Review: bombthrowing, jailbreaking, copkilling, gunrunning anarchist b*stards

A Towering Flame:  The Life & Times of the Elusive Latvian Anarchist Peter the Painter

Philip Ruff

Breviary Stuff

ISBN 978-0-9929466-5-4 (paperback)
ISBN 978-0-9929466-8-5 (hardback)

Review by George F.

I want to burn […]

To climb towards heaven on a towering flame

And scream out the injustice by which my nation

With fiery iron was beset and slaughtered.”

– Vizma Belsevica

A century ago, the world had been carved up between great empires, dominated by cruel aristocrats and plutocracies of callous and power-hungry tyrants, each concerned only by the conquest and domination of its poorer classes, who are viewed as little more than chattels and cannon-fodder to exist off the scraps and leftovers thrown to them. In the midst of starvation, torture, misery and enslavement, the working classes organise, desperately and defiantly unionising despite its illegality, and although arrested, abducted and murdered by the State, they relentlessly push back against those that would oppress them. Yet even within their ranks and amongst supposed solidarity, there occurs the rise of manipulators and tricksters who would pervert the struggle for socialism and freedom into another form of exploitation and dictatorship. In the tumult, the Tsarship becomes the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and over time Nicholas becomes Stalin, following the same misguided illusions which ignore the corruption of absolute power.

Then, as now, individuals and collectives emerge that have understood the autocracy of authority, and gathered together to fight against oppression and control, to liberate themselves and others. Then, as now, there were those that understood the necessity of pats – vards un darbs: namely, words and deeds being the same.

From this time, a great mystery evolved, regarding the identity and subsequent disappearance of an infamous anarchist revolutionary who used to haunt the tenements and alleys of Whitechapel. He became legend as Peter the Painter – the mysterious leader of a gang of illegalist anarchist exiles who vanished after the bloodiest shoot-out in London’s history, a cop-massacre ending with the call-out of the military and their artillery, and a bullet through Winston Churchill’s top hat.

After nearly a century, Philip Ruff has pieced together the identity of Peter the Painter, revealed here to be anarchist and revolutionary Janis Zaklis – a veritable Latvian Robin Hood, Ned Kelly or Alfredo Bonnano – and lovingly weaves together that personal story within the wider historical context in his thrilling nonfiction A Towering Flame.

It opens with a bungled jewellry heist in Houndsditch, a gunfight between cops and robbers that results in the bloody demise of 5 police officers and a subsequent manhunt throughout the East End. Yet the story goes deeper, tracing back into the history of socialist struggle in Latvia against the tyrannical Tsarist occupation, the uprisings and plots that lead to countless violent encounters between rebels and loyalists, to intrigue and subterfuge as those with the anarchist tendency become vilified by power hungry Bolsheviks, yet how their adventures serve as propaganda of the deed examples of how autonomy and mutual aid can transform a struggle.

We are flung into the revolutionary tumult of turn of the century Latvia, with our hero Janis Zaklis – Peter the Painter himself – at the heart of matters. He’s the kind of anarchist generations of fluffy liberal apologists have tried to erase from history as an anomaly – an armed insurrectionist who is soon exiled from from the Communist parties and joins the emigre revolutionaries in London as part of a violent international revolt against the tyranny of the capitalist classes, the razors edge of the socialist upheaval taking place across the industrialised world at that time. Demonstrations of workers in the tens of thousands break out to demand a minimum wage of a rouble a day. The massacre of peaceful protesters by Tsarist soldiers and Cossacks prompts the radicalisation of an oppressed nation – at that point viewed as little more than a backwards ancilliary of the German empire. A culture of literature emerges that transforms Latvian from a corrupted peasants dialect of German into a genuine language, identity and culture.

Chapter 2 alone features Zaklis and chums breaking into a prison to liberate their comrades, and is so littered with casual references to homemade bombmaking and arms deals that is soon seems as genteel and eccentric as lepidoptery. Upon escaping the jail into the streets, having lost his hat, one of Zaklis’ comrades plucks a bowler from a passing gentlemen and plops it on to his head as they flee the bullets and brawling of the cops and prison guards. This example of a detail reminscent of the romanticised and fictionalised representations of Hollywood cowboy and gangster films is one of many that pepper this tale of the Wild Wild East. Yet this is no spaghetti western: the stakes are high and all of the more breathless for having been real. These are freedom fighters facing betrayal by secret police, murder by State terrorists, brutality and savage torture for their crimes to extract confessions. Perhaps that is why the numerous inspirational anecdotes of exemplary bravery and dedication from men and women of the time are even more astounding, such as when a local milkmaid smuggles a guerilla out of a barn surrounded by cossacks by hiding him in a sack and slinging him over her shoulder to walk casually out as if carrying a bag of potatoes.

The book is unrelenting in its pace. Initially I feared it would be some dry whodunnit featuring reams of tedious investigation and the historical equivalent of stamp-collecting, yet it is entirely the opposite. An anarchist action adventure with the Latvian guerilla army in exile as they travel the globe struggling for liberation, it is also an exquisite documentation of a historical example of, as Bakunin called for, “an invisible network of dedicated revolutionaries … [seeking] to rouse, unite and organise spontaneous popular forces … a sort of revolutionary general staff … who are capable of serving as intermediaries between the revolutionary idea and the instincts of the people.”

Beyond the solving of a puzzle, this book is also a clue and a cipher for all those who would seek to foment popular anarchy and form organisations free of all official character. It is a critical part of anarchist history, as significant as the struggles of Makhnov and Durruti, and a vital piece of documentation that Philip Ruff should be praised for, and without spoilers, has an ending that is unique and unusual for stories about people such as Janis Zaklis.

~ George F.