Laughter through Tears

Moscow recently hosted a memorable one-artist show, exhibiting the work of legendary political cartoonist Boris Yefimov. The exhibition, entitled "Lessons of 20th Century History in Cartoons," was one of very few exhibitions in the history of art to be opened by a 107 year-old artist.

Cartoonist Boris Yefimov has had an eventful life. He saw Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, in the flesh. He was a friend of the celebrated Silver Age poets and prose writers. He was a frequent visitor in the Kremlin offices of the first Bolshevik leaders, and took part in the Nuremberg trial. The first editions of his cartoons were published in 1924, prefaced by his friend Leo Trotsky.

Like many artists, Yefimov had a delicate relationship with the authorities under Stalin. Once, the fearsome dictator ordered him to produce a cartoon of Dwight Eisenhower. Yefimov was duly summoned to the office of Communist Party Chief of Ideology Andrei Zhdanov in 1947, and told that Comrade Stalin wanted him to make a cartoon "about the impending American military presence in the Arctic."

The artist had barely got home when his telephone rang. "Comrade Stalin wants to speak to you," said the secretary. Stalin said he wanted the cartoon to be ready in an hour and a half.

Failure would surely have meant falling into the hands of secret police chief Lavrenty Beria, who probably would have fitted him up as a spy and saboteur. In fear of his life, the artist worked furiously for 90 minutes until, with some relief, he passed the cartoon to a waiting messenger.

Stalin liked the cartoon but corrected the caption.

Yefimov's brother was, however, less fortunate in this game of chance. Better known by his pen-name Mikhail Koltsov, he was a prominent Soviet figure - a Pravda newspaper correspondent and founder of several political publications. In 1942, Koltsov was arrested in the Pravda editorial office. He was convicted on trumped-up charges and shot.

Throughout his life, Yefimov worked all for the principal Soviet press outlets. In the 1920s, the satirist held Chamberlain and Daladier as his main targets; in the 1930s and 1940s, he turned to Hitler, Mussolini, Goering and Goebbels; later on, he plied his wit on Churchill and Truman.

Yefimov was without doubt one of the main drivers of Soviet propaganda. He produced famous drawings from the show trials which Bolshevik leaders would use to frame each other. But it was perhaps in World War II when he achieved greatest notoriety, producing a gallery of unforgettable cartoons. It is said that Hitler had ordered Yefimov's name on the blacklist of those to be killed as soon as Moscow was taken by Germans.

Today, we can regard the artist and his work as self-contradictory. On the one hand, he was close to the political leadership of the Soviet Union and active in every propaganda campaign. On the other, this was in service to the regime that killed his own brother. Yefimov was a history-making personality not only due to his longevity and central political positioning but, most of all, due to his satirical and artistic gift.

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