Anna “Asja” Lācis

Anna “Asja” Lācis, Archival and documentary materials, installation view, Grimmwelt Kassel, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Liz Eve

Anna “Asja” Lācis, Archival and documentary materials, installation view, Grimmwelt Kassel, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Liz Eve

Born in Ķempji, Latvia in 1891; moves to Riga in 1898. Studies at Vladimir Bekhterev’s Institute of Psychoneurological Research in St. Petersburg (1912–13), Šanjavskij Cultural University, and Komissarževskij Theater Studio, Moscow (1915–1918). Establishes Experimental Children’s Theater workshop, Orel (1918–1920). Active in Riga (1920–21). Visits Germany and meets Fritz Lang, Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, Bernhard Reich (1922–23). Assistant to Brecht for production of The Life of Edward II in Munich; meets Walter Benjamin in Capri (1924). Active in Riga; visited by Benjamin (1925). Emigrates to Moscow (1926). Lives in Berlin with Benjamin (1929). Assistant to Piscator for Revolt of the Fishermen of Santa Barbara (1930). Enrols at Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VgiK). Theater director in Latvian Skatuve Theater. Postdoctoral studies at Lunačarskij Institute for Theater (1933). Works in Smolensk and Kislovodsk with children, collective farm theaters. Sentenced to ten years forced labor in Kazakhstan (1938).

Walter Benjamin meets Asja Lācis in Capri (May–September, 1924). In the fall, Lācis persuades Bertolt Brecht to meet Benjamin. Lācis and Benjamin’s article “Naples,” introducing concept of “porosity,” published in Frankfurter Zeitung (1925). Benjamin makes surprise visit to Riga in 1925 and visits Lācis in Moscow (December 1926–February 1927, see Moscow Diaries). In 1928 Benjamin publishes Einbahnstraße with a dedication: “This street is named Asja Lācis Street, after her who as an engineer cut it through the author”. Book includes chapters on Benjamin’s visit to Riga: “Ordnance,” “Stereoscope,” and “Chinese Curios.” In 1929–30 Lācis and Benjamin live together in Berlin. Around 1929 Benjamin writes “Program for a Proletarian Children’s Theaterupon request by Lācis, based on her Orel experience. Contact between the two is reestablished through letters between 1934–36. Benjamin, in exile, is closely linked with Brecht. Lācis tries to organize Benjamin’s escape to the Soviet Union. Lācis finds out about tragic end of Benjamin only upon return from prison camps. Earlier letters, according to Dagmāra Ķimele, were confiscated by the KGB.

In early 1938 Lācis is arrested, imprisoned at Butyrki prison, and sentenced to ten years forced labor in Kazakhstan. She is accused of being part of a secret Latvian fascist nationalist organization at the Latvian Skatuve Theater in Moscow. Majority of Skatuve members are falsely accused, executed, or imprisoned in gulags. Lācis organizes inmates’ theater while in Karaganda. Returns to Latvia (1948). Works at the Valmiera Theater, first as guest then as chief director. Is officially rehabilitated (1955). Re-establishes contact with Brecht and Piscator and officially joins the Communist Party (1955). Marries Reich (1957). Hildegard Brenner publishes a letter by Lācis in Alternative magazine (1956–57). Retires and works on memoirs, writings (1958). In 1967 Lācis’s work is rediscovered in East Germany.Program for a Proletarian Children’s Theater is published illegally in East Germany (1968). Revolutionar im Beruf is released in 1971, later translated into Italian, Spanish, French. Dies in Riga on November 22, 1979.

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