Yefimov 'survived not because of Stalin's generosity of soul, but because his talents as a cartoonist'
MOSCOW - Celebrated political cartoonist Boris Yefimov, who drew brutally satirical images of the Soviet Union's foes in the service of Josef Stalin, died Wednesday. He was 108.
Yefimov's death was given wide coverage on Russian state television. No cause was given.
His cartoons spanned virtually the entire history of the communist state, from shortly after the 1917 revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Among his most memorable drawings was one showing a wretched-looking Hitler, who is said to have ordered Yefimov shot if the Nazis captured Moscow in World War II. Instead, Yefimov was sent after the war to the Nuremburg trials to draw the Nazis as they faced justice.
Yefimov also turned his pen against the United States. His Cold War drawings portrayed Uncle Sam and American leaders as warmongers and money-grubbing capitalists.
In his later years he told the story of Stalin personally ordering him in 1947 to draw U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower arriving with a large army to claim the North Pole. Stalin made his own corrections to the cartoon, in red crayon.
Yefimov acknowledged ambivalence about his role as Stalin's helper, but he expressed great pride in his historic role.
"To a certain extent, cartoons were weapons," he said in a 2002 interview with The Associated Press.
Many of his cartoons ran in the newspaper Izvestia, whose current editor paid tribute to Yefimov in a televised interview Wednesday.
"Much of what he did will never sink into oblivion," said editor Vladimir Mamontov.
"On the contrary, his works will remain not only as witnesses of the epoch, but ... as a clear understanding of human nature, people's characters, politics and life in general."
Yefimov's birthday was Sunday.
Boris Yefimov: Russian cartoonist who was a friend of Trotsky and a propagandist for Stalin
Boris Yefimov was a richly gifted cartoonist and caricaturist, who had a ringside seat at events which shaped the 20th century. Most of all however, he was a survivor – in a country, the Soviet Union, that for much of its existence made survival impossible for a tragically vast number of its citizens.
In the new tsardom of Vladimir Putin, the history of Russia was carved on the wrinkled, deeply etched face of an old man. The first 95 days of Yefimov's life were spent in the 19th century. As an enthralled child, he had watched the emperor Nicholas II travelling in his coach through the streets of Kiev. He witnessed the birth of the Soviet Union and was tossed on the tides of two world wars.
Yefimov was a friend and admirer of Trotsky. He was also a Jew to boot. Yet he survived, not because of Stalin's generosity of soul, but because his talents as a cartoonist, both as humorist and biting propagandist, were irreplaceable assets for the regime. The ages of Gorbachev and then Yeltsin passed, the Soviet Union itself took leave of history. But Yefimov outlived everything and everyone, in his apartment in a block overlooking the Moscow River where he continued to draw and write, surrounded by his mementoes – among them a letter from Trotsky, and a cartoon ordered by Stalin and carrying amendments in the great man's own hand.
Boris Yefimov was born Boris Fridland in Kiev on 28 September 1900, the second son of a Jewish shoemaker. Later he would change his name to Yefimov, his father's given name, to conceal his ancestry. Though born with a talent to draw, he never had a lesson and never set out to be a cartoonist – his ambition was to be a lawyer. But the small matter of the Russian revolution intervened.
Willing or not, Yefimov was swept up in the drama. Aged just 18, he first heard Trotsky speak in a square in Kiev: "His voice was electric," he would remember, "he was overflowing with talent ... beautiful words, beautiful ideas, powerful locution, a brilliant man." Not long afterwards his elder brother Mikhail, already a journalist, suggested he draw a political cartoon for his paper. Though unconvinced, Boris agreed. Thus was launched a career that would last more than 80 years.
Yefimov was not a rebel or dissident, he was simply lucky. As it was, friendship with Trotsky nearly finished him. In 1924 he published his first book, Politicheskiye Karikatury, which included a glowing foreword from Trotsky. But already the mortal struggle between Stalin and Trotsky was developing, and Yuri Steklov, editor of the Party paper Izvestia, was reluctant to print Trotsky's introduction. He did so however, and later would pay for the mistake with his life.
So too would Mikhail, who as editor of the magaz ine Ogonyok in 1923, had the temerity to publish a photospread on Trotsky, despite being warned off by Stalin. Such slights were not forgotten. In December 1938, Boris's beloved brother was arrested as an "enemy of the people" and executed 13 months later. More than six decades later, the loss still haunted him. "In the place where the fate of people is decided, those years that were taken from him were given to me."
In those days, when one member of a family was arrested, the others were soon rounded up, and Yefimov had packed a bag in readiness. But the knock on the door never came. Unbeknown to him, he had been picked by Stalin as the regime's propanda cartoonist. His style was crude and unsubtle, but his sneering depictions of Hitler, Goebbels and the rest in the Second World War, and then of Eisenhower, Truman and Churchill as allies against the Nazis turned into Cold War foes, became a national trademark.
Yefimov never pretended to like Stalin, but during the war consoled himself that his work was important as a weapon against Fascism. Most important, he understood that if he was to survive, he had to do what he was told. In that sense, he was just another apparatchik, imbued with the fatalism that is Russia's great strength and perhaps its greatest weakness. "Human beings are creatures who can get used to anything," he told an interviewer shortly after entering his second century. "You live, and then you go on living. They haven't touched you, they took your neighbour. But that's your neighbour, not you."
His own feelings were immaterial. If the Party wanted something, Yefimov delivered. He confessed to a liking for Churchill, "and then it was announced that he was our enemy, and we had to draw cartoons about him." One cartoon showed Churchill looking into a mirror and seeing the reflection of Hitler. "I didn't believe it," he would remember, "but that was government policy. It was a situation against which I could not act."
After Stalin's death in 1953, life became a little less frightening for most Russians, including Yefimov. He warmed to Nikita Khrushchev, had no time for the "paper-pusher" Leonid Brezhnev, but heaped praise on Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last President, as a genuine reformer who removed the threat of nuclear war with America.
By then Yefimov was a national treasure, who had weathered every storm of Russia's traumatic 20th century. On his 107th birthday, he was given the honorific post of the chief artist of Izvestia, the paper he had worked with, through thick and thin, for more than 80 years. He died two days after he reached 108.
Boris Yefimovich Fridland (Boris Yefimov), cartoonist: born Kiev 28 September 1900; married twice (two sons); died Moscow 1 October 2008.