Film | The Jew Who Drew Stalin

Stalin Thought of You recounts the fascinating story of Jewish political cartoonist Boris Efimov‘s complex relationship to Joseph Stalin.  Efimov’s pen drew the political leaders who shaped a century, including the one who had his own brother murdered.

When the gods offered Achilles the choice between a short glorious life, or a long uneventful one, the story goes he chose the shorter. What if one could achieve a long remarkable life? Against great odds, Soviet political cartoonist Boris Efimov, managed to live to the ripe old age of 108. His long life drew him into the vortex of important historical figures; Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Brezhnev and many others. Filmmaker Kevin McNeer documented his conversations with this impressively alert and charming centenarian. A sizable amount of archival footage, photographs and drawings, much from Efimov’s personal collection, helps paint a vivid background for the riveting and dramatic documentary Stalin Thought of You.

The words of the title might sound benign to many today, but in fact, would be a paralyzing phrase to any good Soviet in the day –and justifiably. When the absolute ruler, who is directly responsible for the execution of tens of millions, the incarceration, torture and enslavement of many millions more, and the systematic repression of an entire population, thinks of you . . . specifically YOU, then there would be every reason to feel bleak about your future.

The film is a dizzying chronicle about two very close, highly regarded and accomplished brothers, who would tightrope around the perilous world of Joseph Stalin. Efimov (left) was a prolific political cartoonist, self-described as “quiet and well behaved who never got out of line”.   In contrast, his more dynamic brother, Mikhail Koltsov, was an energetic journalist and politically active rising star in the Communist Party.  His growing prominence did not amuse Stalin and it eventually led to his death. Efimov would outlive his brother by about six decades –years that would leave “a wound that does not heal”.  Surprisingly, Efimov continued to show loyalty to Stalin.

This film is of particular interest to me.   My own Hungarian-born father always had an unapologetic defence of Stalin.   It was necessary at any cost to transform a backward agrarian economy to a modern industrial, military, economic superpower where everyone worked, read and was fed.  Such was my father’s argument.   But Stalin had Efimov’s brother arrested, tortured, sent to a labour camp and then executed.   Despite this, the cartoonist compliantly perpetuated Stalin’s cult of personality.   Through his craft, he helped elevate his patron to indisputable leader. He would, in turn, demonize in drawing ‘traitors’ that would face a brutal end; the likes of Trotsky, Bukharin, Rykov and many others whom Efimov knew personally and greatly respected.   “What was I supposed to say?” he justifies.   And he did in fact elude the infamous and fatal late-night knock on the door.

McNeer describes his interview with Efimov as a sort of “moral interrogation” of how this man demonstrated miraculous and questionable survival skills. He was, for the most part, in chilling proximity to Stalin; secondly, friends with Stalin’s rivals; thirdly, he was Jewish, at a time when widespread Jewish anti-Soviet conspiracies were alleged; and finally, he would inherit the dubious distinction of being the brother of an “enemy of the people”.  Any one of these circumstances could bring about certain demise.   Yet, Efimov amazingly managed to survive and, in fact, would become the USSR’s top cartoon propagandist. By the end of his life, long after the passing of Stalin and the fall of Communism, he was comfortably immune from any danger.   Yet he still wore his two Stalin Prize medals on his chest and expressed gratitude towards the bygone dictator.

The indelibility of Stalin’s cult of personality is startlingly apparent in Efimov. The de-Stalinization period would see the tyrant officially denounced and “enemies of the people” rehabilitated.  While a framed portrait of his beloved brother hangs centrally in his office, the cartoonist still feels beholden to Stalin for his life and career.

The documentary is much more than just a look at this dark period of history, but also a glimpse into complex relationships and decisions that transcend a facile black and white morality.  Our quest to understand Boris Efimov is perhaps best summarized when our not-so-Homeric hero swallows, “I have a weak character. I have no character at all”.

Stalin Thought of You will have its Canadian premiere at this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival in English with Russian subtitles on  May 9th at 9:00 pm at The Bloor Cinema.