MOSCOW -- In his 97 years, Boris Yefimov has lived in the czarist-ruled Russian Empire, the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat and democratic Russia. He has witnessed various revolutions, civil war, two world wars, Stalinist terror, a Cold War and one putsch.
Boris Yefimov has watched it all, and he has not allowed his journey through time and history to proceed unremarked. For much of the century, he turned the great events and leaders of the day into political cartoons.
"I never expected it would be such a turbulent and cruel century," he says. "I think it's the cruelest one ever. But we can't complain to anyone. We can't choose our parents, or the time we were born. We choose very little. I didn't even choose my profession. It chose me."
Yefimov began publishing in Kiev during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He joined the Russian newspaper Izvestia in Moscow in 1922 and worked there until his eyes began to fail in 1985, drawing political cartoons for the most important Soviet publications.
He was the most prominent cartoonist here of his time -- which began in the first days of the Soviet Union and ended with the beginning of perestroika and the last days of the Soviet Union.
"He's the greatest living Russian political cartoonist," says Jerry Robinson, who runs the Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate in New York.
Taking up writing
A chilly, gray spring day finds Boris Yefimov at his large desk next to a bay window in an unusually spacious Moscow apartment. He's dressed for work -- wearing a tie -- and a visitor interrupts him at his typewriter. When his vision began to make drawing difficult, he took up writing. He's typing his memoirs on a machine that looks older than he does and certainly has less spring.
"I was born in September 1900," he says, "and I somehow thought I was born in the 20th century. Then someone told me that 1900 wasn't the first year of the 20th century but the last year of the 19th century. I lived three months in the last century and then, with the whole world, reached the 20th century."
He graduated from high school in 1918, unsure what to do. He thought about becoming a lawyer, but he was caught up in the civil war.
"I, as many young people did, joined the Bolsheviks," he says. "I began to work for the military commissar as a junior secretary. My older brother worked for a newspaper, and one day he told me, 'Listen, you can draw. Why not try to draw a cartoon for our newspaper?' "
Yefimov protested that he had never tried to draw a political cartoon. "My brother said, 'Secretaries, they're just filling up pieces of paper, while I'm offering you something real. Thousands of people will see your cartoon.' "
Yefimov drew a cartoon lampooning an opposition general.
"It was printed, and I liked it," he says. "Then I did another. I never studied. I never stepped over the threshold of a professional school. You have to have a knack. And you need a sense of humor. Probably I had both."
His World War II cartoons were typical of the period. The enemy Germans often looked vaguely reptilian and always evil. The Cold War Uncle Sam looked grasping and dollar-driven.
You can see the Cold War approaching in his work. One day in 1947, the Central Committee of the Communist Party summoned him. "I was told Stalin wanted a cartoon of General Eisenhower. I was drawing it. Then Stalin called me by phone and explained himself exactly how I was to draw it."
Stalin wanted a heavily armed Eisenhower threatening innocent Russians, and Yefimov drew him on a tank, bearing down on a puzzled indigenous family in the Soviet Far North.
"When somebody gave it to him, Stalin made some alterations in his own hand," Yefimov says. The cartoon was published in Pravda.
The wars -- hot and cold -- were liberating for Soviet cartoonists, says Robinson. "There was a visible enemy," he says, which offered targets abroad that were not permitted at home.
Yefimov is ready for the next question, which he says is inevitable: Did he believe in what he was doing all those years?
"Not only I but the whole country believed," he answers. "We all believed in Stalin. He had some kind of hypnosis."
Yefimov believed even after Stalin's secret police took away his older brother, Mikhail Koltsov, an editor at Pravda and a member of the Supreme Soviet when he was shot in 1940.
Yefimov laughs when asked what accusations were brought against his brother.
"There was no need to accuse anyone of anything in that time," he says. "There's even an anecdote. One convict asks another, 'How many years did you get?'
" 'Five,' the other one answers.
" 'What for?'
" 'For nothing.'
" 'Don't lie to me. For nothing they give you 10 years.' "
Caprice of Stalin
"How did I survive? Why am I still here sitting in front of you? It was a caprice of the master. You know who I'm talking about. Stalin. According to the unwritten rules of the time, I should have been next. I knew I had to get ready. I was even surprised they didn't take me the same night. I expected it the next night. I tried to get ready quite calmly.
"They didn't come. A week passed. No one came. I understood the danger was over. Later I found out they had prepared a case against me as a spy. But when Stalin was given the paper, I later found out, Stalin said, 'Don't touch him.' And here I am in front of you. Probably he liked my drawings."
A contemporary cartoonist, Andrei Bilzho, who works for the Kommersant newspaper, grew up disliking Yefimov because he was so identified with the official line. "My opinion toward him has changed," Bilzho says. "Nowadays, accents in life have changed. Certain passions have faded, and now I understand he was a professional, who did his job very precisely, very professionally."
Yefimov's work, he says, offers a wonderful study of his times.
"The niche he occupied is still empty," Bilzho says, "either because there is no need for his type of caricature, or there is no one who is capable of doing it the way he did."
Yefimov has outlived two wives. He has two sons in their 70s, and he lives with a grandson who is 47. He has five great-grandchildren.
He gets lots of questions about his secret for long life. He tells an old story from the Caucasus, known for its long-lived people.
"Once they had a celebration in the home of a very old person," Yefimov recounts. "He was asked his secret. He said, 'I never drink. I never smoke. I never chase women. I go to bed early and get up early. I watch my diet strictly.'
"Suddenly, a terrible noise starts down the hall. Someone is shouting. Glasses are breaking, tables are overturned. The old man tells his visitors, 'Don't pay any attention to all that hooliganism. That's a smoker, a glutton, a drinker, a woman-chaser. It's my older brother.' "
Yefimov's own secret is to drink and eat what he wants and sleep when he's tired.
"Don't refuse yourself anything," he suggests. "And a good sense of humor always helps."
He sees his visitor off with yet another story.
"Once, at a briefing, one of our officials was answering questions. After a while, there was silence. 'What, no more questions?' he asked. 'That's strange, because I have two more replies.' "
Pub Date: 5/24/98