Following my earlier post about the Sydney Street Siege, I got a comment asking about Peter the Painter. Interestingly neither of my anecdotal London history books (Ackroyd’s Biography of London, and Iain Sinclair’s even more eclectic London the Anthology) seem to have anything to say about him or the Siege itself. Fortunately there are plenty of resources online, and it is an interesting tale, the conclusion of which is still far from clear…
Peter the Painter was also known as Peter Piatkow (and a variety of other spellings) and was the leader of the Latvian gang behind the siege and the Houndsditch murders that preceded it. After the siege, one of the arrested gang members, Yakov Peters, was identified as Peter the Painter. Peters was tried but acquitted, and later went on to become one of the founders and Cheka after the Russian Revolution. He even took over the organisation for a period when Dzerzhinsky had briefly resigned. He led a number of violent repressions against allegedly counter-revolutionary forces, but was eventually purged himself and executed in 1938, only to be posthumously pardoned in 1956.
However, there are other candidates for the true identity of Peter the Painter. These include Gederts Eliass, a Latvian artist involved in the 1905 revolution there and living in exile in London at the time of the siege. He was identified as Peter the Painter by the historian Philip Ruff after research in the KGB archives. More recently, Ruff has identified a second person as Peter the Painter: Janis Zhaklis, another exiled Latvian revolutionary. Zhaklis and Eliass in fact worked together on a bank robbery in Finland.
The true identity of Peter the Painter, and what became of him after the Sydney Street Siege, is still far from clear. I guess that’s another thing you can say about history in the East End. It might come up and mug you on the street, but it dashes away and hides in the fog as soon as you try to get a handle on it.