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December 01, 2005

Stalin's Favourite Cartoonist Boris Efimov at the Political Cartoon Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Stalin's Favourite Cartoonist Boris Efimov
Political Cartoon Gallery
32 Store Street, London, WC1E 7BS
18th November - 22nd December 2005
Monday - Friday 9am - 5.30pm, Saturday 11am - 5.30pm
Free Admission

The talented Boris Efimov, who is still drawing at the age of 104, was Stalin's favourite cartoonist and the most famous cartoonist of the Soviet era. Fifty of his original cartoons are on display at the Political Cartoon Gallery, dating from the 1930s through the Second World War to the Cold War waged by the Soviet Union against Britain, America and their Western allies.

One of his most memorable cartoons from the 1930s shows a gauntleted hand holding a sword inscribed UCUK, OGPU, NKVD stabbing a snake through the head that is labelled "Espionage Trotskyism". At the side of the sword is written XX in large letters, not to indicate weak beer but the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Secret Police. It is a very fine piece of work by Efimov, an attacking cartoon from which all humour has been totally and deliberately excluded. It was drawn in honour of one of the most evil organizations the world has ever known. Should we admire it? Following Kant, yes we should. Aesthetic judgements live in a world of their own.

I would hope that one day we will see an exhibition of similar contemporary cartoons honouring the Gestapo, an equally vile organization serving an equally vile master. Only German shame and British hypocrisy will prevent this. It is curious how the images used by Efimov here are so traditional – the trusty sword, the sword of truth, the sword of honour and the evil serpent. From Perseus to St. George to Lavrenti P. Beria.

Another cartoon shows Trotsky wearing a hat with a swastika standing next to Yuri Pyatakov who was executed after the second Moscow trial in 1937, allegedly for industrial sabotage. Pyatakov is carrying a cauldron marked:

Blood of dead workers, Red Army soldiers and miners' children.
Not exactly subtle but fairly standard Communist rhetoric. Trotsky says to a man sitting outside the frame of the cartoon, so that only his boots with swastikas are visible:
Here, Herr Hess, is proof of our creditworthiness.
It is the cartoon as heavy agit-prop. Given that Stalin often personally altered the captions to Efimov's cartoons, he may well have written in these words himself in the original Russian. Trotsky needed Stalin like he needed a hole in the head.

When in 1939 Stalin allied himself with Hitler and by the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact went on later to annexe the Baltic states, eastern Poland, northern Buchenland and Bessarabia, Efimov had to justify this. He drew a map of Eastern Europe with two sets of red frontiers and vigorous red arrows to mark the Soviet advance westwards. To the side of the map are shown leading Allied politicians looking scared and angry, including French generals in their silly caps. Chamberlain clenches his fist and raises a striped-trousered leg to stamp his foot in rage. He was right to feel anger and fear, for Stalin deliberately and cynically undermined Britain's struggle against the Nazis.

When the Luftwaffe bombed London in 1940, its planes flew on Soviet petrol and its air crews' bellies were fed with Soviet food, making a nonsense of Britain's main weapon, the naval blockade. German U-boats were refuelled and repaired in Vladivostock and Jewish refugees in Moscow were repatriated to Germany to be murdered. Stalin was Hitler's most loyal and trusting ally.

It is doubtful whether Trotsky ever had any dealings with Hitler or organized any industrial sabotage in Russia. It was only in Britain during the Second World War that the Trotskyists disrupted the production of war materials and even then they were unimportant, though of course "objectively" they were on the side of the Nazis. Unfortunately, many of Efimov's cartoons are not dated and in some cases have no captions, otherwise they would be a great history of these times.

After Hitler with his Hungarian, Romanian and Italian allies invaded the Soviet Union, Efimov became the finest cartoonist of the Great Patriotic War. His best effort is The Hitler Charioteers showing Goering with Goebbels as a Mickey monkey on his back, together with a whip-wielding Hitler in a chariot hitched up to Mussolini, Admiral Horthy, Pierre Laval et al. Efimov even recycled his earlier red arrowed map of the Soviet advance westwards as Hitler's ally to form a new cartoon of the relentless pressing back of the German army out of Russia during the last two years of the war.

Efimov was good at invective, but not at schmaltz. One of his cartoons shows a Soviet soldier holding up an East European child while welcoming crowds offer flowers and wave placards saying:

The Sun of Freedom has Risen on Europe! Long live the Soviet army! Thank you to the Soviet army!
The placards are marked in Russian, "Romania", "Poland", "Czechoslovakia", "Hungary" and "Bulgaria". Given that the Soviet army had raped and looted its way across Eastern Europe to the point where even the leaders of the Yugoslav communists felt that they had to protest, the cartoon is somewhat misleading. Even the little girl the Soviet soldier is holding could have become the victim of a gang rape by Soviet soldiers with Stalin's blessing.

I once had a surprise when visiting the town of Doorn in the south of the Netherlands in 1995, when on my way to pay my respects to the Kaiser. Suddenly Winston Churchill gave me a V-sign from a passing car. The local people were celebrating the 50th anniversary of their liberation by the British and Canadian armies. My surprise would have been somewhat greater if I had been in Hungary and a Hungarian dressed as a Stalin-lookalike had gone past.

Even during World War II, Efimov was caricaturing the Americans in a hostile way, depicting them as dollar signs $ $ $. Soon after the war ended, Efimov was forced by Stalin to draw Churchill looking in a mirror and seeing a reflection of Hitler. Efimov said in an interview for Red Files, a PBS documentary:

It was for me not convincing and not pleasant.
Efimov proved to be a very skilful anti-Western cartoonist; indeed his cartoons of Ernest Bevin, Britain's greatest foreign secretary, are better than anything by any British cartoonist. Some of Efimov's Bevins have already been seen in the earlier Churchill exhibition at the Political Cartoon Gallery, but there is another fine cartoon in this one of Bevin bowing to Averill Harriman to get Marshall Plan money along with Schumacher, Blum and others, all holding maps of their countries so that the Soviet reader will know who they are.

The equation of the British and the Nazis is continued in the cartoon Passing on Useful Tips. A German P.O.W. on crutches with experience of the Eastern Front writes on a blackboard:
Advice to the English army on winter manoeuvres.
Three David Low-style British blimps sit behind old fashioned school desks with inkwells listening intently. A picture of Churchill looks down from the wall. On the board the P.O.W. has drawn a cross topped by a German jerry-shaped helmet to make a soldier's grave.

In The American Wetnurse General Douglas MacArthur, with corn-cobbed pipe, sits in a Japanese kimono pock-marked with swastikas feeding a bottle labelled $ $ $ to a Japanese in a World War II army uniform, who has a Japanese flag in one hand and a broken blood-stained Samurai sword held together by string in the other. The little Nip is a splendidly vicious ethnic stereotype in forage cap, pebble lensed glasses and big teeth, a truly fiendish little Jap, Tojo on benzedrine.

Dr Tim Benson, the curator of the exhibition and an internationally known expert on cartoons, told me that Stalin had later admonished Efimov for his lack of political correctness in relation to the orientals. As a swarthy Georgian "chorna" himself, Stalin was no doubt sensitive about the mockery of the appearance of those whose appearance could be contrasted with that of the handsome Russians. But who cares about the politically correct admonishments of Stalin the butcher of Chechnya?

Efimov's Cold War masterpiece is Forecasts for 1951, 1950. A child looks through a telescope and what he sees is shown within a series of circles. Here is Churchill handing Attlee a "Certificate of Obstinacy". Both are depicted as old topers, rather like the drunken puppets designed by Sergei Obraztsov for the Moscow Puppet Theatre. Here is the Holy Father with a belt marked in dollars genuflecting to a big boot projecting from red and white Uncle Sam-striped pants. As with Hess, only the boot is seen. The Pope has replaced Trotsky and the Americans the Nazis. Here too is President Truman, escorting two high class ladies through a night life district. One is Franco with a six o'clock shadow in a Spanish dancer's dress covered in swastikas. There follows a mythical animal made of the front end of an elephant facing left joined to the front end of a donkey facing right. A pack saddle marked dollars sits on its back. Finally we see Goebbels licking a gramaphone record with snake like tongue in front of two heavy microphones labelled "Voice of America" and "BBC". No wonder Stalin liked Efimov; he smeared all Stalin's enemies in a single cartoon.

Efimov was a considerable artist, which is confirmed by the sketches he did of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials in 1946. Doenitz in dark glasses, Keitel scowling, a sour Seyss-Inquart and even those found innocent after the Soviets had set them up for judicial murder, Hjalmar Schacht and Franz von Papen.

It would be easy but unfair to condemn Efimov for placing his considerable talents in the services of Stalin, a monster as evil as Hitler or Lenin or Mao. However, in his Red Files interview Efimov said:

What happened during those (Stalin) years in any newspaper, any magazine, any home of any conviction – people disappeared. You would arrive in the morning and ask,
"Where is Yuri?"

Well, they had taken him away in the night. You could not discuss it any further… When they arrested my brother, the editor of the newspaper Pravda, I realized what was going on and I prepared myself for my own arrest… But then something strange and inexplicable happened. At the same time that my brother's case ended and he was executed, I was asked to go back to work… I could out of principle have said:
"No you killed my brother, I am not going to work".

But they would have sent me to the same place. I did not have the right to do that, because you can direct your own fate, your freedom, your own life, but I had my parents, our parents. I had a wife. I had a young son. If I had done that, they would all have died.

What would most of us have done faced with that kind of dilemma? We would have felt like Efimov that we had no choice. It is all very well for those like Sartre to say that we always have a choice; it isn't like that, as many of the victims of the Sartre approved épuration knew. Besides, Sartre chose evil and gained fame, a Faustian pact if ever there was one. I do not propose to criticize Efimov in any way. He was in a box in the First Circle of the Soviet Theatre of Hell. He was not in any sense a devil like Sartre or Christopher Hill.

Also Boris Efimov was Jewish; his original name was probably Baruch Friedland. His brother (1898-1940) called himself Mikhail Koltsov. Koltsov was Stalin's favourite journalist in the Spanish Civil War and is depicted as Karkov in Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Koltsov was executed in 1940 and before that Efimov had been unemployed for a time, since he was now known to be the brother of an enemy of the people. Efimov was brought back to work as a cartoonist in time for Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, which brought the Holocaust with it. The Russian Jews had no choice but to fight for Stalin, whose own anti-semitism at that time was intermittent and opportunistic whereas Hitler's was constant and relentless.

Hitler was so enraged by Efimov's cartoons of him that he said he would execute him after he captured Moscow. Efimov is alleged to have replied that he:

would rather confront an angry Hitler than an angry Stalin.
Try and imagine how an educated, enlightened woman in Communist Kabul must have felt when the Taliban were closing in. The truth is rarely simple and never pure.

The Efimov cartoons raise some curious questions about the nature of humour. Efimov says that:

there were two types of cartoon. There was the humoristic cartoon, funny, kind, entertaining but there were also cartoons that were bitter, mean, offensive.
Indirectly he is right for only some cartoons are intended to be and generally are perceived as funny. There are others that are simply illustrated political invective, though often using the same techniques of distortion, exaggeration and incongruity. However, what Efimov calls humoristic cartoons, though necessarily funny and entertaining, need not be kind. They are not tendentious nor attacking particular individuals but they may involve the ridicule and mockery of an anonymous person (possibly representing a group about which we have a conventional humorous script such as the canny Scotsman) as being foolish, showing human weaknesses or as just plain unfortunate. Many of Saul Gross's or Barry Fantoni's are like that and all the funnier for it. When my copy of Private Eye comes through the letter box, every fortnight I always turn first to the cartoons, Tom Husband, Cluff, Knife and Packer, Honeysett, McLachlan, which often employ mockery, to cheer up my morning with a hearty but not necessarily heart-felt laugh.

No doubt a follower of Thomas Hobbes would see this as a kind of aggression, a feeling of triumph, of "sudden glory" at seeing someone else put down and by implication myself elevated. Indeed an extreme Hobbesian would say that all humour is like that. But it isn't. There is a world of difference between my laughing at a Private Eye cartoon and the wits of the merry court of King Charles II humiliating the bald-headed Hobbes with their pointed repartee. The latter may well have been aggressive put downs, the former merely play with aggression. They are not the same thing, in the same (or at least parallel) sense that an organised paint-ball game is not warfare and a game of table tennis is not, except metaphorically, a duel. Cartoons are even more remote in that you are alone when you read them and the "victim" is purely imaginary. There are many kinds of "sudden glory" and placing them all in the same category is misleading. It may well subtract from more than it adds to our understanding.

The relationship between humour and ridicule is a problematic one. Each can exist without the other. When they are mixed they can be mixed in very different proportions. If a cartoonist is aiming at humour, a small amount of ridicule improves the funniness but to say that ridicule is now the dominant component is absurd. Likewise, for a cartoonist to add a small amount of humour to his or her ridicule may make the invective more palatable and enjoyable but if you add a lot the reader may laugh at the expense of taking in the serious and attacking moral that you wish to convey.

I recently had to review a book analysing British and German cartoons about each other, the enemy, from World War I. The German author, who had had the misfortune to be trained in linguistics, was convinced that they were all of them pieces of invective, instances of wit as weapon with any humour present being merely a way to hide or disguise the blow being struck. However, the cartoons varied from pure invective using the techniques but not the substance of humour to pure humour where the invective was either absent or present in homeopathic doses i.e. to all intents and purposes not there. The trouble with Hobbesians is that they never ask the question "how much?" Hobbes would have done better to devote himself to the study of probability theory rather than Euclid.

Efimov's cartoons come at the ridicule end of the spectrum. I did not laugh once in the exhibition, not even at Goebbels looking like a monkey or Mickey Mouse. The savage ridicule factor drowned out the humour. If I had been one of Efimov's contemporaries in Moscow and looked at his cartoons of Bevin or Truman at a time when they were portrayed as a serious and immediate threat which was believed, I might have laughed a cold and hollow laugh (what the nineteenth century Russians saw as English laughter) at the ridicule of an enemy or even a contemptuous laugh, but is this the same as a hearty, indeed almost uncontrollable laugh at the funny?

Physiologically they may be similar but then we regularly laugh without mirth in conversation in a way that is phatic rather than emphatic. Laughter is not a measure of humour but a consequence of humour and also of other quite different experiences, such as cootchy-cootchy-coo or the end of a scary helter-skelter ride. Perhaps when we laugh at a joke it is simply playing with the triumphant sounds and faces we spontaneously make when a third Australian batsman in a row is bowled for a duck by Flintoff. "Ha! Ha! that'll teach 'em!". This is part of the game of cricket, a form of playing with aggression that also includes clapping an honorable Antipodean-cousin batsman who has made an elegant century. But it only becomes what we can really call funny when distanced in a joke or anecdote by Johnners.

It does though give us a clue as to why we can appreciate Efimov's work for his outstandingly gifted playing with humour. Just as humour can play with aggression without being aggressive so verbal and pictorial aggression can play with humour without being humorous. Go and enjoy Efimov.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations , Transaction 2002 where these questions are discussed at length and co-author of Esuniku Joku, Tokyo, Kodansha 2003. His most recent comments on wartime cartoons appeared in Humor: the International Journal of Humor Research, 2005, vol 18, No 3, pp 340-4. The underlying argument is to be found in his article "Humour is not a Strategy in War, Journal of European Studies, 2001, Vol 31 pp 395-412.

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"Try and imagine how an educated, enlightened woman in Communist Kabul must have felt when the Taliban were closing in."

I was there, as it happens, and worked with quite a few educated and enlightened Kabuli women. Like most male Kabulis at the time, they thought that the Taliban, after lynching all those crooked commanders in Kandahar, would be a breath of fresh air, freeing them from the gangsters that the US and UK recognised, who would haul entire families onto the streets to freeze so that rich warlords could confiscate ever more of their homes. Most Kabulis also disapproved of the way that Massood's troops gang-raped their way through the Shia neighbourhoods of Carte Seh and Carte Char. The Taliban turned out to be a disappointment, but no one but warlords watched their approach with dread.

Posted by: s masty at December 1, 2005 08:48 PM

Hobbes would have done better to devote himself to the study of probability theory rather than Euclid.

Alas, Hobbes got hooked on Euclid at the age of forty (1628-9): the correspondence between Pascal and Fermat, which kicked off probablilty theory, only came about in 1654.

Bertrand Russell was another who got taken up by Euclid. He may be a prime case of how one can be so bemused by the abstract purity of something, in this case the Elements, that one completely overlooks impurities in one's own life.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 2, 2005 08:33 AM

Is there some kind of rule here that where Masty leads comment, Olley must surely follow?

Posted by: gilda at December 2, 2005 11:17 PM


I guess it's because we're interested in the same sort of topics. Neither of us was aware that the other was posting. Nevertheless, "where the carcase is, there the vultures will gather".

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 3, 2005 04:53 PM

Olley always follows Masty
When Masty's nasty
Ollie's jolly
Should Masty be terse
Will Olly be vasty?
If Masty gets worse
Will Ollie prove tasty?

Posted by: Merlin at December 4, 2005 09:20 PM
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