Soviet cartoonist Boris Efimov
Editor’s Note. Kevin McNeer, an American documentary film maker living in Moscow recently made a documentary about the life of Boris Efimov, one of the most famous Russian political cartoonists of the 20th century. In this article, Kevin shares some of the insights he gained during his meetings with the artist.
Text by Kevin McNeer
The political cartoonist Boris Efimov drew his way through the 20th century in Russia. By the time he passed away last year at 108, his pen had churned out political cartoons for Soviet newspapers and magazines on just about every major world event of the past hundred years. Whether it was during the dark days of WWII, when Russia faced annihilation by the Nazis – who had orders to hang Efimov on sight – or during the super- power days of the Cold War, Efimov always had an inexhaustible supply of images and jokes to deploy against the enemy. His list of satirical casualties ranges from the Tsar to Ronald Reagan, from the epoch of the horse-drawn carriage to the space age.
While perhaps not as skilled a draughtsman or portrait artist as some of his contemporaries, Efimov had an abundance of wit and was exceptionally well read, which gave his drawings a stinging conceptual punch. A telling example is a Efimov drawing from World War II described by Vladimir Mochalov, a fellow cartoonist and artistic director of the famous satirical magazine, Krokodil: “Boris Efi mov published a famous cartoon with the caption: ‘A True Aryan is Tall’, and he drew a small, scrawny Goebbels; ‘A True Aryan is Fit’, and he drew a fat Goering; and, ‘A True Aryan is Blond’, for which he drew Hitler with his black bangs. This was an absolutely timely, witty drawing, a classic political cartoon that you might call: aiming straight between the eyes.” In the bleak early years of the war, cartoons like this one played a critical role in maintaining morale. Efimov himself says about those cartoons, “I have an entire folder of letters from frontline soldiers who thanked me for those cartoons, who wrote me, ‘Draw their faces even funnier, because then it’s more fun to pull the trigger.’”
I first met Boris in 2005 at his apartment on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, just across the Moscow River from the White House, when I arrived with a film crew to make a documentary film about him. At 104, he was still drawing, answering letters, writing articles and exercising his ever felicitous wit. The film was initially planned as a short, cute portrait of an ancient man who had witnessed some of the most momentous events in the 20th century – the Russian Revolution, two world wars, the Stalinist Terror – and, miraculously, survived them. I wanted to take the viewer on a visual odyssey through the whole century using Boris’s countless political cartoons. But these plans took an unexpected turn when, in preparation for the shoot, I read his autobiography. Much of the book was devoted to Efimov’s older brother, Mikhail Koltsov, a famous journalist who was arrested and executed under Stalin. I became increasingly interested in the brothers’ relationship to each other and their relationship to Stalin. How could Efimov have continued working for a regime that had killed his brother and best friend? What was his attitude toward Stalin now? This is what we ended up discussing for hours over the course of several summer afternoons, with Efimov taking breaks to draw, browse through his old photographs and cartoons, and recommend books I should read, such as Trotsky’s autobiography, My Life, or The Count of Monte Cristo (better in the original French, he advised).
The two brothers Boris and Mikhail grew up under the Tsar. When the Revolution and Civil War broke out, they supported the Bolsheviks and adopted different surnames, because reprisals were often carried out against whole families, and Kiev, where they lived, was constantly changing hands. As Jews in Ukraine, which before and during the Revolution saw vicious anti-Semitic pogroms, Boris and Mikhail had learned well how to survive by hiding their identities (the family’s real name was Friedlund). (This experience and the Stalinist terror certainly helped to make Boris into a master of the evasive answer, incidentally. It was often difficult to get Efimov to express opinions on some of his cartoons: As a Jew, did he really support the Arabs when he drew dozens of cartoons critical of Israel during The Six-Day War? “Well, that depends on what you mean…” he answered, and never really answered.)
It was Koltsov who brought Boris to Moscow, who helped him find work as a cartoonist. Koltsov was well connected, and by the 30s, his was a star on the rise. He covered the Civil War in Spain for Pravda, palled around with Earnest Hemingway there and wrote a book about it that made him the most famous journalist in the Soviet Union. With Stalin’s encouragement, he was made an editor at Pravda and a deputy in the Duma. And Efimov, for his part, was already being published regularly in the country’s biggest papers. Both brothers were celebrities.
Only after Stalin’s death, did Efimov learn that his brother had been executed.
Then one day, Stalin dropped a macabre hint to Koltsov: “Comrade Koltsov, have you ever thought of shooting yourself?” Efimov’s older brother was spooked, but he continued to work for and believe in Stalin’s regime. Just over a year later, he was arrested and officially sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. Only after Stalin’s death, did Efimov learn that his brother had been executed.
Did you not see it all coming, I had asked, with the mass arrests taking more and more people? Efimov told me how his brother and he were talking late one night in the 30s about the arrests, and his brother had said, “I can’t understand a thing about what’s going on. Where are all these enemies among us coming from? People who for years we’ve worked with, fought alongside, been friends with, suddenly turn out to be enemies of the people and instantly confess to everything. As soon as they end up behind bars… they confess to all their crimes. As Pravda editor, it would seem I should understand this and explain it to people, but I am like the last man on Earth: I can’t understand anything about what is happening.”
“But still,” I pressed, “Koltsov must have understood, but perhaps couldn’t admit that Stalin was the source of the evil, or…?”
Boris thought, and answered, “It would seem he must have understood that Stalin was doing it. But why? It was strange. It didn’t make sense. Stalin was such a wise person. Koltsov would tell me his jokes, observations and responses. He liked Stalin.” The more I learned about Koltsov’s activities in Spain, the clearer it became that he worked very closely with Stalin and that he was likely responsible, or at least aware of executions of supporters of Franco carried out there, i.e., Koltsov, whatever his noble intentions might have been, also probably had blood on his hands.
The marathon interview sessions wore on me, and they must have worn on Efimov. Not only his age but the fact that we were talking about his life, his brother’s death and events that had deep emotional resonance for him. Often Boris would suddenly stop the interview and thank us – with excessive politeness – for coming, in a not-so-subtle hint for us to leave. But other times, he became so engrossed in the story he was telling that it seemed he could go on through the night. Once, when I asked him if he were tired, he shot back with a smile: “Are YOU tired? Maybe YOU need a break?” And so he went on with his stories, listing full names and dates from the 20s and 30s as if he were reading from a prepared text.
I challenged him about his support for Stalin’s purges, his drawings during the infamous Show Trials of the 30s, when Efimov published vicious political cartoons against his friends, including Bukharin and Trotsky, depicting them as Nazis and spies when he knew the accusations against them were false. The cartoonist was sent by Izvestia to cover Bukharin’s trial, and it was expected that he would portray Bukharin as guilty: “What was I supposed to say when I heard with my own ears how he confessed that he was a traitor, a turncoat, an enemy of Soviet power? It was a complicated time. Now it’s fine to criticize. I am not Giordano Bruno to burn at the stake on a matter of principle. I knew that if I said, ‘No, I won’t!’ I would end up in the very same place. My family, my wife would be killed. I recall those cartoons with aggravation, with shame, with disappointment, but I couldn’t have acted differently then.”
Not everyone accepts this answer. The Internet has more than a few nasty postings about Efimov and the propaganda he delivered for Stalin’s regime, as well as about his brother. In response to Efimov calling his supernatural longevity a gift of the years taken from his brother’s life, one well-known Russian artist, Mikhail Zlatkovsky, wrote: “It is exceedingly difficult for me to imagine how our unhappy country would have endured the proposed longevity of his older brother, Mikhail Koltsov…”
For me, the most difficult part of Efimov’s attitude to understand was his obvious respect for and sense of gratitude toward Stalin – gratitude for not killing him after his brother had been killed. “He gave me my life and my work – how can I not be grateful for that?” Efimov said. “He could have lifted his little finger, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.”
“But,” I objected, “Stalin didn’t have the right to grant or deny people life! Although, maybe…”
Efimov completed my thought: “He didn’t have the right, but he had the capability, the power to do it.”
Boris and I would go back and forth about this as we filmed, and after one such session, he suddenly realized how bizarre what he was saying must have sounded to me. It was a striking moment of self awareness – he saw himself from my perspective, the perspective of a young American who couldn’t fathom what life in the Soviet Union in the 30s was like. On the tape, Boris looks at me almost sympathetically (poor boy, he’ll never get it), and says, “It’s complex, of course, psychologically complex. And the question is complex.” The terrible fact, however, is that this self-awareness did not change Boris’s position: “I still can’t renounce the idea that I am indebted to him for my life.”