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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Master of Cartoon Satire Greets 3rd Century

He was born in the waning days of one century, endured a second and has just greeted a third.

"True, I lived only 95 days in the 19th century," Boris Yefimov says with sly modesty. "Then, together with the rest of the planet, I entered the 20th century. We could not have suspected that it would be so awful."

Yefimov is no ordinary centenarian — and not just because he is an eminent political cartoonist. This elfin man with outsized glasses attended the birth of the Soviet Union and survived to witness its death throes. He remembers Nicholas II and met Vladimir Lenin. He was friends with Trotsky and took orders from Stalin. He stood face to face with Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials. He watched from the window of his Moscow apartment as former President Boris Yeltsin fired on the parliament. And last spring, he cast his vote for Russia's latest leader, Vladimir Putin.

"What is it about my humble person that interests you?" Yefimov croons, his eyebrows working overtime. "Is it that I've turned 100? If so, you must understand that it's no credit to me. … I just lived and then lived some more."

But in Russia's 20th century — in which tens of millions perished in wars, famines, death camps and political purges — just living, and then living some more, was no small feat.

Moreover, for a Jew, a Trotskyist and an "enemy of the people" who practiced the dangerous art of political cartooning, it was a sheer miracle.

It seemed like the movies. The phone rings, Yefimov picks up: "Comrade Yefimov? Please hold for Comrade Stalin."

At the name "Stalin," Yefimov leaps to his feet, just as he did more than half a century ago, no stiffness apparent in his 100-year-old knees. He sways slightly, holding an old-fashioned receiver to his ear. His expression is grim, as if he still hears the dictator's voice on the other end of the line.

"He didn't waste time on hellos. I remember it word for word: 'Yesterday Comrade Zhdanov spoke to you about a satirical cartoon. Do you understand what I'm talking about?'

"Yes, Comrade Stalin," Yefimov replies, now as then.

It was 1947, just as the Cold War was beginning. A day before, one of Stalin's top aides, Andrei Zhdanov, had guards haul Yefimov out of a public lecture to tell him that Stalin had chosen him to draw a cartoon ridiculing a U.S. military buildup in the Arctic.

Yefimov broke out in a cold sweat. It was less than a decade since Stalin had given the cartoonist's older brother a similar "special assignment," only to order him killed soon after.

Zhdanov explained Stalin's vision of the cartoon: "General Eisenhower arrives at the North Pole with a large army. … An ordinary American stands next to him and asks, What's going on, General? Why so much military activity in such a peaceful place? Eisenhower answers: Can't you see the Russians are threatening us?"

Yefimov spent the night sketching. He pondered long and hard over how to represent the Soviet side — he'd received no instruction on that — and finally decided to draw a family of Eskimos. He depicted them as poor and primitive, living in an igloo, surrounded by reindeer, polar bears and a befuddled-looking penguin.

Two and a half hours before the drawing was to be picked up, Yefimov was panicking: He was only half done. Normally, it would take an entire day to finish.

"I was like a chess player when his time has run out — there's no time to think, only to act. … Sometimes miracles happen." He finished just as the messenger rang his bell.

Two days later, he was summoned to Zhdanov's office and picked up the sketch. In his crude hand, Stalin had added the labels "North Pole" and "Alaska" and the title "Eisenhower to the Defense" in red crayon and pencil.

That version now hangs in Yefimov's hallway, under glass, the paper yellowed but the red crayon still bright.

What did he think about Americans when he drew this kind of cartoon? Did he believe they were a real threat?

"In those times you didn't think too much. You did what you were told if you wanted to save your neck," he says. "So if they said Americans were our enemies … well, that's what they were."

Yefimov's brother Mikhail died 61 years ago, but he is still the most important person in the cartoonist's life. His portrait dominates the wall in Yefimov's bedroom, and his legacy still shadows the younger brother.

Yefimov was born Boris Fridland on Sept. 28, 1900, in Kiev, the second son of a Jewish shoemaker. Mikhail was already 2.

When his brother decided to support the new Bolshevik government, young Boris followed. With the arrival of the new Soviet world order, the brothers abandoned their Jewish family name. Mikhail took the surname Koltsov, and Boris became Yefimov — from their father's first name, Yefim.

At one point, Mikhail suggested Boris start drawing — Yefimov had always loved to doodle.

"So I taught myself as I went along," he recalls. "And before I knew it, I was drawn into this work."

When Yefimov was 18, he first heard Leon Trotsky.

"He was overflowing with talent," Yefimov gushes like a smitten youth. "I've never heard a better speaker in my life. A brilliant man."

Five years later, in 1924, Yefimov nervously knocked on the door of Trotsky's office carrying his first collection of cartoons, which was soon to be published.

"He rose graciously … and said in his famous voice, 'My, how young you are!' But I had an answer ready: 'At my age, you'd already twice escaped from exile.' That pleased him."

Trotsky agreed to write a foreword, but it was not a propitious time to ally oneself to Trotsky, who was already in a power struggle with Stalin.

"And the following paradox resulted," Yefimov recounts. "My editor paid with his life for his decision to publish this article. … I should have been jailed 10 times over. But I wasn't touched."

History repeated itself a few years later. Yefimov's brother ignored a warning from Stalin in 1923 not to publish a photo spread on Trotsky.

"Stalin followed the Eastern principle: Revenge is a dish that should be eaten cold," Yefimov explains. "He would wait years and decades."

In Mikhail's case it was 15 years. In 1938, soon after he returned from Spain where he'd been covering the Civil War for Pravda, Mikhail was arrested. He was executed 13 months later.

Why was Yefimov spared?

"It seems Stalin needed a good, experienced cartoonist," he posits. "He loved cartoons as much as Trotsky. It was one thing they had in common.

"As for Stalin's relationship to me, I can't complain. … He was a villain. He murdered many innocent people. … But still, a certain human logic wins out. He is also the person who granted me my life, my freedom, my work."

By World War II, Yefimov was entrusted with some of the nation's most important propaganda: Nazis with hawkish noses. Plump, self-satisfied Western leaders, twiddling thumbs while the Soviet Union fought valiantly and alone. Later, he was sent to the Nuremberg trials, where he drew some of the most hated men in history.

By the time the Bolshevik-founded state had failed, so had Yefimov's eyesight. But it was just as well, he says, because the death of the Soviet Union dealt a fatal blow to political satire — the new Russia just isn't as funny. "For all intents and purposes," Yefimov laments, "political cartooning doesn't exist anymore."

Last year a cataract operation partially restored his sight. So now, Yefimov is drawing again. He sits in his sunlit study overlooking the Moscow River, scratching out in ink and paint his memories of Bolsheviks and White Guards, Hitler and Stalin, and the mismatched pair of Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin, yoked to an overloaded cart labeled "problems."

Yefimov looks small and frail. But he has already proved more stubborn than an "evil empire," more durable than a century.

"History doesn't ask what might have been," he concludes. "What happened, happened. And what will come next — well, we'll see, won't we?"