Rare Book Monthly
Articles - November - 2008 Issue
Stalin's Cartoonist Passes On
The most terrifying time in his frightening life came in 1947. He was told by an aid to Stalin to produce a cartoon depicting Eisenhower leading troops into the peaceful Arctic, a response to the U.S. setting up surveillance in the area. As those who study globes (as opposed to maps) know, the shortest route from the Soviet Union to the United States is to fly over the Arctic. The following day, Yefimov received a telephone call from Comrad Stalin himself, saying he expected to see the cartoon in three hours. A trembling Yefimov raced to finish the cartoon just in time, and fortunately, Stalin was pleased. He sent it back with a few notations in red, including a caption, which the cartoonist naturally used. The cartoon shows Eisenhower and his troops advancing on a befuddled, peaceful Eskimo family outside its igloo. Stalin evidently did not notice an error - the presence of a penguin near the igloo (penguins live only in the Antarctic, not the Arctic).
With the passing of Stalin and his era, life became more comfortable for Yefimov. People were still carted off to the gulag, but generally it was for actually opposing the government, rather than the random whim of a paranoid leader who might come to fear even his closest friends. Yefimov drew western leaders as fat, greedy capitalists, and all was fine. If he could survive Stalin, he could survive anything. He lived because he learned how to parrot the appropriate party line in clever cartoons, while never uttering an original thought of his own. He was a witness to power, but a witness who kept quiet, stayed in the background, and did as he was told.
In interviews later in life, Yefimov spoke of the terrifying reality of the day. People lived in this strange reality where there was constant fear, and yet you had to act like everything was wonderful. He once wrote, "How can one describe the mood of people...who had no possibility of vindicating themselves because there were no charges against them, who understood the full horror of their position, the ominous danger hanging over them and those close to them, and at the same time had to act as if there was no cause for concern, as if everything was all right, had to preserve their cheerfulness and capacity to work?" It is indescribable, but Yefimov did what he knew he must to survive, and, as his age testifies, was very good at it.
As for Stalin, the cartoonist had ambivalent feelings. He saw the Soviet leader as a tyrant who killed his brother, but also as the person who allowed him to survive and have a very successful career. He saw his own long life as something of a balance for the short one of his brother.
Yefimov stopped his regular cartooning in the late years of the Soviet Union, at a time when his caricatures of Americans no longer needed to be so harsh. However, he retained extraordinary vigor to an amazing age. He published his memoirs at the age of 100. Last year, a one-man exhibition of his cartoons was held in Moscow, which the 107-year-old artist attended. Also at the age of 107, he was named head artist for his old employer, Izvestia. Perhaps, in these tough economic times, we too will see 107-year-olds forced to reenter the work force. He was honored with an official proclamation by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on his 108th birthday on September 28, and then again three days later when he died. Medvedev stated his "...bright memory will live forever in our hearts." Yefimov probably would have described his life more prosaically, as he did in an interview with the Los Angeles Times at the age of 100: "you live and then you go on living."