August 23, 1932, to end of January, 1933.
Lotte Jacobi’s photographs of the USSR offer a window onto the sweeping changes—political, economic, social, and cultural—taking place in Russia and Central Asia in the 1930s under the Soviet State. Jacobi arrived during a period in the early 1930s when the welcome for foreign visitors reached its peak. Armed with a press pass from Soiuzfoto, the official Soviet photo agency, Jacobi embarked on her six-month trip in August 1932. She traveled by train from Berlin to Moscow, on to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and then back to Moscow at the end of her trip. In seven cities, and a number of day trips, she took photographic portraits of intellectuals, politicians, and people on the street, as well as views of cities, towns, and new Soviet, as well as historic Islamic, architecture. Agriculture, industrialization, the unveiling of women, Russian education, political rallies, and trade in historic cities along the Silk Road were among the many noteworthy subjects she explored with her camera.
The Prescribed Tours of VOKS and Introurist
Jacobi’s itinerary in the USSR was typical of those arranged in the early 1930s for many Germans, as well as others from Western Europe and the United States. The Soviet government hosted artists, writers, journalists, and other members of the Western intelligentsia. Originally its goal, as has been persuasively explored by Katerina Clark, was to make Moscow the “Fourth Rome,” the new cultural capital of the world (Clark 20-30). A typical reception committee for friends of the Soviet Union might include the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, the theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky, the journalist and magazine editor Mikhail Kolzov, and the playwright, poet, and journalist Sergei Tretyakov.
This cultural diplomacy also served as a form of propaganda and soft power. The state meant to educate Western visitors, known as “friends of the Soviet Union,” about the progress of modern development in the USSR. Visitors toured the sites of industrial development, scientific discovery, and efficient collective farming. At the same time, the government hoped to convert visitors to the power of socialism.
Initially, VOKS, the All Union Society for Cultural Ties Abroad, was especially important for planning, and controlling, the visits of Westerners. The Soviet government created this agency in 1925 for several purposes. On one hand, foreigners traveling in the Soviet Union followed set VOKS itineraries, which were designed to showcase specific sites as models of Soviet life, culture, and development. Visitors were accompanied by VOKS guides and translators, and often by Soviet diplomats and intellectuals. The guides had their own guidebooks for how to discuss particular sites, as well as training in how to deflect negative comments by skeptical foreigners who weren’t seduced by the official spiel (David-Cox 119). Visitors were taken to private homes, the theater, new housing projects, collective farms, and industrial complexes, many of which were still being built.
With a growing number of travelers to the USSR, the Soviet government founded Intourist in 1929 to accommodate them. Intourist published guidebooks to the USSR in different languages, including German, French, and English. Like VOKS, it had prescribed itineraries that emphasized sites illustrating the progress of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. In cities on the prescribed itineraries, guides wearing Intourist badges met tourists at the train station and led them to the Intourist “bases,” usually at the center of town, which provided information on Intourist hotels, apartments, or rooms to rent, as well as options for local tours.
The carefully orchestrated itineraries of VOKS and Intourist were meant to show the “USSR in construction” (the name of a prominent Soviet journal)—industrial complexes, housing and schools for workers, smiling farmers and factory workers. Guides were trained to counteract anti-Soviet sentiment and minimize visitors’ exposure to unflattering aspects of Soviet modernization projects. They tried to shield foreign eyes from food shortages and widespread hunger, lousy infrastructure, and unfinished construction projects, all of which were hard to miss. In the memoir of his time in the USSR in the early 1930s (right when Jacobi was there), the American engineer Zara Witkin noted such deficiencies and often complained of poor railway and housing arrangements made through Intourist. It is no coincidence that not only did Jacobi’s trip to Central Asia follow that described in Egon Erwin Kisch’s 1932 book, Asien gründlich verändert (Changing Asia), but the itineraries of Jacobi and Kisch were generally the same as those of many other Western visitors.
The best evidence we currently have for the stops and duration of Jacobi’s trip comes from the cross-referencing of her 1932-1933 daybook, as well as her time-consuming labeling of negatives with Gary Samson in the 1980s. (Both her daybook and her negatives may be found in The Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire.) Jacobi went by train to seven cities overall: Moscow and Michurinsk in Russia; Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent in Uzbekistan; Khodjent (now Khujand) and Stalinabad (now Dushanbe) in Tajikistan. Dates are approximate, as some dates were not noted in her daybook.
Contributor: Eleanor M. Hight
Clark, Katerina. Moscow: The Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941. Harvard University Press, 2011.
David-Fox, Michael. Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to the Soviet Union, 1921-1941. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Intourist. A Pocket Guide to the Soviet Union. Moscow and Leningrad: Vneshtorgisdat, 1932.
Kisch, Egon Erwin. Asien gründlich verändert (Changing Asia). Berlin: Erich Reiss Verlag, 1932. English version: Changing Asia. Trans. Rita Reil. New York: Knopf, 1935.
Jacobi, Lotte. Daybook. Lotte Jacobi Archive, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, Box 33, Folder 1.
Maillart, Ella K. Turkestan Solo: A Journey through Central Asia. Translated by John Rodker. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1935.
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.