Founding cartoonist.

Photographer: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

Charlie Hebdo's Russian Heart

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Perhaps you did not find Charlie Hebdo, the Paris satirical weekly attacked by terrorists on Wednesday, all that funny. That's only natural: People in different countries laugh at different jokes and have varying tolerance for irreverence, offensiveness and plain grossness. As the French magazine, notwithstanding all it's suffered, prepares to print a million copies of its next issue --  17 times its usual run -- it's important to note that it comes from a European tradition much broader than the French brand of satirical slapstick it most employs, and has at its roots a personal story as tortured as the continent's recent history.

Francois Cavanna was the publication's founding editor in chief, back when it was called Hara-Kiri. He was the one who renamed it Charlie Hebdo in 1970, after Hara-Kiri was banned for publishing this cover, which used the death of Charles de Gaulle to spoof press coverage of a nightclub fire that took 146 lives. ("Tragic Ball at Colombey, One Dead," read the coverline.)

Cavanna was the son of an Italian immigrant mason. He grew up in a poor eastern suburb of Paris, taunted by French nationalists but in love with the French language. He didn't get to make it his profession until much later.

In 1943, at the age of 20, he was sent by the Nazis to Germany to work in an ordnance factory in Treptow, now part of Berlin. He "belonged" to Graetz AG, the peacetime manufacturer of the Petromax lantern. There, two Soviet forced laborers, Anna and Maria, assisted him in making the top parts of artillery shells. 

Maria, who was 19, spoke a mix of Russian and German as she taught Cavanna to operate their machine. She never learned to pronounce his name correctly. He first thought she was German, but she came from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. "Ukraine? What's that, Ukraine?" Cavanna later wrote in his most successful book, an autobiographical novel. "I vaguely remembered the name from school, from somewhere on the desperate light-green expanse that covered both pages of my atlas with USSR stretched across it, edge to edge."

He also wrote: "They fixed up this crappy war only so that we could find each other, Maria and I." They fell in love, learned each other's language and did their best to avoid separation.

It was while Francois and Maria were surviving together in the festering Nazi Reich that Cavanna formulated the nothing-is-sacred philosophy that would later guide him through his career as a cartoonist and writer:

Others, they immerse themselves in grand deeds, ideals above everything, invisible and abstract things that 'give meaning' to life... God, country, humanity, race, class, family, heritage, success, duty, heroism, sacrifice, martyrdom (inflicted or attained), career, power, glory, submission, humility... Overcoming oneself. Overcoming the human, the animal in the human. Rejecting the fact that we are on this world just to stuff ourselves with food, crap, sleep, screw and croak, like any other animal. The need for 'something different'... They swallow it, swallow it whole. But isn't that idiotic, too, isn't that futile, too? Me, I don't submit to it. I don't let my emotions take control, short my small, cold, reasonable mind. At least I try.

One thing, however, was sacred to Cavanna. 

In the spring of 1945, the Nazis marched the forced laborers west as the Russian army advanced. Cavanna and his Maria broke from the column. He hoped they could walk across the Western front to France. That was not meant to be. One day, after a foraging trip, he came back with his loot -- flour, sugar, pasta -- to the farmhouse where he had left Maria, but she had been taken by the Soviet army and sent east. He walked back to find her, spent weeks on the road, but the trail had gone cold.

Cavanna never saw Maria Iosifovna Tatarchenko again. Not that he ever stopped looking, while he made a name for himself as a cartoonist (Sepia was his pseudonym when he sold his sharp, often crass drawings to Paris magazines), and eventually as a writer and editor.  

When the novel based on his time in Germany, "Les Rouskoffs," was being translated into Russian in the early 2000s, Cavanna helped find the Russian equivalent for its title, a French derogatory term for Russians, like the English "Russkies." By then, he'd written another book, "Maria," about looking for his girlfriend, but Tatarchenko must have never read either book, in French or in Russian.

Cavanna died in January 2014, a year before men he had hired for Hara-Kiri -- Jean Cabu and Georges Wolinski, by now, like him, French legends -- were shot dead by terrorists. He was lucky that way.

His life, the war and his love remain in Charlie Hebdo's DNA, though. That means one thing for the xenophobic backlash rising up in Europe: The magazine founded by Cavanna is a wrong icon for the far right. Attackers of modern Europe's mix of cultures -- voluntary and so very much unlike the mix Cavanna saw in Treptow -- have no business invoking Charlie Hebdo's name, or the names of any of its fallen editors and stars.

Once you know the story of Cavanna's lost Russian-speaking Ukrainian girlfriend, the current Russian propaganda, which gloatingly calls the attack the end of European tolerance, also rings hollow. Rather, it's a personal reason for me, and for other Russians, to say, "И я Шарли" -- I, too, am Charlie.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net