The life of the Soviet Union’s greatest political cartoonist….
Political satire and in particular, political cartoons are without doubt, one of the world’s great institutions. They can claim a rich history of being both gloriously independent and fiercely patriotic depending upon which side of the democratic fence you find yourself. Anyone who is interested in politics will, no doubt, have their own particular favourite but how many of us look beyond the humorous caption or skilful artwork and truly appreciate the artist and their work?
Be in no doubt that the political cartoonist is an artist. Cartoons, be them political, comedic or juvenile have long played an important part in world history and in the periods before, during and after the Great Wars they often played a crucial role in boosting the morale of both soldier and citizen. It is difficult to understand how influential a cartoon could be in this regard, propaganda played a huge role in both wars as well as during the Cold War and the cartoon was often the only yardstick by which to measure one’s own country’s attitude to a certain situation or neighbour.
We should pause for a moment to consider what it must have been like to have been a cartoonist under a dictatorship, the fear of disapproval, the pun taken in the wrong context and the constant battle to rein in their own personal beliefs for the sake of the party machine. Consider if you will, the role of chief political cartoonist for Stalin, the ultimate dictator who ruled his people with a cast iron fist.
Boris Efimov was without doubt the greatest cartoonist of the Soviet Union era. A man who lived through the whole of the twentieth century from 1900 until his death in 2008, he was particularly prolific during the Second World War and his cartoons from this period are legendary. It is remarkable to write about a man whose career lasted ninety years, a man who was present at the Nuremberg Trials (see below) for no other reason than to poke fun at the Nazi defendants on the orders of Stalin before turning his comedic pen on Western Leaders in a warm-up to the start of the Cold War.
Having changed his name during the Russian Revolution to hide his Jewish background, Efimov turned his back on a legal career to produce cartoons for the Kiev Red Army and first became a published artist in 1919. By the early 1920s he had moved to Moscow and was building a reputation as a cartoonist for, amongst others, the famous Krokodil Magazine. By 1924 his stock had risen sufficiently to see his work published in a book with a forward by no less a man than Leon Trotsky.
But it was a combination of his Jewish upbringing and Trotsky’s friendship which would prove testing for Efimov’s very survival. His brother, who had secured him a job on Ogonek Magazine was arrested and executed during Stalin’s ‘Great Purge’ in 1940 but luckily, Stalin appreciated his work and skill and saw him as a useful tool in his propaganda machine. Not enough to allow a caricature of the ‘great leader’ though, cartoons of Stalin by Russians from this period are very few and far between and Efimov quite wisely turned his attentions to Churchill and Roosevelt.
Efimov’s greatest work was concentrated on Nazi Germany and Hitler in particular. He drew his cartoons under a cloud of ever present fear of the communist state. In an interview shortly before his death he recalled how he and his colleagues would not know from one day to the next if they would become one of the ‘disappeared’ which unquestionably drove them to create ever more anti-imperialist cartoons in a bid to secure their safety.
What, I wonder would his work have really looked like if he could have drawn in a free, democratic society? How would he have documented the reality of life under Stalin? We shall never know but his work, however one-sided should be remembered for it’s skill and the climate in which they were created.