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Czar Nicholas II v. Christian Rudowitz

In October, 1908 two news items dominated headlines: the World Series and the case of a Latvian refugee named Christian (Krišjānis) Ansoff Rudowitz.  The Chicago Cubs won the 1908 World Series a repeat of the 1907 series when they again defeated the Detroit Tigers led by Ty Cobb.

That month the Consul of Russia in Chicago Baron Ernest von Schilling requested the extradition of Christian Rudowitz for murder, arson, burglary, robbery and larceny.    The events in question took place during the Winter of 1905 – 1906 in the Kurzeme region of what is now Latvia and his extradition was sought based on an 1887 treaty between Russia and the United States. He was arrested and held in Cook County Jail.

In January, 1906 a group of masked intruders entered the Kurzeme village home of Theodore Kinze.  They shot and killed Kinze’s wife and her parents, after accusing them of being government spies and set the house on fire.  This scene was replayed many times and is how the 1905 revolution played out in the countryside of Latvia and Estonia. Over 800 manor houses and other dwellings were destroyed and hundreds were killed.  Those closely associated with Czarist rule, particularly land-owning Germans were under fire.  Czarist Russians maintained political power and ethnic Germans, in many cases had outsized economic power.

Not much is known about Rudowitz.  He is described as a 35 year old Lettish carpenter.  It is said that he was a Lutheran and that he left a wife and family when he fled to the United States.   He admitted to joining the Russian Social Democratic party in 1905, which was fracturing between Bolsheviks (Lenin) and Mensheviks.


The Rudowitz case became a cause célèbre, particularly in the leftist community.  Three thousand Chicagoans attended a rally in support of Rudowitz at the Colonial Theatre.  The Political Refugee Defense League headquartered in Hull House on Halsted Street was formed to galvanize activity.  The league claimed branches in 185 cities within 27 states.  Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for President in 1908 and former Chicago Mayor Edward F Dunne were some of his high-profile supporters.  The Daily Socialist energetically supported the Latvian peasant.  It was said that 20,000 refugees from Russia had arrived in the United States of which many were radicalized.

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Extradition hearings were held before United States Commissioner Mark A. Foote in Chicago. The legendary attorney Clarence Darrow led a pro bono defense dream team that included Professor Charles C. Hyde, and Dean John H. Wigmore both of Northwestern University’s Law School.  Rudowitz admitted to taking part in the sanctioning and planning but not carrying out any of the crimes he was charged with.   The defense admitted that Rudowitz had attended a meeting during which a vote was taken to kill three government spies, however, the defense also insisted that Rudowitz did not participate in the actual murders. Depositions provided by the prosecution were suspect and contradictory.  At the hearing, Darrow warned Commissioner Foote that there were about 20,000 men in the United States under political asylum from Russia, and that if Rudowitz was extradited; all the other political refugees would “go with him as fast as the Russian government can furnish the means and the guns to execute them.”  Foote listened to two weeks of testimony.  In his closing argument Darrow said, “Czar Nicholas II is plotting to reach the hand of despotism into the United States and drag back, no man knows how many, political offenders of Russia.”

On December 7th Commissioner Foote ruled that Rudowitz could be extradited.   The defense team appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Elihu Root. Roosevelt was wrapping up his presidency as Robert Taft was the President-Elect after the previous month’s national election.  It’s hard to imagine that Roosevelt and possibly Taft weren’t consulted by Root.

The aformentioned John H. Wigmore was a highly respected expert on the law of evidence and he went over the more than 300 pages of hearing transcripts and produced a report that concluded that Rudowitz was a political refugee and thus should not be subject to extradition. This argument was endorsed by James Parker Hall, the dean of the University of Chicago Law School.  On January 26, 1909, Secretary Root decided that Rudowitz’s crimes were political in nature and he was therefore not extraditable under the treaty between the United States and Russia.  This decision greatly expanded the concept of a a political offence exception (or exemption) in U.S. extradition law and is still felt today.  Coincidentally, an almost identical case was playing out in New York involving the Latvian refugee Jan Janoff Pouren. His adverse decision at the commissioner level was also overturned by Root.

Edwin Maxey, Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska wrote an analysis supporting the final disposition of this case in 1909, the same year that Kārlis Ulmanis graduated from Nebraska’s College of Agricultural Sciences.  Kārlis Ulmanis had fled Latvia to avoid arrest for political activity during this same tumultuous period.  He did not return until 1913, when an amnesty was declared.  Ulmanis was the first Prime Minister of Latvia and a dominant figure in Latvia declaring and eventually gaining independence less than a decade later.  We’ll never know if Ulmanis and Maxey ever spoke about Rudowitz.  Ulmanis faced-off against the same combination of German neo colonialists and Russian monarchists on the road to Latvian statehood.  In addition, Ulmanis faced Russian and Latvian communists who were attempting to establish Soviet control over the former Russian provinces. 

The complexities of the 1905 Revolution continue to be debated.  It is clear that it had developed differently in the Baltic region than elsewhere in Czarist Russia. It had a distinct radical leftist component but also was a nationalistic manifestation: reflected by dissimilar actors like Ulmanis and Rudowitz.Christian Rudowitz quickly faded from the headlines. The story became muddled when numerous reports were made of people circulating around Chicago and identifying themselves as Rudowitz for their own purposes.   

Rudowitz moved to the Gleason, Wisconsin area in the mid 1930’s. His name reappeared in December, 1937 when he became associated with “the Robinson/Rubens affair”. This case involved prolific Soviet spy Arnold Ikal, who was active in the United States for several years. Like many GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) agents at the time, Ikal was Latvian. 

Rudowitz's naturalization papers were apparently used to create an additional identity for Robinson/Rubens/Ikal. Rudowitz explained that his naturalization papers disappeared during the course of registering to vote in Chicago four years earlier; he wasn’t implicated in any criminal wrongdoing. Christian Rudowitz (Rudewitz) is buried in the Gleason Cemetery, which is separate from the Latvian cemetery. The Gleason (Lincoln County), Wisconsin area was the home of a Latvian colony beginning in 1897.

– Artis Inka

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In Transit, Volume 17
Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned By John A. Farrell
The Rudowitz Extradition Case By Frederick C. Giffin
The Rudowitz· Extradition Case By Edwin Maxey
The Chicago Tribune December 29, 1937

photo by Andris Straumanis

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