Yan (Yakov) Satunovsky was born in 1913 in Ekaterinoslav (which would be renamed Dnepropetrovsk in the Soviet era; present-day Dnipro, Ukraine). His father Avraam had been trained as a dentist, and the family also owned a small pharmacy. The Satunovskys were not religiously observant, both under the impact of urban life and because of the tragedy that had befallen them: Yakov's sister Raya had died at the age of eight, and the grief-stricken parents finally gave up their spiritual beliefs.
In the late 1920s, having completed a 7-year trade school in Dnepropetrovsk, Yakov moved to Moscow and began to attend an engineering technikum. Then, in the early 1930s, he returned toDnepropetrovsk and enrolled in the Faculty of Chemistry of Dnepropetrovsk State University, from which he graduated in 1938. However, despite his decision to study chemistry, Satunovsky possessed undeniable literary and artistic gifts. Since adolescence, he had been drawing and writing poetry. As a university student, he became a contributor to the Zvezda newspaper. His contributions, which included both poetry and satirical drawings mocking the enemies of socialism, were signed by the pseudonym "Yan Satunovsky." Later, he would look back with scorn on this period of propaganda activity:
A shoddy artist, a shoddy poet,
I was not worthless, I was just thoughtless. (1961)
In 1939, following the outbreak of World War II and the introduction of universal conscription, Satunovsky was drafted into the Red Army. Two years later, when the Soviet-German War broke out, he was dispatched to the front lines as a platoon commander.
In 1942, Satunovsky was wounded in the chest while fighting in the vicinity of Kaluga, and was treated at a hospital. Upon recovery, Yakov was sent to serve at Patriot Rodiny, a military newspaper. There, he published satirical sketches, poems, and drawings (his caricatures were particularly successful). His contributions did much to boost the morale of the war-weary soldiers. Yan Satunovsky stayed with the 5th Guards Army throughout the war, moving through the Kursk Salient, Ukraine, Poland, Prague, and Dresden. Alongside the poems and sketches written for the newspaper, Satunovsky also kept a private diary, in which he wrote uncensored poems. In 1945 in Prague, he showed this notebook to the celebrated writer, journalist, and community leader Ilya Ehrenburg. The latter was greatly impressed with Satunovsky's acerbic verse, although he must have realized that these poems stood no chance of being published in the USSR. They depicted the horrifying and unglamorous aspects of the war:
"How I love them all
(They're all dead meat).
All of them –
The company commanders:
"Company, move out, for the Moth..."
………… (The mouth will grow numb).
These. In the ground.
"Hey, Vanka, are you alive?"
"Just a swoon."
"Follow me, look lively now!"
We're all on death row.
Artillery barrage at 6,
Death at 7."
"They're being spoken to, yet they keep mum.
— Guys, — they're told.
— Heroes, — they're told.
— The decisive hour has come.
— Forward, — they're told, — backward.
They're being spoken to.
So why do you keep mum?
Don't hold your tongue, bleat.
You're being led to the slaughter.
I, too, am by your side.
I'm yelling by your side — get up,
I'm yelling — come on,
Someone has got to yell." (?)
Nevertheless, Ehrenburg did send an introductory note about Satunovsky's talent to another famous Soviet poet, Samuil Marshak, and the latter then wrote a letter of commendation.
Yan Satunovsky ended the war in the rank of Senior Lieutenant. He was awarded the Order of the Red Star and several medals.
Afterward, the Satunovsky family settled in the city of Elektrostal in Moscow Oblast, where Yakov found a job as a chemical engineer at a secret military institute. He worked there until his retirement in 1966.
Throughout this time, he continued to write, with no hope of seeing most of his works in print. His texts reflect a critical engagement with ongoing events. He remained haunted by the subject of antisemitism, both during the anti-cosmopolitan campaign and in the later "Era of Stagnation" (the 1970s). Despite his inability to express his views openly under the existing regime, his name became known in literary circles. The writer Viktor Shklovsky supported him, and the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh acknowledged the merit of his poems. Satunovsky also wrote children's books, and these did manage to get published, albeit in a heavily censored form. Over his lifetime, he published a total of 14 children's books.
In 1961, Yakov Satunovsky was introduced to a group of post-avant-garde artists and poets who were known as the "Lianozovo School" (after the settlement of Lianozovo, where their gatherings took place). This encounter gave a powerful boost to Satunovsky's poetical activities. 10 years later, he made a tape recording of his poems, intending to have them published abroad, as there was no hope of doing it in the USSR. Yakov's brother, the camera operator Pyotr Satunovsky, recalls the following incident. In 1978, when Pyotr visited Paris and met the artist Oscar Rabin (one of the founders of the "Lianozovo School", who had been exiled from the Soviet Union by that time), he informed him that Yakov wished the émigrés to stop trying to publish a collection of his poetry abroad. Apparently, Yakov Satunovsky was afraid that such a publication would bring reprisals against his family from the Soviet authorities, and put his daughters in danger. Nevertheless, several poems by him did appear in foreign publications in the mid-1970s.
Yakov Satunovsky died in Moscow in 1982.
10 years after his death, a collection of his poetry titled Do I Wish for Posthumous Fame was published in post-Soviet Russia.