Copyright CanWest Interactive, Inc. Oct 3, 2008

Note: Obituary of Boris Yefimov.

Until recently Boris Yefimov, a remarkable centenarian and a diminutive figure in oversized spectacles, continued to enthral visitors to his Moscow apartment, delivering colourful anecdotes of life from the first decades of the last century, displaying the vigour of a man half his age.

Few people can have experienced so much of 20th-century history at close quarters or, for that matter, possessed such dazzling capacity for its recollection.

During his lifetime, Yefimov saw revolution, civil war, genocide, two world wars, the Cold War and a putsch. As a boy, he saw the last Czar, Nicholas II, and later he met Lenin. He personally knew many prominent revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin. He sat in the Great Hall of Columns as around him the show trials destroyed the lives of many former colleagues.

During the Second World War, Yefimov saw for himself the horrors of the concentration camps of Majdanek and Treblinka in Poland. He stood opposite the Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials. Fifty years on, he watched from the window of his apartment as Boris Yeltsin's tanks fired on the Russian parliament. He even lived to cast his vote for Putin.

He liked to recall that it was when taking orders from Stalin that his luck came closest to running out: "The phone rang. I picked it up and heard: 'Please hold the line. Shortly, Comrade Stalin is going to speak with you.' " It was 1947, and the beginning of the Cold War.

Despite serving for decades as a loyal party propagandist on the Moscow newspaper Izvestia, Yefimov was now living in daily fear of telephone calls from the man he had come to call Vozhd (the boss).

Stalin had an empire to run, but it didnot stophimfromintervening in the smallest of issues. The head of the Communist Party saw political caricatures as an effective form of propaganda, and would often phone up newspaper offices suggesting themes for cartoons.

The previous day he had requested a picture ridiculing the American military build-up in the Arctic. But Yefimov had not yet started it. "A few seconds later, I heard that familiar voice. He did not greet me but got straight to the point: 'The cartoon we spoke to you about yesterday, I'd like to see it by six o'clock today.' It was already 3:30. I thought to myself: 'I'm dead.' To do all that remained in two and a half hours was impossible."

Yefimov somehow finished the artwork, just as the messenger boy was arriving to pick it up. But a couple of days later, when he was summoned in to party headquarters, there was a further surprise in store -- the Soviet leader had managed to find time to rewrite the cartoon's caption.

For more than half a century the amended work hung in an alcove in Yefimov's riverside apartment, Stalin's red-crayoned scrawl visible above the cartoonist's original handwriting.

Yefimov was born Boris Fridland in Kiev, Ukraine on Sept. 28, 1900, the second son of a Jewish shoemaker. Within a few years the family had moved to Belostok (now in Poland), and it was there that Yefimov grew up. One of his earliest memories of life under the Czar was of standing next to his father on a street corner in their hometown watching the royal family as they were driven past in a coach.

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, German forces marched on Belostok and the Fridland family fled. Back in Kiev with his parents, Boris entered the Kharkov art school, studying there during the tumultuous years that saw the Czar's abdication and the onset of revolution. After leaving art school, he returned to the Ukrainian capital, where he decided to study law.

Yefimov's studies ended with the outbreak of civil war. Kiev was in the grip of a savage power struggle as several armies -- assorted combinations of Bolsheviks, monarchists, nationalists, Germans and Poles --fought for control of the city. When the revolutionaries eventually assumed power, Boris and his elder brother, Mikhail, decided it would be wise to abandon their Jewish-sounding family name. Boris became Yefimov, from his father's first name, Yefim; Mikhail took Koltsov.

In 1922, Boris left Kiev and moved to Moscow on the advice of Mikhail, already a successful journalist. Soon a cartoon Yefimov had submitted to Nikolai Bukharin, the editor of Pravda, was published. He joined Izvestia that same year and within months was regularly drawing the leading lights in the Communist Party.

When Hitler and Stalin carved up eastern Europe under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Yefimov drew a map with red arrows to mark the Soviet advance westwards. To the side of the map leading Allied politicians are depicted looking frightened and angry --British prime minister Neville Chamberlain raising a striped-pant leg to stamp his foot in rage. Chamberlain once made an angry reference to Yefimov's artwork in an official note to the Soviet government; the cartoonist took this as a compliment, coming as it did from a class enemy.

After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, however, Yefimov performed the required somersault, becoming the leading cartoonist of the Great Patriotic War.

The Fuhrer was so enraged by Yefimov's cartoons that he swore to execute him after he had captured Moscow. Yefimov is said to have observed that he would rather confront an angry Hitler than an angry Stalin. Yefimov served on the Moscow front, winning a medal for the defence of the city.

In 1944, he went to Warsaw with the writer Vasily Grossman, and the two men soon realized that it was for political, not military, reasons that Stalin had decided against storming the city.

Later they saw the concentration camps of Majdanek and Treblinka, an experience that remained with Yefimov as he drew brilliant sketches of the Nazi hierarchy at the Nuremberg trials.

After the war, it was not long before Yefimov was ridiculing the Soviet Union's former allies: Churchill was depicted looking into a mirror and seeing the reflection of Hitler; U. S. president Harry Truman was shown escorting two ladies of the night, one of them Spanish General Francisco Franco in a flamenco dancer's dress covered in swastikas.

Yefimov continued working until his death, and last year, on his 107th birthday, he was given the title of chief artist of Izvestia.

His brother (immortalized by Ernest Hemingway as Karkov in For Whom the Bell Tolls) was executed in 1940, despite having been Stalin's favourite journalist during the Spanish Civil War.

Yefimov married twice and had a son. He outlived both his wives, and was particularly fond of his red-haired cat Chubaysik, named after Yeltsin's former finance minister.

Credit: The Daily Telegraph