Rusins Kaufmanis: Husband. Soldier. Political cartoonist. Provocateur. Born March 27, 1925, in Riga, Latvia; died Sept. 20, 2019, in Victoria, of medically assisted death; age 94.
Rusins Kaufmanis’s academic career was less than remarkable. But his talent for drawing was obvious to his teachers from a young age. He was the son of a medical doctor in Plavinas, Latvia, but in June, 1940, this comfortable upbringing came unhinged as Latvia was annexed by Soviet forces. By late 1943, with the Soviets set to make a return offensive into then German-occupied territory, 18-year-old Rusins and his older brother Talrits joined the German army.
Talrits was killed during an Allied bombing of Danzig. Rusins survived it, only to end up in an American PoW camp and then on to a United Nations refugee camp. Remarkably, Rusins was allowed to draw sketches of his captors and fellow prisoners. He received notoriety from the guards for his talents and even some extra cigarettes.
Rusins emigrated to Canada in 1947. He spent two years building a hydroelectric dam on the Ottawa River. There, too, he produced illustrations for the local newsletter. His artistic skills developed further with a diagnosis of tuberculosis and a year-long convalescence. His more refined abilities caught the attention of Ontario Hydro, where he secured a job as a commercial draftsman.
In early 1954, Rusins attended a masquerade ball put on by the Latvian community in Toronto. Dressed as a lion tamer, he met Gundega Kravis, a beautiful University of Toronto dental student dressed as a can-can dancer. They married in 1956, and welcomed Anna (1959) and Eric (1960) into their Woodbridge, Ont., home.
Rusins adored his children. And to his delight, Anna loved art. They drew and painted together, while he spent winter evenings playing hockey with his son and trying to figure out, “What’s wrong with the Leafs?”
Sardonic humour was a Rusins trademark and it surely helped him create the political drawings and cartoon captions that followed. While this humour could test Gundy’s patience, throughout their relationship, she always urged him to pursue an artistic career with vigour.
Finally, in the early 1960s, The Globe and Mail gave Rusins his first break as a part-time political cartoonist – the illustration was of Toronto’s new City Hall being built. In 1963, he became the full-time political cartoonist for The Ottawa Citizen, where he remained until his retirement in 1989.
Over the years, he drew all the great Canadian political figures of the day – from John Diefenbaker to Brian Mulroney – and to Rusins’s delight, all asked for the original drawings, even if they had not been depicted in the most endearing light. Rusins always felt that a country whose leaders enjoy being lampooned was definitely a country in which he was grateful to call home.
Rusins and Gundy escaped Ottawa winters by retiring to Victoria. Here he had more time to grow his beloved tomatoes, read history books, carve driftwood, write his memoirs and regularly ask his three granddaughters about their “hopes, dreams and aspirations.” Rusins’s original creations for his Christmas card list continued the tradition of poking fun at the latest newsworthy event.
He maintained his humour to the end. In the final week, when told by a doctor they could perform surgery on his broken hip, he replied: “Are you sure that is a good use of taxpayers’ money?”
Rusins believed that all good things must come to an end, and cried out, Hallelujah!” when told his request for medical assistance in dying would be granted. His granddaughter Juliana has also inherited his artistic skills – she sold her first painting the day after he died. He would have enjoyed saying “hallelujah” to that news.
Eric Kaufmanis is Rusins’s son.
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