Why Did Lotte Jacobi Go to the USSR?

Why would a German photographer such as Lotte Jacobi travel for five months in 1932-1933, from Berlin to Moscow and through the USSR to Central Asia? Though she said very little about why she went on the trip, there are a number of factors that undoubtedly influenced her decision. These include the political climate in Germany, the experiences in the USSR of a number of her friends and associates, and her desire to expand her news reportage to include travel photography. We should add to these the fact that she was curious, an adventurer, and one who traveled widely, through Europe, the USSR, the United States, and Peru.

Cultural Politics

With the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and fascism in Europe more generally, in the late 1920s and 1930s, many European intellectuals such as Jacobi were interested in studying politics and economic development in the USSR. Though she doesn’t seem to have joined the communist party in Berlin, many people she knew were members (Atelier 41). As a communist-sympathizer, she shared their distress over fascism and the economic collapse of the capitalist system during the Great Depression. At the time of Jacobi’s 1932-1933 trip, the USSR was in the midst of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932) to modernize all aspects of Soviet life, especially in education, industrialization, and the collectivization of farms.

Many people in Berlin, where Jacobi lived and worked, followed these new developments in the USSR through their connections with Russian organizations that had branches in the German capital. The Soviet government’s programs in cultural diplomacy, aimed at showcasing progress under the First Five-Year Plan and finding converts to communism, created a number of outlets in Berlin and Moscow for cross-cultural exchange. Primary Soviet tourist organizations, such as VOKS (the All-Union Society for Cultural Ties Abroad) and Intourist, had offices in Berlin. In 1930-31, Jacobi worked at in the Berlin office of VOKS’s photo agency, Press-Klischee Moskau (Atelier 116, 117).

The Society of the Friends of the New Russia (Gesellschaft der Freunde des neuen Russland) sponsored lectures, evenings, and other events in Berlin, and brought important Western intellectuals to Moscow. “Friends” came to refer to foreign intellectual sympathizers of the USSR, as did “fellow-travelers.” Jacobi sold photographs for publication in the society’s journal, Das neue Russland (The New Russia). Many of these people could be found mingling in Berlin’s lively café scene or in the steady stream of visitors to Jacobi’s studio. These are just some of the ways in which Jacobi could be involved in discussions about what was happening in the USSR at the time.

Friends of the Soviet Union

In Berlin, Jacobi knew a number of photographers, artists, and writers, many of whom were communists, that had been to the USSR. Some had been recruited by Russians who had been sent to Berlin for this purpose—among them the journalist Mikhail Kol'tsov, the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, and the writer, poet, and photo-journalist Sergei Tretiakov. The organization Comintern (the Communist International) brought foreign intellectuals to the USSR as part of their program to expand communism globally. The Italian photographer Tina Modotti had met Jacobi in Berlin in 1930 before she moved to Moscow that year. The German photographer John Heartfield, who often used Jacobi's photographs in his photomontages, had been to the USSR in 1931-32. Both these communists had traveled with the help of Comintern (Gough 74, 75).

Other German communists were important connections for Jacobi’s trip to the USSR, including Willi Münzenberg, Max Hoelz, and Ernst Thälmann. A political activist and publisher, Münzenberg was involved with a number of Comintern activities and helped Jacobi arrange her trip. Jacobi’s close friend Hoelz, a communist leader in Germany, lived in Moscow from 1931 to 1933. Later in life, Jacobi said one of the most important connections for her trip to the USSR was a series of photographs she made of Thälmann, the communist candidate for German president in 1932, that provided some funds, as well as an entrée, for her trip. Then, Jacobi’s own mother, Mia Jacobi, had spent a holiday outside of Moscow in February 1931 (Atelier 116, 117).

However, one of most influential friends for Jacobi’s trip to the USSR was Egon Erwin Kisch, a Czechoslovak journalist and writer she met in Berlin. A well-known communist and inveterate traveler, often under the auspices of Comintern, Kisch published a book on his 1925 and 1926 journeys to the Soviet Union, Zaren, Popen, Bolschewicken (Tsars, Priests, and Bolsheviks), and another on his 1931 journey to Soviet Central Asia, Asien gründlich verändert (Changing Asia). In fact, as was first pointed out by Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat, many of Jacobi’s photographs record the types of encounters Kisch described in his book (Russland). This was due not only to the impact of Kisch and his book on Jacobi, but also the fact that foreigners traveling through the Soviet Union at the time followed the routes prescribed by VOKS and Intourist. The standard sites of government sponsored trips through Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan can be seen in a survey of Jacobi’s photographs on this website.

After the USSR

Although later she did include a few photographs from her USSR trip in exhibitions of her work, Jacobi herself seemed to show little interest in revisiting this particular episode in her life or career. Why was this the case?

If in the early 1930s Jacobi had hoped to pivot to travel photography, this didn’t happen. A few of her USSR photographs did appear in the conservative German magazines Volk und Welt (People and the World) and Atlantis, but not under her name. She was unable find buyers for these photographs, since in early 1933, the Nazis shut down Unionbild, Comintern’s photo agency, which according to her contract with them, owned the rights to her USSR photographs (Atelier 133). Most crucially, as a Jewish photographer in Berlin, Jacobi’s work was banned by the National Socialists. In the early 1930s, they shut down Jewish businesses, such as the Jacobis’ Berlin studio.   

If initially she had difficulties in selling her USSR photographs in Germany, her circumstances increasingly made it difficult to focus on promoting this body of work once she emigrated to the US in 1935. Thereafter, neither talking about her time in the USSR, nor publishing her USSR photographs, was a top priority. During the mid-1930s, Jacobi needed to resettle her son and mother and concentrate on building her practice in New York. Nor were the 1940s and 1950s, the period of the Red Scare and McCarthyism in the US, a time to be highlighting her travels in the Soviet Union. No doubt events in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s and 1940s, as well as World War II and the Holocaust, also made the subjects of her USSR photographs too painful for her to revisit. 

Jacobi was in the USSR at the time of the Soviet Famine brought on by the forced collectivization of farms during Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan. Millions of people were starving and died, especially in Ukraine and  Kazakhstan. Even though news of this tragedy was suppressed by the government, Jacobi couldn’t have missed seeing the empty shelves, long food lines, and malnourished people in Moscow and Central Asia. In addition to widespread hunger and poverty, Jacobi was no doubt disillusioned by witnessing the poor infrastructure, with badly paved, often muddy roads, new but already decaying housing, and half-built factories as described at the time by the American engineer Zara Witkin.

Even worse, many of the people she met, and photographed, on her trip were killed in the late 1930s during the Great Purge, also known as the Great Terror, when Stalin eliminated those considered threatening to his complete control of the diverse conglomeration of states in the USSR. The NKVD, the Soviet secret police, killed her good friend Max Hoelz in 1933. Friends of the Soviet Union became designated as enemies, "fellow travelers" became disillusioned.

Remarkably, Jacobi was able to leave Russia with around 2400 of her estimated 6000 USSR negatives. Many were damaged, either scratched in her camera or during the developing process in Moscow (her contractual agreement with Unionbild specified that the negatives had to be developed before she left) (Gough 71). Some were stained or unevenly developed; others dull, utilitarian views.

Nevertheless, hundreds of Jacobi's surviving USSR photographs are powerful visual records. However, without context, they are strangely mute. Posting and contextualizing these  photographs on this website is an essential path forward not only to illuminate Lotte Jacobi’s remarkable experience, but also to open an important window onto life in Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan during this turbulent time under Stalin. We hope that our work here will lead to further inquiry into Jacobi and the USSR during this difficult period in world history.

Who Is Lotte Jacobi

Contributor: Eleanor Hight

Works Cited:

Beckers, Marion., and Elisabeth. Moortgat. Atelier Lotte Jacobi, Berlin, New York . Berlin: Verborgene Museum, 1997.

Beckers, Marion and Elisabeth Moortgat. Russland 1932/33 : Moskau, Tadschikistan, Usbekistan. Berlin: Nishen, 1989.

David-Fox, Michael. Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy & Western Visitors to the Soviet Union 1921-1941. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Gough, Maria. “Portrait Under Construction: Lotte Jacobi in Soviet Russia and Central Asia.” October 173, Summer 2020: 65–117.

Kisch, Egon Erwin. Asien gründlich verändert (Changing Asia). Berlin: Erich Reiss Verlag, 1932. English version: Changing Asia. Trans. Rita Reil. New York: Knopf, 1935.

Kisch, Egon Erwin. Zaren, Popen, Bolschewiken (Tsars, Priests, Bolsheviks). Berlin: Erich Reiss Verlag, 1927.

Witkin, Zara. An American Engineer in Stalin’s Russia: The Memoirs of Zara Witkin, 1932-34. Edited and with an introduction by Michael Gelb. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.