“Tied by a Single String.” Cartoon by Boris Efimov, Izvestiia, 7 January 1975. Two vultures fly above the Middle East. The top vulture is labeled “Interests of Oil Monopolies”; the bottom vulture, “Military Adventurism.”

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Efimov, Boris Efimovich

(Fridliand; 1900–2008), Soviet political caricaturist and memoirist who was, for some time, the world's oldest living Jew. During his heyday, which lasted from the 1920s to the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Efimov was an obedient satirist whose brilliant cartoons depicted Soviet policy on the pages of its major newspapers and magazines: Izvestiia, Pravda, and Krokodil. His career was interrupted for several years following the arrest in 1938 of his brother, the writer Mikhail Kol’tsov, who was shot as an enemy of the people in 1940. Efimov was devoted to his brother, trying to secure his release even after—unbeknownst to him—Kol’tsov had been killed. Either because he was valuable to Stalin or because of the peculiar randomness of the Soviet Terror, Efimov himself was spared and brought back to his former position, at first anonymously. He was the recipient of numerous Soviet medals and was named a member of the Academy of Arts. In addition to many collections of cartoons, he published four volumes of memoirs, beginning at age 70 and ending at 100.

Efimov was born in Kiev, where his father had an official document allowing him to engage in shoe repair. Soon after, however, the family left for Belostok (Białystok), where Efimov and his older brother began their schooling. Efimov did not go to art school. The instability of those revolutionary years put him first in Khar’kov (1917) and then, the next year, in Kiev. His first caricature, of the poet Aleksandr Blok, appeared in 1918, and his earliest political cartoon a year later. By 1922 he was in Moscow, where, helped by his brother's ties as well as his own formidable talent, he became associated with the Soviet Union's two major newspapers Pravda and Izvestiia, and the satirical magazines Krokodil (founded in 1922) and Chudak (1928–1930; Efimov began in its second year).

“General Condemnation.” Cartoon by Boris Efimov, Izvestiia, 21 August 1973. The phrase on the flag is “arial piracy.”

Efimov’s subjects were the evil-doing enemies of Soviet domestic and international policy. In terms of foreign policy, these were Wall Street capitalists and leaders of European governments, later including NATO. Western opponents were personified variously, and often wittily: the American capital churned out dollars, the Statue of Liberty was caged or in chains, the bourgeoisie of all Western countries were a combination of potbellied and malevolent. Hitler and the Nazi leadership were unending targets throughout World War II, and also during the Nuremberg Trials. Efimov’s drawings from Nuremberg show the defendants' heads emerging from finely drawn bodies of insects and rodents.

At the time of the 1967 and 1973 wars, Efimov satirized Israel. His cartoons from the period personify Israel as a burly, gun-toting aggressor (see image). In some cartoons, the Star of David merges with a skull and crossbones (see image). But Efimov steered clear of the Jewish physical stereotypes and Nazi imagery associated with anti-Israel cartoons in the Soviet press, even though he often drew on Nazi symbolism in his caricatures of Western European leaders.

“The International Law of Tel Aviv Pirates.” Cartoon by Boris Efimov, Izvestiia, 21 July 1976. The word in the cartoon itself is “ Uganda.”

Domestically, Efimov caricatured Stalin's rivals at the time of the show trials. These were not abstract political figures for him: his work on Soviet newspapers had brought him into contact with Trotsky, Bukharin, and many others before their fall. A cartoon he includes in his memoirs shows an iron fist labeled NKVD (the secret police) squeezing a handful of midgets, among them Trotsky, Bukharin, and Rykov. The bodies of the victims end in a single tail, which is itself a swastika (see image). As in the case of the anti-Israel cartoons, Efimov by either luck or design avoided the most egregious manifestations of state antisemitism. Contrary to some reports, he did not publish cartoons on the Doctors’ Plot or the anticosmopolitan campaign.

Efimov’s memoirs are interesting for their self-portrait of a man who was completely aware of Stalin's methods, yet served him without internal resistance or lingering distaste. He remained to the end of his life in anguish over his brother's death, which he attributed directly to Stalin (rather than to L. P. Beria, then the head of the NKVD). But several years after the initial trauma—and fear that he himself would follow the same fate—he lobbied hard for a state award and asked to keep the original of a cartoon that Stalin had himself edited. Efimov admired dissidents: one of the most striking stories he tells is about a friend, Fedor Raskol'nikov, who defected when he was ambassador to Bulgaria during the Terror and published, in a Russian-language French journal in 1939, an open letter attacking Stalin for distorting the Soviet constitution and abandoning socialist principles. In the same spirit, Efimov chronicled the stories of many people who fell in the Terror and many who (unlike himself) were duped. Yet he also, either intentionally or not, conveyed the excitement of those people, often Jews, who found themselves close to the center of power.

“Fist.” An iron fist labeled NKVD (the secret police) squeezes a handful of midgets, among them Trotsky, Bukharin, and Rykov. The bodies of the victims end in a single tail that forms a swastika. Cartoon by Boris Efimov included in his memoirs.

While many of the characters in his books are Jewish, Efimov the memoirist has little to say about being a Jew. As the war ended, he went with the writer Vasilii Grossman to Treblinka and then to Majdanek; while he devotes some strong pages to the horrifying remains of the death camp so recently vacated, he never once—either in harmony with Soviet policy or his own understanding of a general Russian-language audience—uses the word Jew. He did pick up a woman's abandoned prayer book, which he brought back to his mother (much later, according to an interview, he would give it to the Moscow rabbi Berl Lazar). In the more than 600 pages of his fourth memoir, he tells only one memorable Jewish story, about being called to sign an official letter condemning Israel for its aggression in the 1967 war. In his recollection, the meeting is convened by David Zaslavskii, who, as he exits, tells his fellow Jews "Shema Yisroel" (the first two words of the most central prayer in the Jewish liturgy). While the anecdote tells us nothing about Zaslavskii, who, in 1967, had been dead for two years, Efimov’s respect for what he understands as Zaslavskii's self-preserving irony probably tells us something about Efimov himself.

Despite the reticence of the memoirs, Efimov did think about the contradictions of being a Jewish cartoonist in the Soviet state. In the very last piece he wrote, a preface for the book Park Sovetskogo perioda: Sovetsko-izrail’skie otnoshenie v zerkale politicheskoi karikatury (The Park of the Soviet Era: Soviet–Israeli Relations in the Mirror of Political Cartoons [Jerusalem, 2009]), he writes cogently about the reasons the Soviet Union repudiated Israel after voting for its establishment in the United Nations. He discusses antisemitic caricatures during the Doctors’ Plot and anticosmopolitan campaign, as well as the general thrust of those events. He argues that his own anti-Israel cartoons need to be seen as part of an international political context, and views them as understandable at the time but shameful now. Beginning these thoughts, he quotes a verse by his contemporary Boris Slutskii, whose summation of the Russian Jewish condition (more ironic in Russian, where it rhymes) clearly resonated with his own conclusions: A nam, evreiam, povezlo, / Ne priachas' pod fal'shivym flagom, / Na nas bez maski lezlo zlo. / Ono ne pritvorialos' blagom (We Jews were lucky / When evil fell upon us / It did not hide under a false flag / It did not wear a mask / It did not disguise itself as good).

Suggested Reading

Boris Efimov, Boris Jefimow: Karikaturen aus sechs Jahrzehnten (Berlin, 1982); Boris Efimov, Desiat’ desiatiletii: O tom, chto videl, perezhil, zapomnil (Moscow, 2000); Boris Efimov, Boris Efimov v Izvestiiakh: Karikatury za polveka (Moscow, 1969); Boris M. Sandler and Igor’ B. Sandler, Park sovetskogo perioda: Sovetsko-izrail’skie otnoshenie v zerkale politicheskoi karikatury, introduction by Nati Cantorovich (Jerusalem, 2009).