The Weapon of Laughter: On Boris Efimov’s Soviet Caricatures

By Yuri Klinkenbergh

“The Proletarian Eye” 1922 caricature by Boris Efimov

On Monday, February 22, 2021, Miami University’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies welcomed its second guest lecturer of the semester, Dr. Stephen Norris. Dr. Norris is the director of the Havighurst Center and received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia; his talk explored the life and works of renowned Soviet satirist and political cartoonist Boris Efimov.

What is laughter? A physical reaction consisting of rhythmic contractions of one’s diaphragm? Could it even serve as a weapon? In the opinions of Boris Efimov, as Norris argued, laughter is surely both. No one enjoys being laughed at because laughter has a remarkable ability to create a sense of solidarity among those who can laugh together and isolation among those being ridiculed. As a political cartoonist, Boris Efimov used this power of laughter to influence Soviet culture through his politically aimed cartoons. Efimov, who realized the particular ability of cartoons to leave a “fast, funny, and persuasive” impression on viewers, sought to use this satirical tool to educate Soviet citizens and create a unified communist consciousness and Soviet identity.

Efimov was a political cartoonist for the Soviet Union for 74 years, the entirety of the USSR’s history. As Norris estimated, Efimov published at least one cartoon for every three days of the Soviet Union’s existence. Efimov, first and foremost, viewed himself as an artist whose job it was to create authentic connections between his works and Soviet citizens. Central to both Efimov’s cartoons and Norris’ lecture is the idea of using Soviet laughter as a weapon in the struggle to build socialism. During the 20th century Soviet culture often relied on framing the enemy in a manner that made it easy for citizens to mock, a tactic that continues to have echoes today. Efimov’s satirical images during World War II and the Cold War took sharp jabs at political leaders and their policies, thus helping to define these conflicts for Soviet viewers.

The power of laughter in serving Efimov’s ends can be understood by its ability to create a sense of “otherness” where those who laugh together, at someone or something, successfully distinguish themselves from who or what they are mocking. Efimov’s cartoons targeted the cultural imposition of the West, capitalist greed, fascism, and other threats to the construction of Soviet socialism during the 20th century. Whether it was the depiction of Uncle Sam as the master puppeteer, the exaggerated caricatures of land-grabbing fascists, or the secret hands of Western capitalists, Efimov sought to create a unique Soviet humor that validated the world views of Soviet leadership and Soviet citizens.

The state-censored media in the Soviet Union made Efimov’s images especially impactful and makes it all the more impressive that Efimov and his cartoons were able to prosper and proliferate for as long as the Soviet Union existed. Efimov rarely portrayed Soviet leadership in his cartoons, which almost exclusively focused on mocking the “otherness” of the West.

Despite his own brother’s execution during the Stalinist purges, Efimov continued to draw for the Soviet paper, Izvestiia, until the USSR’s collapse. Moreover, throughout his artistic career, Efimov noted the importance of continually sharpening his satirical tools to rally against the threat posed by the West against the Soviet Union.  Efimov and his works reached generations of Soviet citizens, and his role in shaping Soviet culture against the West demonstrates how his cartoons represented an intentional weapon on behalf of himself and the Soviet system.

Yuri Klinkenbergh is completing a combined BA/MA in Political Science.

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