Henri Barbusse (1873-1935), French communist writer

In September 1932, Jacobi quickly became immersed in the intellectual scene in Moscow as can be seen in her photographs of the events surrounding the arrival of the French communist writer Henri Barbusse (1873-1935). According to Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat, “Jacobi was invited to be the official photographer” at the banquet in honor of Barbusse that included many important foreign and Russian intellectuals (Beckers and Moortgat 121). The day after photographing his arrival at the Moscow train station and the meeting of the Revolutionary Writers’ Guild on September 20, Jacobi photographed the reception for Barbusse, which was held at the Hotel Metropol, just off Red Square. The photographs show that Barbusse was welcomed as a foreign dignitary.

Photographer unknown, Lotte Jacobi Holding Her Camera while Leaning into Car with Henri Barbusse, Moscow, Russia, USSR, ca. September 20-21, 1932

Prominent in the International Bureau of Revolutionary Literature, Barbusse was one of the many foreign writers the Soviet authorities invited to Moscow to enhance its reputation as a cultural center. They were also encouraged to write about the triumphs of the Soviet Union for an international audience. Jacobi played a similar roll, as she was given credentials to document the USSR through her photographs. Thus, on his trip to Moscow in 1932, Barbusse, like Jacobi, was taken on the typical VOKS tours that showcased specific areas of industrialization, new housing, education, and the like (Gough 80). (Ultimately, Jacobi’s photographs weren’t published in the Soviet press.)

Lotte Jacobi, Reception for Henri Barbusse at a Railway Station, Moscow, September 20, 1932

A “Friend of the Soviet Union” in the 1930s, Barbusse was an enthusiastic supporter of the Russian Revolution, Lenin, and Stalin. Born north of Paris in Asnières-sur-Seine, Barbusse moved to the French capital as a teenager. He gained fame in his forties when in 1916 he published the novel Le Feu (The Fire), based on his first-hand experiences in the trenches during World War I. By the 1920s, he was widely known for his anti-militaristic, pacifist views. For Barbusse, the Soviet Union offered solutions for the inequities of capitalism and was an alternative to fascism. He saw Lenin as the “Messiah” (Sobanet 361).

In his 1935 biography, Staline: Un Monde Nouveau Vu à travers un Homme (Stalin: A New World Seen through One Man), Barbusse depicted Stalin, too, as “as a new Messiah for the proletarians of the world” (Sobanet 362). Barbusse was one of the leading foreign public intellectuals whom Stalin interviewed to write his biography. He developed a close relationship with Stalin, whom he first met on a trip to Moscow in 1927. He then met with Stalin on subsequent trips to the Soviet Union—in 1932, 1933, and 1934—as well as corresponded with the Soviet leader (Kotkin 225). The task of writing the biography was first offered to the French writer André Gide, who declined, but was then given to Barbusse after he had submitted a book proposal in 1933 (Sobanet 362).

Lotte Jacobi, Henri Barbusse(center) Conversing with Officials at a Restaurant (Hotel Metropol ?), Moscow, September 21, 1932

In his article analyzing Barbusse’s biography of Stalin, Andrew Sobanet has discussed how the book was important for the evolution of the Stalin personality cult, and as such, it served as Soviet propaganda. The cult of Lenin had set the precedent; Barbusse wrote, “Stalin is the Lenin of today” (quoted in David-Fox 232). The biography was glaringly uncritical, as it was clear by the time Barbusse wrote Staline that many were forced to work in building the new society, were starving, or had died under the heavy hand of “the man of steel.” Rather, Barbusse humanized him and was instrumental in establishing the myth that Stalin was a humble leader greatly loved by his people (Sobanet 364). Sobanet asks, was this “complicity,” or “gullibility”? (371).

His book Staline determined how Barbusse was viewed in France in the 1930s and the manner in which he was ignored after World War II. At first the book was well-received, and to this day, there are those in France who either overlook his embrace of Stalin or excuse it by saying that Barbusse’s experience from WWI led him to take that terrible path from pacificism to violence for the greater good. But, mostly, Barbusse is now forgotten, no doubt due to his support of Stalin, despite his prominence as a leading French intellectual of the inter-war years (Sobanet 370-371).

On August 30, 1935, Henri Barbusse died of pneumonia in Moscow and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His death was front page news in Paris—he was called the "soldat de la paix” (soldier of peace) (Sobanet 368). The Russian translation of Staline was published the year after Barbusse’s death.

Moscow, People of Note  

Contributor: Eleanor Hight

Works Cited:

Barbusse, Henri.  Le Feu: Journal d'une Escouade. Paris, 1916.

Barbusse, Henri. Staline: Un Monde Nouveau Vu à travers un Homme. Paris, 1935. Paris: Editions L'Harmattan, 2006. Stalin: A New World Seen through One Man. Trans. V. Holland. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

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

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

Gough, Maria. "Portrait Under Construction: Lotte Jacobi in Soviet Russia and Central Asia." October, vol. 173, 2020, pp. 65-117.

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin: Volume 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Sobanet, Andrew. “Henri Barbusse, Official Biographer of Joseph Stalin.” French Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 4, 2013, pp. 359–75, https://doi.org/10.1177/0957155813501119.