Conspiracies involving Russian anarchists and their adversaries in the tsarist secret police have played a long-standing role in the folklore of London’s East End, finds Sarah J. Young
Last night’s episode of the popular BBC period drama Ripper Street saw Inspector Reid and his Whitechapel team investigate tsarist secret police involvement in the death of an Eastern European Jewish anarchist. The story takes the series a long way from the initial scenario of a post-Ripper slasher, but in real life, tales of crimes and conspiracies perpetrated by both the Russian government and its opponents can be traced back to the Jack the Ripper case itself.
By the 1880s, London had already played host to high-profile political exiles from the Russian Empire for a number of decades, most famously becoming home to Alexander Herzen, who set up the Free Russian Press in Bloomsbury in the 1850s, Mikhail Bakunin, who joined Herzen in 1861 after escaping from Siberian exile, and Peter Lavrov, who published the revolutionary journal Vpered! (Forward) from a North London suburb from 1873 to 1876. The arrivals continued in the 1880s, with the anarchist Peter Kropotkin and members of the revolutionary organization The People’s Will such as Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinsky and Feliks Volkhovsky settling in London. But by now such radicals were no longer isolated voices, as this was also the period of working class, mainly Jewish immigration from the Russian empire, as people escaped the appalling conditions and restrictions of life in the Pale of Settlement. According to William Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals, roughly 30,000 immigrants arrived in London between 1881 and 1891. (more…)