist group “Flame” emerged. Svars, Hartmanis and called Max Smoller. Also a Russian – Latvian couple Nina Vasileva and Wiliam Sokolov. The anarchists conducted a similar operations long before the Houndsditch Murders. Similar works of crime were donned before by drilling a hole in the roof they entered the jewelry shops and stole the goods. Three such thefts were recorded in the criminal archives may have been the work of the same gang that did the Houndsditch Murders.

On October 1910 Jānis Žāklis arrived at London and head directly to Fricis Svars. Introduced as Peter Piatkow to Svars mistress Ljuba Millstein. He spent the night at Dzirkalis apartment. On November 4 1910 the trio moved to the Grove street house Nr.4. The Russian secret police made a report of Latvian anarchists attempting to unify the separate groups in one congress along London. On April 14  according to Russian intelligence a special committee was made and led by Jānis Žāklis. The journal “Freedom” issued gratitude of cash flows from the London group. The last issue before the Houndsditch Murders of “Freedom” had an annual financial report made by a “surveyor” or Žāklis. A committee that needed substantial financial funding that could only gathered by use of expropriation according to views of Žāklis.

The Post Morten photo of Hartmanis who died at the night of December 16

The Post Morten photo of Hartmanis who died at the night of December 16

On December 16 Jānis Žāklis gathered his group in the Grove street apartment. The attempt of breaking into the rear of a jeweller’s shop at 119 Houndsditch was discovered by the adjacent shopkeeper who heard constant hammering and informed the police. Nine unarmed officers — three sergeants and six constables (two in plain clothes) — converged on Exchange Buildings. Sergeants Bentley and Bryant knocked at the door of No. 11 Exchange Buildings, unaware that the first constable on the scene had already done so, thus alerting the thieves. The gang’s leader, George Gardstein or Hartmanis, opened the door, but when he did not answer their questions they assumed he did not understand English and told him to fetch someone who did. Hartmanis left the door half-closed and disappeared. Growing impatient, the two sergeants entered the house to find the room apparently empty, before they became aware of a man standing in the darkness at the top of the stairs. After a short conversation, another man entered through the yard door, rapidly firing a pistol, while the man on the stairs also started shooting. Both officers were hit, with Bentley collapsing across the doorstep, while Bryant managed to stagger outside. In the street, Constable Woodhams ran to help Bentley, but was himself wounded by one of the gang firing from the cover of the house, as was Sergeant Tucker, who died almost instantly. The gang then attempted to break out of the cul-de-sac, Hartmanis being grabbed by Constable Choate almost at the entrance. In the struggle, Choate was wounded several times by Hartmanis, before being shot five more times by other members of the gang, who also managed to hit Hartmanis in the back. They then dragged Hartmanis ¾ of a mile to 59 Grove Street, where he died the next day. Constable Choate and Sergeant Bentley died in separate hospitals the same day. Police found dead Hartmanis in the Grove Street apartment and made the connection with Jānis Žāklis or Peter Piatkow who owned the apartment.

London was shocked by the murder of two unarmed policemen. A scare of “murdering foreigners” errputed in the London press. Police soon established the connection with the dead Hartmanis and the rest of the anarchist group. In Fricis Svars apartment they found various documents of communication between anarchist groups. “Flame”, “Fighter”, “Freedom” in the US and also “The Black Flag” in Paris. A plan was to create an international union of anarchists.

Ljuba Milstein arrived at the police station on December 18. Forced by her Jewish family to wash away all the suspicion from her she reported the man blamed for the murders. It was Svars, Hartmanis and Sokolovs.  Žāklis did not take direct part and stayed home at night. She was asked to care of dying Hartmanis which she could not bare it. Consequent arrests were made, Jānis Laiviņš was arrested who was part of the anarchist network. Then mandolin teacher who was present at the Grove Street meeting on December 16 reported Jēkabs Peters the cousin of Sivas. He denied any connection, but was arrested.

500 pounds reward for reporting encouraged a unanimous informant on January 1911 1 to report the possible location of Fricis Svars.  It was Charles Perelman the owner of the house where Svars and Žāklis lived. Svars had given him a letter addressed to his father and the father of the brother Sudmaļi. And also Perelman revealed the location where the Svars was hiding in the Sydney Street 100, Stepney, along with William Sokolov.

Fricis Svars who resisted the British police to the last blood on January 3 1911

Fricis Svars who resisted the British police to the last blood on January 3 1911

The police secretly surrounded the hiding spot. The plan was to get them by force, no talks about peaceful arrest were considered. The house was evacuated, but the surrounded bandits showed no sign of life. At eight of clock police sent officer Benjamin Lyson to throw rocks at the second floor window where the Latvian were hiding. After rocks had no effect, the concrete brick “did the trick” and Lyson was shot Brauning and Mauzer pistols. He was shot down but survived.  A Sydney street siege had begun. For more than an hour police was kept away in significant length from the Latvians. Sporadic shooting did nothing to harm them. The Ministry of War was informed and Secretary of Interior Affairs Winston Churchill was called while being in bath. Churchill called the London Tower garrison. The Lieutenant Hugh “Jack” Ross, two private first class along with 17th men of the 1st Scottish guard. Armed with Lee Enfield guns the soldiers took the both sides of the streets. Driven by “curiosity” Churchill arrived  at the site and took the full operational command work. A never seen before action by the state minister.

Churchill wanted to play out the role of the war commander and asked to bring two machine guns and even artillery cannons. They came too late, when battle was already over. While still figuring out how to enter the building, the bullet hit the gas pipe and the house erupted in flames. The firefighters arrived only to be halted by Churchill who insisted that the building must be burned down to flames with Latvians inside. But, despite the heavy smoke surrounding building two Latvians Svars and Sokolovs still recklessly fired at the police. More Scottish guards were called the Maxim machine gun was mounted. Then Sokolovs was shot in the head and died. Svars put down on the ground still fired his gun until 13:50. British police and Winston Churchill may not know the number one law of the Latvian anarchists – Never, never, never surrender!

After the roof fell in the firefighters finally came in.  And the first and last causality on the British side appeared as the one of the firefighters got hit by massive building block. Two burned bodies of Fricis Svars and William Sokolov were found. Police arrested Jakob Peters, Miljtein,  Trayonsk, Laiviņš  and Fyodorov who were connected to “Flame” group. The closed trial failed to prove their direct guilt and most including Jakob Peters were set free. But, the man who rented the Grove Street apartment where the gang planned the  Houndsditch robbery – Peter Piatkow, Peter the Painter or Jānis Žāklis was nowhere to be found – again….

Posters of Jānis Žāklis showing his photograph made in US were spread all around London. Police however, knew that Žāklis was not present at the scene of the Houndsditch shootings. But, Peter the Painter became an urban legend similar to the Jack the Ripper. According to 1932 MI5 report Žāklis was hiding in some apartment belonging to some Wagner. Also shared with Latvian anarchist named Valdis, who later served at Canada Housman Guard. Žāklis escaped the police search in and made his way to Netherlands. Later he was reported to be in Brussels. His comrades were dead and his plan of starting up the revolution in Latvia had failed. He was on the run again, the Russian secret police reported to London that he is hiding in Germany. The British police decided that they lack enough proof to hunt Žāklis and did nothing.

Ljuba Milstein was pregnant from Fricis Svars when he died on the Sydney Street. Together with Alfrēds Dzirkalis she left for US and raised the son of Svars Alfred Driskol   together. Jakob Peters remained in London and later returned to Russia and became close associate to Vladimir Lenin. Juris Laiviņš returned to Latvia and was arrested by force. He was released on 1917 and not heard until 1926 when he was photographed in 1905 memorial arrangement. Nothing more about him is known afterwards.

Jānis Žāklis was last seen in Germany 1912. Žāklis possible moved to Australia. The Australian police from 1911 to 1917 arrested three persons who they thought they were Peter the Painter. All were released because of the lack of evidence. The distant relatives of Žāklis were know to live in Australia after WW2. Peter the Painter could possibly entered Australia as disguised businessman to more easily pass the naturalization tests. There with his wife Lidija Švarce he spent the rest of life as Australian businessman.

The movie dramatization of the events of January 3 1911. 1960 Movie the Siege of the Sydney Street

Latvian anarchist movement went to decay after the Sydney Street siege. At the end of the WWI Latvia was the battleground between the national independence movement, Bolsheviks and the Baltic Germans. There was no room for anarchists anymore. But, the legend of Peter the Painter moved on. He was featured in many films and songs. The 2012 TV drama Titanic even placed him above on the board of the sunken ship. The first to be wounded on January 3 1911 officer Lyson later claimed that Peter the Painter was no other than Joseph Stalin himself. True, Stalin was also involved in robberies or so-called expropriations. But Stalin is known to never left Russia before 1945 when he arrived at Potsdam. The Peter the Painter was Jānis Žāklis a man from Latvia. One of the most famous Latvian adventurers, anarchists and the man who was never caught by any police force around the world. A true legend of its own.

Selected Sources

Rufs, Filips. (2012) Pa stāvu liesmu debesīs : nenotveramā latviešu anarhista Pētera Māldera laiks un dzīve. Rīga : Dienas Grāmata

Latvijas revolucionāro cīnītāju piemiņas grāmata / redkolēģija: S. Ziemelis (galvenais redaktors) … [u.c.] ; Latvijas KP CK Partijas vēstures institūts – PSKP CK Marksisma-ļeņinisma institūta filiāle, Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmijas vēstures institūts, Latvijas PSR Centrālais valsts vēstures arhīvs ; [pēcvārds krievu valodā]. 2. pārstr. un papild. izd. Rīga : Liesma, 1976-1987. 2 sēj.

Bērzinš, Jānis. (Ed.) (2006) 1905. gads Latvijā: 100 : pētījumi un starptautiskas konferences materiāli, 2005. gada 11.-12. janvāris, Rīga. Riga: Latvijas Vēstures institūta apgāds


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