Feature

Boris Yefimov

The political cartoonist who was a favorite of Stalin

The political cartoonist who was a favorite of StalinBoris Yefimov1899–2008

One day in 1947, Soviet satirist Boris Yefimov was sketching a cartoon for Pravda that depicted Dwight D. Eisenhower leading the U.S. Army in a war against some peaceful Eskimos. The phone rang. It was Josef Stalin. Jumping to his feet, a fearful Yefimov listened as the dictator announced a deadline for the drawing. “Someone will pick it up at 6 p.m.,” Stalin said, and hung up. Panicked, Yefimov finished just as the messenger arrived. Stalin loved the result, even the artist’s errant inclusion of a penguin at the North Pole. It was business as usual for Yefimov, who survived the Soviet terror by ingratiating himself to the man who killed millions.

Yefimov, the son of a Kiev, Ukraine, shoemaker, was attracted to communism after studying art and law, said the Los Angeles Times. Following the 1917 revolution, he joined Izvestia and became so devoted a follower of Leon Trotsky that in 1924 he asked the radical leader to write a foreword to his first book of cartoons. “Trotsky paged through the portfolio, liked what he saw, and agreed.” When Trotsky fell from power, however, Yefimov feared that his association with Stalin’s chief rival might cost him his life. Indeed, in 1940 Stalin ordered the execution of Yefimov’s brother, Mikhail, who had founded the illustrated journal Ogonyok and had “ignored a warning from Stalin in 1923 not to publish a photo spread on Trotsky.” But Yefimov was spared. “It seems Stalin needed a good, experienced cartoonist,” he said. 

“After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Yefimov became the leading cartoonist of the Great Patriotic War,” said the London Daily Telegraph. In his largely illiterate country, his caricatures were invaluable propaganda tools. One Yefimov effort depicted wounded and retreating Wehrmacht soldiers carrying a coffin marked “Myth of the Invincibility of the German Army.” Another showed a shrunken Hitler as a barrel-organ grinder. Yefimov’s lampoons so infuriated the Führer that he vowed to shoot the artist when he captured Moscow. But Yefimov was undaunted. He’d rather confront an angry Hitler, he told friends, than a disappointed Stalin.

Yefimov’s influence diminished after Stalin’s death in 1953. But he became something of  a national treasure in Russia, continuing to draw and regaling visitors for decades with his memories of his Soviet masters. He reflected often on the devil’s bargain he had struck with Stalin: “Yes, he destroyed my brother. He was a villain. He murdered many innocent people. A dreadful man! But still, a certain human logic wins out. He is also the person who granted me my life, my freedom, my work.”

Yefimov died last week, two days after his 109th birthday.

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