Conspiracy theories have proliferated in both the United States and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In Russia, they even form part of the Kremlin’s public diplomacy. Russian media depicted the election protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg (and throughout the country) in December 2011 as the product of a Western plan to undermine Russia. The 2012 Pussy Riot scandal revealed a “conspiring subversive minority.” And the press described the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine as a CIA plot.

Russian President Vladimir Putin dismisses stories that his government has engaged in conspiratorial activities to alter elections. Yet he does so while he has also criticized the United States for conspiratorial activities in the former Soviet world. This view that Russia has faced conspiracies designed to weaken the Russian nation since 1991 has moved from the margins to the mainstream in Russia over the past two decades.

A popular meme plastered on a Washington, D.C. mailbox in 2016 that altered an iconic image of Joseph Stalin to depict Russian President Vladimir Putin holding an infantalized Donald Trump.

This worldview, not surprisingly, has deep historical roots. The conspiracy theories of Putin’s tenure build on ideas developed in the Soviet period. Russian history is replete with stories of enemies seeking to undermine the state: conspiracy theories, as many scholars have argued, tend to surface when a given society has an “other” against whom “the people” can rally support.

In Russia, “the West,” broadly imagined, has historically played this role, particularly across the 20th century. From the beginning of their radical experiment, Bolshevik leaders constantly warned that the West threatened to undermine the attempt to build socialism. Soviet officials and propagandists stressed that the hidden hands of the West stretched to all corners of the earth, working behind the scenes to prevent Soviet achievements.

As we will see—and seeing is crucial to this understanding—Soviet political cartoons consistently visualized this worldview from 1917 to 1991. Caricatures conjured up a reality, brought it into focus, and repeated it in order to encourage a specific way of seeing the world.

While we should not ascribe this worldview to all Soviet citizens, we should pay attention to the consistent message this form of Soviet media offered to its citizens. As innumerable publications attested, Soviet caricatures were meant to be “weapons” in the struggle to build socialism and to construct a new, Soviet person.

The Not-So-Hidden Hands of the “West”: Boris Efimov

The most prolific propagandist in this visual warfare was Boris Efimov, who was named principal political caricaturist for the newspaper Izvestiia [News] in 1922, the year the USSR was officially founded, and who worked for that publication until 1991, the year the USSR collapsed. Efimov, a self-trained artist who first started drawing cartoons for the Bolsheviks in 1918, also helped to found the influential and popular satirical magazine Krokodil [Crocodile] in 1922 and the equally influential magazine Ogonek [Little Spark] the following year. He estimated that he published between 35,000-70,000 cartoons over the course of his extraordinary career.

Given that the USSR existed for just over 25,000 days, it’s hard to accept these figures at face value. That said, Efimov drew at least 8,000 cartoons that I have seen, making his output one caricature for every three days of Soviet life. His images graced the front, back, and in-between pages of the publications listed above, along with Pravda and many others. It is impossible to imagine a Soviet citizen who lived and died without encountering at least one of Efimov’s images.

Boris Efimov near the end of his life.

Efimov was born in 1900 in the city of Kiev, where his father, Efim Fridliand, worked as a cobbler. The family relocated shortly after Boris’s birth to Bialystok, where Boris and his brother Mikhail went to school. Both would change their names from Fridliand to avoid the anti-Jewish violence that took place during World War I and after the 1917 Revolution and to signal their commitment to the new Bolshevik cause. 

Mikhail, the elder by two years, took the name Kol’tsov and would become a noted journalist. He was later arrested, tortured, and shot during the Stalinist purges (1936-1938), a victim of the supposed conspiracies that threatened the Soviet state that Efimov, in turn, helped to conjure.

Efimov was briefly fired from his position as caricaturist, but otherwise spared. His cartoons during World War II made him even more famous within the USSR. After 1945, Efimov’s images about supposed Western malfeasance defined the Cold War for Soviet viewers.

The weapons Efimov aimed at Soviet enemies took many forms. He consistently mocked the enemies of the socialist state, drawing personifications of capitalists dressed in top hats and tuxedos. He repeatedly drew caricatures that juxtaposed the two worlds, communist and capitalist, with the former usually represented in larger-than-life form, easily towering above the representations of the latter. And he returned over and over to the idea of the “hidden hands of the West,” providing conspiratorial agency to explain events.

Boris Efimov popularized a worldview in which the “West” perpetually undermined the Soviet state. This worldview focused on political puppets and their masters, on meddling in foreign elections, on grubby paws grabbing for oil, and on handshake agreements that were not what they seemed.

As far as the power of his political cartoons, Efimov had this to say:

Cartoons are the first thing that a reader of a newspaper looks at. He takes it in more quickly and more completely than any long article you would read. A cartoon instantaneously gives you both the event and the commentary about that event. That is the nature of a cartoon: fast, funny and persuasive.

Conspiracies, Schemes, and Secret Collusions

Let’s take a peek at a number of these images and how they conjured up this reality.

"A Split Among the German Fascists," 1923-1924.

Efimov’s 1923 cartoon, which was published in 1924, is interesting for several reasons. He warned against the threat posed by the Nazis early and often: he employed this theme more frequently than any other in the 1930s and it might have saved his life during the Stalinist Purges.

Here Efimov depicts the failed November 1923 Beer Hall Putsch as one where, clockwise from the upper left corner, Gustav Ritter von Kahr, Eric Ludendorff, Hans von Seeckt, and Adolf Hitler were infighting rather than joining in a common cause. In this imagining of the events of 1923, however, Efimov introduces one more element: the unseen capitalist, symbolized by his top hat and white glove, working behind the scenes to promote fascism.

"Whose Hand?" 1925.

One of the primary enemies Efimov depicted in the early years of the Soviet state was Sir Austen Chamberlain, the British foreign secretary. While Chamberlain would often be lauded in the West, winning the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize along with Charles Dawes for their work on the Locarno Pact, he was seen in the USSR as a typical aristocrat whose diplomacy shielded capitalists and who all too often sided with dictators.

Efimov would make Chamberlain and his monocle into symbols of reactionary politics during the interwar years. In this cartoon, Chamberlain’s gloved hand controls the leaders of, from left to right, Finland, Latvia, Poland, Estonia, and Romania, new nations that bordered the USSR and that, by the mid-1920s, had militaristic, anti-Soviet rulers.

"Multipurpose Grabbing Gloves," 1927.

Another cartoon lambasts the “hidden” agenda of a Western diplomat, this time United States Secretary of State Frank Kellogg (who would win the Nobel Peace Prize two years later). Kellogg is dressed like a capitalist; in place of the stereotypical top hat, a dollar sign beams above his head. His gloves are marked “the fight against Soviet intrigues” and “the fight against communist propaganda,” two issues he often railed against. These slogans, Efimov suggests, are cover for his real goal: “Nicaraguan oil.” The text at the bottom of the caricature notes that Kellogg’s gloves “are suitable for all kinds of dirty work.”

These three cartoons create impressions that Efimov would hammer out again and again across the Soviet century: capitalists propped up fascism, democracies secretly pulled the strings of dictators, and lofty words about diplomacy acted as a smokescreen for the dirty work of grabbing for oil.

"Interventionists Caught Red-Handed," 1937 (left). "A Little Beast with a Big Appetite," 1937 (right).

Efimov’s 1930s cartoons were dominated by his warnings against the rising threat posed by fascist nations. In these two images, both from 1937 and both published in Izvestiia, Efimov characterizes fascist Italy and fascist Japan as land-grabbing entities that, if left unchecked by Soviet power, would seize territories across the globe.

In the first, Benito Mussolini, despite having signed the Non-Interventionist Agreement in 1936, delivers a glove labeled “Italian corps of volunteer troops” to Spain. The second references the July 1937 Japanese invasion of China: Emperor Hirohito greedily lunges for the mainland; behind him flies a flag that declares “world domination!” In other cartoons from this decade, Efimov drew connections between capitalist countries who fed these fascist plans. The West’s dirty work, in other words, could be performed by others.

"The American 'Statue of Liberty'... and Hand of Freedom," 1947.

During the Second World War, when the USSR allied with the United States and Great Britain, Efimov occasionally depicted the hands of these three countries working together. At the same time, he also drew cartoons that illustrated Soviet worries that the two allies secretly colluded to slow down the opening of a second front in order to let their Soviet ally bear the brunt of the fighting.

That sort of deception, combined with the prewar worldview illustrated in the cartoons above, informed Efimov’s Cold War caricatures. Over the course of forty years, he would again and again depict the American enemy as duplicitous, money-grubbing, and deceptive. This 1947 cartoon illustrates a Soviet vision of what the postwar Marshall Plan was really about: the dollars held by Lady Liberty are a front for American capitalists and thugs to build a complicit Europe. “Freedom,” in short, was a sham.

Untitled Cartoon, 1950.

In his early cartoons, Efimov depicted the gloved hand of capitalism in a general sense—it could belong to a British politician, an American businessman, or a “Western” capitalist. By 1950, that hand always had a dollar sign emblazoned on it. In this image, Léon Blum, Jules Moch, Georges Bidault, and René Pleven, all French political figures of the Fourth Republic, lick hands marked “Wall Street,” “US State Department,” and “American Intelligence.” The postwar European integration that they favored is here exposed as an American conspiracy.

"The Brown Web," 1951 (left). "'Their' Hand of Friendship," 1954 (right).

As the Cold War heated up, Efimov turned to familiar themes in his cartoons. The division of Germany and American support for Konrad Adenauer’s Christian Democratic Party (and later the American decision to allow the Bundeswehr to form) were cast as “Wall Street” spinning a web that allowed Nazism to resurface. Carrying a suitcase branded with “plans for aggression,” a stereotypical top-hatted capitalist was mocked for the pretense behind his seeming friendliness: in this vision, smiles and handshakes masked the militaristic pursuit of American capitalism.

"Polluters of the Atmosphere," 1956.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Efimov suggested that reports airing on the American-funded Radio Free Europe network were “fake news” (before the term existed, of course). At the top of his December 3 caricature, a caption borrowed from a Soviet news report reads: “The world urgently demands the closure of the American Radio Free Europe network, which is engaged in shameless, undermining propaganda against Hungary and other European countries of people’s democracies.” A shady American official pumps a bag of money into a canister that reads “provocations, lies, incitement.” The head at the top of the radio tower belches out the words: “you are listening to Radio Free Europe.”

In other cartoons, Efimov would cast the Voice of America similarly: in the Soviet imagination, American media broadcast fake news throughout the Cold War.

The network, as documents available through the National Security Archive show, played an important role in the October-November Revolution. Broadcasts suggested the West would help the Hungarian rebels and encouraged them to fight. One month before Efimov published his cartoon, however, Soviet troops invaded Hungary and crushed the rebellion.

Here Efimov visualizes a concluding narrative to this event, casting it in all-too-familiar terms: the hidden hands of American capital conspired to lie to Hungarians, creating the provocation that needed to be quelled by the USSR.