Stalin's Cartoonist Passes On
Yefimov depicted a greedy "Uncle Sam."
By Michael Stillman
A prolific political cartoonist passed away last month. His story is one of the more remarkable ones you will hear. Boris Yefimov is not a name well known in the West, but he was the preeminent cartoonist of the old Soviet Union. He lived to see the entire span of that empire from the inside, from its violent birth through its growth to major world power, and finally its very public collapse and death - all 70+ years of it. What's more, Yefimov saw almost two decades of Russian life both before and after the existence of the Soviet Empire. He was 108 years old when he died.
Boris Yefimov was born in 1900, son of a shoemaker, with ambitions to be a lawyer. In 1911, his father took him to watch Tsar Nicholas II drive by in his coach. He was not impressed. While Boris was not that politically astute, his brother, Mikhail, was. Mikhail was a student, soon to be journalist, when the Revolution broke out in 1917. He soon joined the cause, and by 1919, Boris followed suit. After Mikhail found work in the newspaper business, he invited his younger brother, who had shown a penchant for drawing, to apply for work as a cartoonist. Boris quickly became popular for his drawings.
While Boris never gained personal political influence (thankfully, as this enabled him to be a survivor), he became acquainted with the leading figures of the time. He met Lenin and Bukharin, and was a particular favorite of Trotsky. The latter was so fond of Yefimov's work he agreed to write an introduction to his first book of cartoons. Yefimov's publisher was reluctant to print the introduction, as by 1924, Trotsky and Stalin were becoming rivals, a rivalry in which Trotsky fared quite poorly. Still, the introduction was printed, and the editor paid for that decision with his life. Stalin had him executed. Yefimov was untouched.
Through the 1930s, the cartoonist would plod along doing the regime's bidding. He drew many cartoons of the show trials Stalin staged, appropriately displaying Stalin's rivals as villains. However, not even the greatest displays of loyalty guaranteed safety in Stalin's Soviet Union. Mikhail had many years earlier shown too much deference to Trotsky, and while Stalin could delay judgment, he never forgave. He had Mikhail carted off to the gulag in 1938, and about a year later, had him shot. Boris packed his suitcase when Mikhail was first taken away, as Stalin's custom was to punish his enemies' families as well. However, the knock on the door never came. Boris lost his job, but not his life.
Yefimov's unemployment lasted about as long as his brother's imprisonment, but with a much happier ending. He was rehired as a cartoonist. Yefimov attributed his remarkable survival to Stalin's enjoying his cartoons. He had a talent Stalin appreciated and perhaps felt no one else possessed. This began the greatest time in his career, though he faced his days in constant fear that at any time, some unperceived slight could result in Stalin's wrath and his sharing his brother's fate. Yefimov went to work drawing cartoons of Hitler and the Nazis, ones that portrayed them as the lowly beasts they were. The cartoonist shared these low opinions of those he mocked, so it was easy to put his heart into his work. Hitler placed Yefimov on a list of people to be killed once the Nazis overran Moscow, but he survived this tyrant as well, and lived to attend the Nuremberg trials and draw caricatures of the German war criminals.
After the war, relations between the Soviet Union and the other allied powers broke down, soon to be followed by the Cold War. Yefimov now had to picture western leaders, including Winston Churchill whom he admired, as villains. He complied. He depicted Churchill looking in a mirror and seeing Hitler's image. There was no choice. Either you pleased Stalin or you, and probably your family, would be executed. He went with the lesser of two evils. He would note in later years that he believed, or at least convinced himself, that horrible depictions of the West generated by the Soviets were probably true, so that he was supporting a government that was less evil than the ones he mocked. Sometimes survival requires convincing yourself of things you don't really believe.
Stalin's Cartoonist Passes On
Stalin dreamed up and captioned this Yefimov cartoon of Eisenhower invading the Arctic.
The most terrifying time in his frightening life came in 1947. He was told by an aid to Stalin to produce a cartoon depicting Eisenhower leading troops into the peaceful Arctic, a response to the U.S. setting up surveillance in the area. As those who study globes (as opposed to maps) know, the shortest route from the Soviet Union to the United States is to fly over the Arctic. The following day, Yefimov received a telephone call from Comrad Stalin himself, saying he expected to see the cartoon in three hours. A trembling Yefimov raced to finish the cartoon just in time, and fortunately, Stalin was pleased. He sent it back with a few notations in red, including a caption, which the cartoonist naturally used. The cartoon shows Eisenhower and his troops advancing on a befuddled, peaceful Eskimo family outside its igloo. Stalin evidently did not notice an error - the presence of a penguin near the igloo (penguins live only in the Antarctic, not the Arctic).
With the passing of Stalin and his era, life became more comfortable for Yefimov. People were still carted off to the gulag, but generally it was for actually opposing the government, rather than the random whim of a paranoid leader who might come to fear even his closest friends. Yefimov drew western leaders as fat, greedy capitalists, and all was fine. If he could survive Stalin, he could survive anything. He lived because he learned how to parrot the appropriate party line in clever cartoons, while never uttering an original thought of his own. He was a witness to power, but a witness who kept quiet, stayed in the background, and did as he was told.
In interviews later in life, Yefimov spoke of the terrifying reality of the day. People lived in this strange reality where there was constant fear, and yet you had to act like everything was wonderful. He once wrote, "How can one describe the mood of people...who had no possibility of vindicating themselves because there were no charges against them, who understood the full horror of their position, the ominous danger hanging over them and those close to them, and at the same time had to act as if there was no cause for concern, as if everything was all right, had to preserve their cheerfulness and capacity to work?" It is indescribable, but Yefimov did what he knew he must to survive, and, as his age testifies, was very good at it.
As for Stalin, the cartoonist had ambivalent feelings. He saw the Soviet leader as a tyrant who killed his brother, but also as the person who allowed him to survive and have a very successful career. He saw his own long life as something of a balance for the short one of his brother.
Yefimov stopped his regular cartooning in the late years of the Soviet Union, at a time when his caricatures of Americans no longer needed to be so harsh. However, he retained extraordinary vigor to an amazing age. He published his memoirs at the age of 100. Last year, a one-man exhibition of his cartoons was held in Moscow, which the 107-year-old artist attended. Also at the age of 107, he was named head artist for his old employer, Izvestia. Perhaps, in these tough economic times, we too will see 107-year-olds forced to reenter the work force. He was honored with an official proclamation by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on his 108th birthday on September 28, and then again three days later when he died. Medvedev stated his "...bright memory will live forever in our hearts." Yefimov probably would have described his life more prosaically, as he did in an interview with the Los Angeles Times at the age of 100: "you live and then you go on living."