Tag Archives: felix dzerzhinsky

1938: Yakov Peters, Siege of Sidney Street survivor

On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.

Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.

And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**

Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)

Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)

For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.

Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)

Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.


(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)

This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.

Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.

However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.

(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)

Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.

While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:

[audio:http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/witness/witness_20110127-0950a.mp3]

And, on this BBC Four television special:

* e.g., Russian Civil War officer Nikolay Gikalo and Romanian Jewish revolutionary Leon Lichtblau.

** And in favor of resuming Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I!