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Home | History | Russians in London: the anarchist threat

Russians in London: the anarchist threat

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For my final post in the series (for now), I want to discuss events rather than individuals. As a couple of my recent posts have suggested, by the end of the nineteenth century, the nature and number of Russian visitors to, and settlers in, London had changed considerably. It was no longer the preserve of the elite, either financial or intellectual. A number of high-profile socialists who fled the Russian Empire from the early 1880s onwards did visit or stay in Britain, but what was significant was that this coincided with the beginnings of mass working class, mainly Jewish immigration escaping the appalling conditions and restrictions in the Pale of Settlement (see An Appeal to Public Opinion, pp. 10-16); roughly 30,000 arrived between 1881 and 1891 (Fishman, p. 135). This was, of course, no coincidence. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 led not only to the crack-down on socialist groups that saw many radicals imprisoned or sent into exile in Siberia, but also provided the excuse for pogroms and the escalation of the official policy of anti-Semitism: the Jews were, unsurprisingly, blamed for the murder of the Tsar in many quarters, and thereafter it continued to be highly convenient for the Russian government to conflate Jews and socialists. A similar conflation happened in Britain; the Russian monarchy may have been severely unpopular (remember that the British government did not dare offer refuge to the Romanovs after the revolution), but that did not mean there was any rush to embrace its opponents or victims, particularly if they were Jewish. The arrival of Jewish refugees in large numbers was not the first incidence of mass immigration in Britain, but it was perhaps the first of the media age, and popular opinion decrying the threat to the British way of life posed by this influx and, in particular, to British jobs (Appeal, pp. 28-9) seems depressingly familiar.

At the same time, there was socialist and anarchist activity among immigrants from Eastern Europe, for fairly obvious reasons. It reflects the growth of labour and working class movements at the time, and the fact that new arrivals, whatever their profession or status at home, usually found themselves destitute and had to turn to sweatshop work to survive; ‘badly paid and half-starved’ and living in an ‘unsavoury part of London’ that had once been a ‘notorious criminal quarter’ (Rocker, pp. 26-7), the newcomers provided a ready audience for the activists and propagandists who, after all, shared their language. These activities undoubtedly involved a good deal of agitation and protest, but they were a considerable distance from the bomb-throwing outrages of popular imagination, and were far more concerned with education and welfare. Fishman and Rocker both give interesting accounts of the many clubs, organziations and publications around Whitechapel at this time.

But the largely mundane reality never made a very good story, so it was perhaps to be expected that the most tenuous links to more sensational events were milked to the extent that they created the presumption of a connection between Russians and Jews, anarchism and violent criminal activity. Whether they expressed a genuine fear of ‘aliens’ or they were an attempt to manufacture such a fear, they became a firm part of popular East End lore that persists to this day. One of the most significant contributions to this was the Jack the Ripper case. I don’t intend to rehearse all the angles here, as there is more than enough space devoted to it on the internet as it is, so I’ll just stick to the relevant details. Firstly, most of the main police suspects at the time were Polish Jews. One could be generous and suggest that the large Jewish population around Whitechapel was just the most obvious place to look for perpetrators. Or not. In any case, after the second murder, of Annie Chapman, whose body was found on 8 September 1888 at the rear of 29 Hanbury Street (Fishman, p. 58), a riot was threatened when,

the crowds who assembled in the streets began to assume a very threatening attitude towards the Hebrew population of the District. It repeatedly asserted that no Englishman could have have perpetrated such a horrible crime as that of Hanbury Street, and that it must have been done by a JEW – and forthwith the crowds began to threaten and abuse such of the unfortunate Hebrews as they found in the streets (East London Observer, 15 September 1888, cited in Fishman, p. 73).

 The anarchist angle was also quickly established, when the body of the third victim, Elizabeth Stride, was found on 30 September 1888 in the yard of 40 Berner Street (Fishman, p. 162), the premises of the International Workingman’s Educational Association, founded in 1884 by the Society of Jewish Socialists (Berner Street, off Commercial Road, was renamed Henriques Street, and a school built at the turn of the century stands where the club once was). This was a well known meeting place for radicals, with a good deal of Russian-language activity, often in the form of amateur performances of plays by the revolutionary Stepniak-Kravchinsky and his compatriots such as Feliks Volkhovsky (Fishman, p. 153).

Almost immediately, Russian/anarchist theories began to emerge. In the weeks after the Berner Street murder, stories surfaced concerning one Nikolai Vasiliev, who somehow managed to be both a ‘fanatical anarchist’ and not merely a member but a leader of the skoptsy (castrates) sect – a seriously improbable combination that looks like an attempt to fit in as many juicy details as possible. This article from theJack the Ripper Casebook does a good job of unpicking the story; it seems highly unlikely that Vasiliev ever existed, and the involvement of the notorious right-wing Russian commentator Olga Novikova in disseminating information about him gives credence to the suggestion that the story was an attempt by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, to discredit the revolutionary movement in London.

The other prominent Russian theory, naming a Russian doctor called Alexander Pedachenko as the culprit, came to light later, and is also significant because of its apparent pedigree. Supposedly a manuscript left by Rasputin claimed that he discovered ‘the truth’ through an Okhrana spy named Niderost, who was told it by an old Russian anarchist called Nikolai Zverev – the conversation between these two, for good measure, occurred at the Jubilee Street anarchist club; see the Jack the Ripper Casebook. The Gender Variance Who’s Who includes some further details which place Pedachenko in the service of the Okhrana himself, but goes on to make short work of the story as a whole. Nevertheless, it’s an effective contribution to the myth, certainly more so than Aleister Crowley’s claim that Helena Blavatsky was the Ripper – everyone’s favourite theosophist may have been a bit odd (though not as odd as Crowley, obviously), but the accusation just seems a bit random. A real theory of Russian involvement has to be both an anarchist and a government conspiracy.

 Fast-forward twenty-odd years to the Houndsditch robbery of December 1910 and Sidney Street siege in early January 1911 and not much has changed. Again, I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs as plenty of ink has been spilt of the subject, but just want to examine some of the myths that have grown up around the case. For more details of the affair as a whole, this article from the Guardian marking the recent hundredth anniversary of the siege is a succinct and sensible account; this article from the Manchester Guardian on 4 January 1911 gives an interesting contemporary eye-witness perspective; and this amazing early Pathe newsreel is well worth a watch. There is currently an exhibition about the siege at the Museum of London Docklands, but I haven’t managed to visit it yet. The Independent has a picture gallery feature on the exhibition.

There is no doubt as to Russian(ish) – in fact probably Latvian – involvement in the original attempted robbery in Houndsditch that resulted in the murder of three policemen. According to most reputable sources, the man who fired the fatal shots but was caught in the gunfire himself and later died was Poloski Morountzeff (also known as George Gardstein), and the other men directly involved in the robbery, who later died in the siege, were Fritz Svaars and Josef Sokolov. Beyond this (and even these identities and their involvement are disputed in some quarters), misinformation and confusion quickly builds up.

The first thing to note in that despite the siege’s reputation for being a seminal event in Jewish East End history (The Cable’s recent commemorative edition is a case in point, this being the magazine of the Jewish East End Celebration Society), there’s not only no evidence that any of the main players were Jewish (Morountzeff was found to be uncircumcised; Rogers, p. 54), but there wasn’t even much assumption of Jewish involvement at the time. To be sure, there was the hysteria one would expect about aliens and rumblings to the effect that honest English robbers didn’t go round shooting policemen, but very little of this seems to have been openly anti-Semitic. Rogers highlights one piece of doggerel published on Christmas day in The People:

But I think it’s time once more

to get rid of the cursed breed

Of alien Jews who seem to have been

the author of the deed.

Remember Tottenham! Foreign Jews

were the coward murderers there,

And it’s pretty certain that aliens held

the guns on the Houndsditch stair.

But he notes that this led to a flood of protest from Gentiles as well as Jews, and also points out that it was common for East European criminals to adopt Jewish identities to put the police off the scent at home (p. 70).

Secondly, although the gunmen were assumed at the time to be anarchists or revolutionaries, and have habitially been described as such ever since, the evidence for this is weak to say the least. Some of them had frequented the Jubilee Street club (although they weren’t members, and it had recently closed down), and Rocker states that the anarchist label was applied mainly because of the presence of copies of Arbeter Fraint in the room at 59 Grove Street where Morountzeff died, and the discovery during the investigation that he had been to Errico Malatesta’s Islington workshop (Rocker, pp. 116-8). But it seems clear that those involved were acting from personal not political motives, and that any apparent anarchist or revolutionary tendencies were – like their supposed Jewish identities – adopted for convenience rather than from conviction (see Rogers, pp. 193-4).

Memorial to Charles Pearson, the firefighter who died following the Sidney Street Siege

Then there’s the question of Peter the Painter: revolutionary, leader of the Houndsditch gang, and miraculous escapee from the siege at 100 Sidney Street. His real name was Peter Piatkov or Piaktov, and he was born in Pskov in 1883 (Rogers, p.167). In fact, beyond a vague acquaintance with one or two of the perpetrators, there is nothing whatsoever to connect him to the affair (this doesn’t stop theDaily Mail fulminating against him as the ‘Siege of Sidney Street killer‘ as recently as 2008), or even very much evidence that he was a revolutionary at all. But the absence of evidence is always the best evidence for conspriracy theorists, and this is where the idea of Russian government involvement comes in. Rocker – who is normally level-headed but accepts without question that Peter the Painter was part of the plot – dismisses the idea that Morountzeff was a Russian police agent, but deems it much more likely that Peter was (p. 122). He goes on to say that Peter resurfaced in the Cheka after the revolution. If this was the case, it would not be the only instance of an agent changing sides, but it seems to be the result of a confusion with another figure altogether: Jacob Peters. Peters was a cousin of Fritz Svaars, at best a peripheral figure in the plot, who was tried for his involvement but acquitted (Rogers, pp. 191-4). Apparently much more serious-minded than his cousin, he was a Social Democrat and participated in revolutionary propaganda in London. He returned to Russia after the revolution and became a senior figure in the Cheka, as this article by the American journalist Louise Bryant confirms.

I suspect it is the Cheka connection, and the spurious identification with Peter the Painter, that has led Donald Rumbelow to claim Jacob Peters fired the lethal shots in the Houndsditch robbery (The Cable, p. 17; his book The Houndsditch Murders and the Sidney Street Siege was republished in 2009). Rogers dismantles this theory fairly convincingly (pp. 209-11), but it’s interesting for what it suggests about assumptions about Russians. Russian revolutionaries can’t, it seems, simply be revolutionaries (we saw this already in the 1850s with the claims that Bakunin was a Tsarist agent), and Russian criminals can’t simply be criminals; they must all have secret agendas and hidden identities, and be part of a government or anti-government conspiracy – preferably both. The Jacob Peters theory shows that suspicions of Russian political activities persisted regardless of who was in power when – the hint is clearly that it was a Bolshevik plot, not simply a crime committed by someone who later became a Bolshevik. And nor is this the most outlandish such theory; that title belongs to the claim that Stalin masterminded the entire Sidney Street affair, funded by the Freemasons, natch. I’m not going to provide a link to that story because I think some people really shouldn’t be encouraged, but it’s not difficult to find.

The characterization of violent criminal activity as political when it involved Russians, like the assumption that the Ripper’s crimes must have been perpetrated by a Jew or a foreigner, dramatized the position of immigrants from Eastern Europe as other. Fuelled by sensational stories about nihilists in the news, and books about revolutionaries, such as Stepniak-Kravchinsky’s Underground Russia, and their fate in Siberia (see my previous post for a list of these), the image of Russians as daring conspirators gained currency long before the revolution. Meanwhile the Tsarist agents’ tendency to provocation meant that they too were seen as subversive; stories of Okhrana involvement in crime seem almost as common as those concerning anarchists, so that the state and its opponents are strangely identified with each other in the popular perception. In between them, of course, and suffering the consequences, such as the British government’s attempts to strengthen the laws against aliens, of which the proposal to deport Russian refugees highlighted in the Appeal was one, lay the mass of ordinary immigrants.

Russians in London will be returning later in the year.

 

Sources

The Committee of Delegates of the Russian Socialist Groups in London, An Appeal to Public Opinion: Should the Russian Refugees be Deported? (London: National Labour Press, 1916)

William J. Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914 (London: Duckworth, 1975)

Rudolf Rocker, The London Years, trans. Joseph Leftwich (Nottingham: Five Leaves; Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005)

Colin Rogers, The Battle of Stepney. The Sidney Street Siege: Its Causes and Consequences (London: Robert Hale, 1981)