Anarchists in the Gulag (and prison and exile)

Bolshevik repression of anarchists after 1917

Posts Tagged ‘Latvian anarchists

Portrait of the artist as a wanted man (on Peter the Painter/ Jānis Žāklis)

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A review of Philip Ruff’s A Towering Flame : The Life & Times of ‘Peter the Painter’ is up on the KSL site at

“Philip Ruff has been looking for the truth about Peter the Painter since 1986, off and on. When he started, there was still a Soviet Union and he had to interview the KGB (rather than the other way round) about the Latvian revolutionary movement. Over the years, Ruff has searched archives and tracked down relatives of those involved around the world….”

Don’t forget, while you’re there, to check out the account of Latvian anarchists in Moscow in 1917-18

Written by gulaganarchists

23, April 2018 at 7:56 am

Facts against myths [Book review by Maira Asare]

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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.

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

Pauls Bankovskis, Anarhista atgriesanas (The Return of the Anarchist), Satori.LV, 8 August, 2012
English translation:

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



Written by gulaganarchists

18, September 2012 at 9:19 am

Posted in Sources / Links, Texts

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New Phil Ruff Peter the Painter Interview

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Phil Ruff discussing Peter the Painter and his researches into the history of Latvian anarchism. (Over an hour: in English with Latvian subtitles):

Written by gulaganarchists

1, September 2012 at 6:35 pm

Peter the Painter: the book at last

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Phil Ruff’s epic historical research into the life of Janis Zhaklis – AKA Peter the Painter – and the early twentieth century Latvian anarchist movement is about to be published in Latvian.

Pa stāvu liesmu debesīs : Nenotveramā latviešu anarhista Pētera Māldera laiks un dzīve / Filips Rufs. [A towering flame : the life & times of ‘Peter the painter’ / by Philip Ruff]

Published by Dienas Gramata in hardback, 16 August 2012. 288 p. + 32 p. of photos ISBN 978-9984-887-24-1

Written by gulaganarchists

2, August 2012 at 9:24 am

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Janis Zhaklis (Peter the Painter) article

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The Kate Sharpley Library has just posted a translation of Kristine Sadovska’s article “See how Latvians BURN when they catch fire!“, drawing on Phil Ruff’s researches into Latvian anarchist Janis Zhaklis (better known as Peter the Painter). The article of course mentions the Houndsditch affair and the Siege of Sidney Street, but also some of Zhaklis’ previous adventures, like the Riga Central Prison attack to liberate Julijs Shlesers and Janis Lacis (September 1905) and the January 1906 attack on the secret police headquarters.

“Pētera Māldera laiks un dzīve” (“The Life and Times of Peter the Painter”) by Phil Ruff is out in Riga early August 2012, published by Dienas Gramata.

Written by gulaganarchists

20, March 2012 at 10:53 am

Sidney Street commemoration

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Starting with Phil Ruff talking about Fricis Svars and Jazeps Sokolovs.

Written by gulaganarchists

7, January 2011 at 10:15 am

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Trouble in Moscow: From the life of the “Liesma” [“Flame”] Group

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[This account covers the Latvian anarchists’ activities in Moscow, up to the Cheka raids of April 1918, when the Bolsheviks attacked anarchists in the city in the name of “Law and Order”]

The group was founded in August 1917 and from the beginning worked in the syndicalist direction.

Before its foundation comrades worked independently, as well as together with existing Russian groups. Later, in view of much greater efficiency if comrades could communicate in Latvian, working with Latvian workers, comrades decided to unite in a permanent group and found quarters which could be open at any time to interested workers, where existing anarchist literature would be available for their use, where on certain days comrades would be able to come together, read lectures, organise “question and answer” evenings for comrades and the broader public. But because such quarters were difficult to find, members gathered once a week in a tiny private apartment, where they were only able, packed like sardines, to review and discuss the most important issues for the group.

When the October revolution started all comrades subscribed either to the Red Guard or to the anarchist fighting organisation, and took the most active part in the October battles, extending their solidarity (hand in hand) with the formerly oppressed but now empowered and oppressing Bolshevik-Communists.

Other comrades, who at the time of the fighting were at the printing house “Moskovski Listok” (The Moscow Sheet), fought a fierce battle against the Junkers and only because of the cowardice of soldiers who had been called to the assistance of the anarchists after two days of fierce fighting were they disarmed and subjected to the Junker’s violence. Together with coats and hats, also the whole capital of the group – several hundred roubles – was looted. (One of the comrades happened to have the money on him). Thus the group again remained without any means, and we had to postpone our plans to open permanent quarters for an indefinite time.

But time went on. Comrade Bolsheviks, who seized the Government’s money, started to fall behind the growing revolution and, unable to forget their God Marx’s holy words that social revolution is only possible with the concentration of capital and that a lot of time was needed to reach it, it was necessary to step upon the tail of the revolution, so that it wouldn’t derail from its prescribed path and topple the theory laid out in the thick volumes of Marx’s Capital.

All this made comrades think that there was no time to wait until capital would “concentrate” in their cash box in order to rent quarters; quarters had to be acquired now, in the nearest future, irrespective of how and by what means. As social expropriations were already happening in other cities, where private houses, shops, factories and other private property were being nationalised, our comrades considered this a justified and important step in continuing the revolution, and decided to look out for an appropriate building where we could start our club.

In the end such a house was found in Presnensk Pereulok number 3. It was a small house without furniture and needed repairs in order to make living in it possible, but the group still occupied it and after a couple of weeks the Latvian Anarchists’ Club of the “Liesma” group opened there.

In that time, as best we could, we bought in books and literature for our reading table and every Sunday public lectures were held which often attracted an audience of over a hundred people. On Wednesday evenings we organised theoretical reading circles for our comrades themselves, where various political issues were discussed. Special focus was upon the spreading of anarchist ideas, which in the end set the group on a distinct communist [anarchist-communist, not Bolshevik] platform.

With the growth of the group, many and various new needs appeared, one of the most important of which was the need to find a way to publish literature, because it was impossible to gather large masses of people in the tiny building – we had to give the masses something to read. We had to organise communes, show the masses an example and instil in them faith in the future free order (system). In order to realise all this we needed a larger building and financial means, money.

In January the group occupied a house in Malaja (Little) Dimitrovka, but because the house was inhabited, we had to share it with the earlier inhabitants (the owner of the house), and the group took only half of the house. The other half of the house with all the belongings (except for some furniture and the library) was given to the owner with the right to rent it.

The Club is now moving to the new quarters, while the former house is being renovated for a commune (communal flat).

The group started publishing literature. Because of lack of resources, at present only three pamphlets are being published and the other texts will be printed gradually, at the end of each job when the main work has been finished.

Apart from the ideological work, the group has also founded a Fighting Unit with acting members. So that the Fighting Unit could be self-reliant (independent), full ammunition and food parcels for all members were received from the main Red Headquarters. Their task was to defend the revolution, together with the Moscow workers, against the counter-revolutionary element that only waited to raise its head again.

With the arrival of the Latvian group from Kharkov on the order of the Revolutionary Committee, Group “Liesma”, together with the Russian group “Kommuna” occupied a manor house in Vedenski Pereulok (side street), with two “fleugels” (out buildings), where only three people lived. One of these “fleugels” was occupied by “Kommuna”, which had only just been organised and still didn’t have their own quarters. The other “fleugel” was occupied by “Liesma” for the comrades from Kharkov, who had to come to Moscow at the beginning of April.

But because there were exceptionally many historical things in the newly occupied house – precious porcelain, old silver, famous masters’ paintings, extensive libraries and an enormous collection of various ancient icons, the value of which was enormous (indescribable), after an evaluation by some artists both groups decided that, considering that [no] one person was able to use such treasures, which were not in the possession even of many a museum, and which were absolutely out of the reach for a wider public, they consider it their duty to see to it that all these historical treasures should be accessible to the broadest masses of people.

The group established contact with the members of the City Art Committee who took it upon themselves to organise and open a museum, which was also done in the first days of April.

Also, the group “Liesma” established contacts with the actors of the Moscow Latvian Theatre in order to open a Latvian Anarchist Theatre, which promises good results and has met a sympathetic response from the actors. A common united meeting of representatives of both theatres was planned on 12 April, at which the foundation of the Latvian Workers’ Theatre would be laid. “But man supposes and God disposes”… In the night of 11/12 April we were woken up by a terrible noise, amid shooting and noise we could hear people screaming. In the first moments we couldn’t ask anybody either. All rooms were overfilled with soldiers, who were on a horrible looting spree – they just went mad like beasts who broke out of cages – who were ready to tear you to pieces with their teeth for every word you dared to say.

Later we found out that the unexpected guests were a unit of the Soviet government army, the Latvian Riflemen and others, and that on orders of the government we were arrested for some dark deeds, and like in October from the side of the Junkers, now on the orders of the Bolsheviks we were to be destroyed. After several days of torture in the cellars of the Kremlin and behind the walls of Butyrka Prison, we were recognised as “ideological revolutionaries” and were released with the following words from the high authorities: “we fight against bandits, but we leave ideological workers in peace”.

We were recognised as “ideological” workers, but only after our ideological work had been completely destroyed, the literature which had cost us so much efforts and selfless work was burned, the printing press confiscated, all the capital looted. Rendered harmless, we were let off to go where we wanted.

But it is possible to suppress a man, not an idea, and the “Liesma” group, having been robbed twice, did not stop its activities but renewed its work again with twice as much dedication and energy.

Pooling our last strength and means together, we started replacing our literature and started publishing our magazine to spread our ideas even more energetically.


The author of this article, “R”, was Janis Birze (Remus), a Latvian anarchist who had taken part in the 1905 Revolution in the Baltic, first as a member of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDSP) then as a member of the Anarchist-Communist group “Liesma” and the leader of an anarchist fighting group that carried out numerous expropriations and attempted assassinations in Riga. Arrested in 1907, he was sentenced to 6 years hard labour on 2 April 1908, which he served in Riga and Pleskav (Pskov) prisons, afterwards being exiled to Jenisejas district (Siberia), in the region of Kansk, Vidrina pagasts. Freed by the revolution in March 1917, Birze re-formed “Liesma” in Moscow as this article describes. Of his subsequent life all that is known is that he worked in the Soviet Union in the trade sphere during the 1920s and 30s. His last known place of work was Novosibirsk, where “his life was ended” (according to a Soviet account written in 1962) at the end of the 1930s.

“From the life of the ‘Liesma’ group” Published in “Liesma” (Flame) No. 1, Moscow July 1918, by the Moscow Latvian Anarchist Group “Liesma”

Thanks to Phil Ruff for providing this text.

Written by gulaganarchists

12, October 2008 at 12:46 pm