Stephen Norris discusses Boris Efimov and Soviet cartoons

On October 10, 2014, the Jordan Center welcomed Stephen Norris, a professor of history at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University of Ohio, to speak about his book project, entitled “Communist Cartoonist: Boris Efimov.” Norris’s talk was second in the Jordan Center’s Colloquium Series, which, as Director Yanni Kotsonis explained, encourages scholars to present their ongoing projects in order to receive feedback and comments from the audience.

Boris Efimov (1900-2008) was a well known political caricaturist. Throughout the entire duration of the Soviet regime he produced over thirty thousand propaganda images, which dealt mainly with exposing ideological enemies of the Soviet Union like capitalism, the West and the bourgeoisie. He was held in high esteem by various top Soviet officials, often described as the person who would develop a strong ideological “weapon” against the enemies of the new regime and also bring “healthy laughter” to the Soviet citizens. Norris intends to write a book about Efimov’s “ordinary and extraordinary life,” his visual works as well as his autobiographical writings set against the entire duration of the Soviet Union and beyond.

According to Norris, the work of “Efimov the cartoonist” can tell us something about the evolution of the entire Soviet project. His unnervingly unchanging cartoons eventually got old and stale like the Soviet system, and he began to embody developed Socialism itself. The parallel in the evolution of Efimov’s cartoons and of the Soviet state, Norris claimed, allowed him to view both through a neurobiological lens.

Almost more noteworthy than Efimov’s cartoons were his numerous post-1961 autobiographical writings, as well as various auto-interviews that Norris came across at the Ne Boltai! archive in Prague. Norris personally experienced the performative nature of Efimov’s meta-self; he explained that the idea for his project began in 2008 during his stay in Moscow, when he was encouraged to interview Boris Efimov, 107 years old at the time. “I thought that interview was the high point of my career!” Norris exclaimed. For two and a half hours, Efimov spoke eloquently, sharing a remarkable story of the various propaganda projects that he carried out under Stalin’s regime. However, after having read other interviews that Efimov had previously given as well as his countless autobiographical scripts, Norris realized that what he had personally witnessed was “a remarkable performance”: many of Efimov’s writings on his life are nearly a verbatim copy of each other.

This performativity was revealing of Efimov’s three or four “carefully constructed lives,” which spanned over a century and were demarcated by historical and political changes. They included a childhood in a Jewish family in Ukraine, a reinvention of himself from Boris Fridlian to Boris Efimov in order to conceal his Jewish identity in 1917, the beginning of his writings in 1961 caused by de-Stalinization and a return to his Jewish roots, expressed in his texts and public interviews after 1991.

Efimov was able to survive the Stalinist purges, as well as the anti-Semitic, anti-cosmopolitan campaigns, and other political turbulences of his century. Norris remarked at some point that Efimov “was an ultimate chameleon. The cartoonist always managed to present himself in the right colors at the right moment.” While he was an active agent in creating the Soviet propaganda state in his cartoons, in his writings “history acted on him and not vice versa.” However, Norris applied the same neurobiological lens that he adopted for his analysis of Efimov’s cartoons to the analysis of his writings: “Neurobiology is what allowed me to go beyond the Soviet subject and think about meta-subjects, and that we always construct ourselves: we all do it.”

After the talk, Professor of NYU’s Slavic Department Anne Lounsbery wondered whether there are other ways to explore Efimov’s metanarrative other than adopting a neurobiological lens; she cautioned that this lens could be essentializing. For example, she suggested to explore Efimov’s writings through genre theory. Lounsbery added that “from the perspective of postructuralist literary theory, [Efimov] created a narrative that is completely without rupture. Does it ever break down? Does it ever become incoherent?” Norris responded that the continuity of Efimov’s narrative never breaks down. However, Lounsbery suggested that Efimov’s remarkable “auto-interviews,” in which he constructs imaginary interviews with himself by himself, implies his need for a “split self” and therefore reveals an incoherent figure behind the narrative. Another member from the audience also remarked that Efimov’s fixation on the life of his brother – famous journalist and editor Mikhail Koltsov, arrested and shot by the NKVD in 1940 –  might also reveal Efimov’s need for a double; through this doubling effect, he could reconcile with his own inner contradictions within the Soviet system.

Another discussion after the talk included Efimov’s metamorphosis of his Jewish identity during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Norris stated that in Soviet times, Efimov never spoke about being Jewish. When asked about his Jewish identity, Efimov would respond: “I am a Soviet citizen.” However, he would always put himself in the same category as a group of artistic Jewish intellectuals which included Ilya Ehrenburg, Vasily Grossman and Boris Polevoy, Norris remarked. On his 100th birthday, Efimov made a symbolic visit to the Moscow Synagogue. This event signaled a strong change in his public identity; during the 2000s, with the change of political regime in the country, Efimov began to speak openly about his life prior to 1917, which included his memories of fear of the pogroms, the significance of speaking Yiddish and going to grade school with other Jewish intellectuals such as Dziga Vertov, among others.

Among the final points in the discussion, Professor Yanni Kotsonis suggested that perhaps it is important to emphasize the unfavorable traits of Efimov’s personality: “He seems self involved, narcissistic, banal; he is so full of himself in everything that he writes amidst saying that he is not.” Kotsonis also added that Efimov seems to have no sense of irony. “I don’t think he was unironic. He understood irony very well,” Norris replied. Being banal was as a part of his chameleon technique – “talking and talking in circles without ever giving a clear answer.”